7 Ways To Experience Winter in Mammoth Lakes, Beyond Snowboarding
Mammoth Lakes is more than a place for pow shots (although if you’re lucky you’ll get some). More than a place to see Woolly, the world’s only skiing pachyderm, ripping mid-mountain (although that’s fun too).
Mammoth is the place to bring your family if you want to truly experience winter in all different ways. You get the high Sierra terrain. You get the festive vibe of a rad little mountain town. And you get unbelievable access to all kinds of unexpected geologic sites, huge wilderness areas, and lots of ways to explore them.
For families introducing their kids to skiing and snowboarding — and for anyone visiting the region — make sure to build time into your itinerary to experience Mammoth beyond the mountain. Here are a few ideas to get you started.
1. Ice skating at the Mammoth Ice Rink
The Mammoth Ice Rink is an awesome outdoor facility operated by the town in partnership with the local school district. This gives it a welcoming, community-focused, and kid-friendly vibe. They’re also open fairly late — till 9:30 or 10pm most nights, though check the calendar for public and free skate times.
As luck would have it, we rolled in on a Friday night, and something about the rink all lit up and the local kids slicing across the ice — lots of smiles and goofing around — gave it an air of being at a skating party. We just needed some ’80s tunes.
A couple of nice things happened while we were there. First, my kids were befriended by a local boy who saw how they were just starting out. He accompanied them on their first steps along the wall, encouraging them and helping them learn. Second, a fellow dad, seeing us out there as obvious newbies, slid a skating “seat” our way — allowing us to take turns holding onto the handles and pushing each other (or better said, me pushing the kids), which was pretty fun.
Getting your bearings on skis or a board always takes a few hours, but the learning curve on skates goes much faster. Within a few minutes, my kids went from holding the rail to cruising around the rink.
2. Pizza night at Campo
We tried Campo Mammoth our first night in town. With their rich, persimmon-colored dining room, handmade salumi, James Beard-nominated chef Mark Estee’s seasonal menu, and profligate cocktail selections, it seemed at first like more of a spot for date night than family pizza night.
Part of it might have been the pasta dishes. I saw a powerhouse bucatini carbonara arrive at a nearby table, followed by a bountiful bowl of gnocchi. Deliberating over a glass of Malbec, I decided to order the Paccheri with red-wine-poached octopus, tomatoes, garlic, chiles, green olives, and chorizo — getting a nod of approval from the server.
But the wood-fired pizzas (with optional pancetta, salami, and farm-fresh egg add-on) looked insanely good as well. We decided to share a simple Margherita (the ultimate test anyway), along with a Prosciuglia, a prosciutto-loaded pie with a mountain of arugula in the center.
Of course my youngest, Mica (8), opted for the kid’s grilled cheese.
On Thursdays over the winter, Campo does indeed do date nights (5pm-close), serving a four-course dinner for two for just $50, along with a half-priced bottle of wine. On Sundays from 5 to 8pm, kids eat free. There’s also happy hour drink specials, 4:30-6pm.
3. Winter fat biking
You might have to ask around town to find fat bikes (try Wave Rave Snowboard Shop), but they make for a super fun way to cruise around Mammoth Lakes. As e-bikes (electric assist when you pedal) with gargantuan studded snow tires, these bikes will go anywhere, turning even crusty parking lot snow into fun terrain.
If your crew is fit and looking for big views, just take the road as far as you can from Main Lodge to Minaret Summit. Another great out-and-back is Tamarack Lodge to Lake Mary and/or Twin Lakes.
For a variety of shorter, more beginner options, check out the Shady Rest area. You can ride right from town (Sawmill Cutoff Road across from Starbucks).
4. Downtown / village / slopeside events
Mammoth Lakes hosts exciting events year round. You have weekly family-centered festivities like Woolly’s Saturday Parade. And then there are the top-shelf ski and snowboard competitions like Volcom’s Peanut Butter and Rail Jam and the US Grand Prix. There’s also the high-profile Mammoth Lakes Film Festival, which takes place in late spring.
We had the chance to check out Woolly’s Parade, which happens every Saturday afternoon during ski season. Expect face painting, hot chocolate, and Woolly — “the world’s only skiing pachyderm” — cruising around with all the kids. After being on the mountain a couple days, my guys were stoked to see some familiar faces here, including one of the girls from rentals who helped them get ready for the slopes.
Perhaps the most infamous — and entertaining — event on the calendar is the Mammoth Pond Skim. For one day each spring, skiers and riders bomb down Canyon and hit a 110-foot pond. The competition is limited to 50 contestants, and all are in costume.
