It was a beautiful, bluebird spring day at Mammoth Mountain. Even though it was warm enough that I was comfortable in just a long-sleeve shirt and vest—no jacket necessary—the snow was still in great condition. And not only were my fledgling skiing skills feeling smooth, but I’d made friends on the mountain. Before lunch, an older gentleman and Mammoth regular had taken me under his wing and given me pointers on skiing with more confidence. Now, as the day was winding down, I’d been picked up by a group that thought I was ready to tackle more-challenging terrain.
In the Eastern Sierra region of California, Mammoth Mountain towers more than 11,000 feet above sea level, and its 3,500 skiable acres help it live up to its name—the resort really is mammoth. With what is traditionally one of North America’s longest ski seasons, it boasts 300 days of sunshine a year, making my cloudless experience the rule instead of the exception.
But even with the perfect weather, the fluffy snow, and the friendly locals, I felt like I’d gotten the wind knocked out of me as I stood at the top of a black diamond run. I’d only learned to ski two months prior, and even though I’d fit seven resorts into my debut season, I was very much a beginner. I’d been led to believe I was heading toward a “challenging blue,” but as I stared down at a huge expanse of vertical terrain below me, I knew I wasn’t in intermediate territory anymore. At this point, there was no way to get off the mountain except to point my skis down. And ever so tentatively, I did just that.
I’m proud to say I made it to the bottom, unharmed, and only got lapped by the more-experienced members of my group once. I didn’t resort to taking my skis off and sliding down the hill on my behind like a comrade of mine did (but I totally understand why he went that route!), and so I consider it a win. And a lesson never to listen to sales guys who overestimate my skills.
You can fly from Sea-Tac International Airport (SEA) into Mammoth Yosemite Airport (MMH), which includes a layover at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). Alternately, it’s a five-hour drive from L.A., a five-hour drive from Las Vegas, and a three-hour drive from Reno. If driving, you should carry chains with you. There are free buses and shuttles in town if you don’t rent a car.
Skiers and snowboarders of all levels can enjoy Mammoth, thanks to its good distribution of runs: 25 percent beginner, 40 percent intermediate, 20 percent advanced, and 15 percent expert. There are also several terrain parks, with everything from jumps and jibs to berms and bumps for beginners to pros.
Off the ski slopes, try Nordic skiing at Tamarack Cross Country Ski Center, outdoor ice-skating at Mammoth Ice Rink (weather permitting), snowcat tours to Minaret Vista, tubing at Woolly’s Tube Park, and snowmobiling through the pristine backcountry. If you’re there a little later in the season, set up a custom guided canoe trip with the Mono Lake Committee—a naturalist will take you out on the water and explain Mono Lake’s unique limestone tufa formations.
I stayed at the conveniently located Sierra Nevada Resort & Spa, a charming spot decorated in vintage-style signs. Three restaurants on-site make it easy to get some sustenance after a day on the slopes. For a little luxury, the all-suite Westin Monache Resort features the famous Westin Heavenly Beds, along with kitchenettes, fireplaces and sofa beds in each room. For a more rustic experience (but still balanced with plenty of elegance), rent a cabin on the lake at Tamarack Lodge, where the views make it hard to leave when it’s time to check out.
Make a reservation and treat yourself to a memorable dinner at Skadi, where the chef cooks up elevated alpine cuisine like pan-seared day-boat scallops; pork belly confit and roast tenderloin with cinnamon roast peach puree; and maple leaf duck breast with Arctic lingonberries, juniper and aquavit. Grab a more-casual dinner at Smokeyard BBQ and Chop Shop in Mammoth Village, where the entrees are hearty and you certainly won’t lack choice—there are more than 15 side options alone. While you’re on the mountain, snag a seat outside at Yodler Restaurant & Bar across from the Main Lodge and fuel up with a chicken schnitzel sandwich or giant Bavarian pretzel before strapping your skis on for the afternoon.