Other events, such as Night of Lights (a winter fireworks celebration) and Bluesapalooza (beer and blues festival), round out the calendar. Finally, there’s the Mammoth Food & Wine Experience, offering seminars and tastings with world-class chefs, sommeliers, and brewers.
5. Coffee, breakfast, and pastries at Schat’s
The only real stress I saw in Mammoth Lakes was in the line of people in Shea Schat’s Bakery waiting to pick up their pre-adventure bread / pastries / snacks. It was like they couldn’t wait to get their fix.
Meanwhile, my daughter Layla was holding everyone up, flummoxed over the impossible selection of apple fritters, eclairs, cookies, biscotti, florentines, chocolate bark, donuts, cinnamon rolls…and it just went on and on.
I’d promised her and her brother one(!) — whichever one they wanted. Meanwhile, I’d just finished one of the best breakfast sandwiches I’ve ever tasted: ham, egg, and cheese on a croissant with cloud-like textures encased in perfect golden flakiness.
Schat’s deserves every bit of their hype. This place has been a culinary institution in Mammoth for decades, baking sheepherder bread in the tradition of Basque immigrants who came to Owens Valley for the gold rush. They’re open from 6 to 6, and often jammed in the morning fuel-up hours. We rolled in mid-morning and took our time over coffee in their small seating area. It was impossible not to stop here again on our way out of town.
6. Learning about the Sierra at Eleven53 Interpretive Center
No matter what else you’re planning to do in Mammoth Lakes, on a clear day you have to make it to the top of Mammoth Mountain. This is the highest lift-serviced peak in California (11,053 feet). Every moment on the gondola ride up to the summit gives you panoramic views of Mammoth’s smooth lava domes, the jagged Sierra beyond, and the vast Long Valley caldera far below. It’s truly a remarkable vista.
At the top you’ll find the glass-walled Eleven53 Interpretive Center, and we made this our first stop on our first morning in Mammoth (their winter hours: 8:30am-3:30pm). Not only did we get optimal bluebird colors / photo conditions, we got the lay of the land before embarking on several days’ adventures.
Eleven53 helps you learn the landscape, with dozens of different scopes aimed at various peaks and geographic features. There are also a surprising amount of geology and wildlife exhibits, including some of the most beautiful pelts I’ve ever seen — mule deer, mountain lion, red fox, beaver — many of the local mammals. Our whole crew was fascinated learning about Mammoth Lakes’ natural history.
For non-skiers looking for a scenic ride to the summit, the gondola is super affordable for adults, and kids 12 and under ride free.
7. Snowshoeing / cross-country skiing at Tamarack
Saving my favorite for last — the Tamarack Cross Country Ski Center (and Tamarack Lodge) is the most chill place in Mammoth Lakes. It has a very personal, intimate feel, a getaway from the bustle on the mountain. A network of groomed Nordic trails takes you past historic cabins (where I want to stay next time), a mid-century lodge, and on up to beautiful alpine lakes. Within just a few hundred yards, you’re deep in the forest.
The center rents both Nordic skis and snowshoes and offers guided outings, including full-moon snowshoe treks. My crew spent the morning on snowshoes, making our way back through gently sloping glades where we found some truly enormous Jeffrey pines.
For the kids, it was one of the trip’s first chances at free unstructured snow play, and they wasted no time building a snowman.
Studying the trail map, you’ll quickly see there are endless adventures to be had back there. Trails lead up to Lake Mary, across Twin Lakes, and way into the Mammoth frontcountry, with all kinds of glades, vistas, and special spots like Panorama Dome.
If the lift-accessed parts of the mountain are high-energy, Tamarack is the peaceful side. Along the way, we crossed paths with some interesting people: a solo skier out birdwatching, a family skiing in with a naturalist, an all-female party who looked like they were catching up on old times. But for the most part it felt like we had it to ourselves.
Lastly, in keeping with the intimacy of the area, the Lakefront Restaurant at Tamarack Lodge is among the most unique dining experiences in the Sierra. Overlooking Twin Lakes, the restaurant has only ten tables and serves seasonal menus based around locally sourced ingredients.
The trip ideas above are just the very start; the list goes on and on. There are day trips to Hot Creek, Convict Lake, and Mono Lake. There’s simply piling the crew into the car and driving the Mammoth Lakes Scenic Loop until you find your own winter wonderland to hike into / sled down.
So when you and your family go to Mammoth Lakes, hit the slopes, but make time to explore the surrounding terrain. It will deepen your experience of Mammoth in a huge way.