Jade's Mammoth California Adventure
What a year to travel to the sunny state of California - over 10 metres of snowfall and 300 days of sun! Flying out to Los Angeles, I snowboarded at Mammoth Mountain and Heavenly before finishing my trip in San Francisco (via the outlet malls of course).
Travelling to California is becoming much easier. Virgin fly from Heathrow direct to LA and if you're lucky it'll be in one of their Boeing 787 Dreamliner planes which launched in October 2014. If flying into San Francisco, the most common route for customers travelling to Heavenly, Norwegian Air have started flying to the USA and have added a number of new destinations. Next year there will be a direct flight from London Gatwick into Oakland.
We arrived into LA late afternoon and managed to get through the notoriously bad airport customs queue within an hour. The airport authorities are working hard to improve customs times and the overall customer experience with the help of new electronic passport readers.
I would recommend picking up your rental car and then spending a night in LA before heading to Mammoth; a six hour drive after a long-haul flight is a fair old stint in one go.
Mammoth Mountain is the highest ski area in California, with more than 3,500 acres of skiable terrain and over 3,000 ft of vertical serviced by 28 chair lifts and gondolas. It also has one of the longest ski seasons in North America - November to June - which, when combined with the sunny California climate, means spring conditions - even in winter!
It has a really laidback, local feel and home-grown snowboarding athlete Shaun White's recent involvement as an owner is set to bring positive changes in the next few years.
We were in luck and enjoyed a bluebird day in Mammoth - plenty of snow and sunny, spring-like conditions. After California’s recent droughts, conditions are changing for the better and confidence to book ski trips is increasing, this winter's snowfall being the best in five years.
We started our day in the Cloud 9 area. There is impressive challenging terrain, all inbounds, with chairlifts right to the top of Dave’s run (named after Dave McCoy, founder of Mammoth Mountain) and the cornice so no hiking involved! They also have a big park riding culture thanks to eight Unbound Terrain Parks, and the parks are big - the ‘Super Duper Pipe’ is 22 ft!
Despite mild and sunny conditions, in this resort you're able to follow the sun all day without tracking any heavy snow - especially with the help of their excellent guides. I can't think of many other resorts I've skied where that's possible to do.
If I had one tiny gripe, I would say maybe the lift system can feel in parts a little on the dated side, although some might consider it authentic!
It can get busy at the weekends with LA visitors, however on a Saturday you can ski June and Bear Mountains (small local hills) on the same lift ticket or take the day off to explore the town and drink some Mammoth beer. After a day's riding, that's exactly what we did. We sampled seven beers each at the Mammoth Brewery, the central hub of the town, which has been running for 25 years and recently moved from a shed in town to new premises. For food, grab a pizza at Campos - a great Italian pizza place in the heart of town - or try The Clocktower, a firm local favourite with pool tables and cheap beer.
Mammoth is made up of three base areas: Main Lodge, Eagle Lodge and Canyon Lodge, all linked by a free public bus system with five different routes taking you all over town. We stayed at the Mammoth Mountain Inn. Although it’s a little way from town, it has ski-in ski-out access and a bar with a real log fire. Great for first lift fans! If you want to explore the town in the evenings there is a complimentary shuttle. It’s also steps from the main lodge in fantastic proximity to the ski school meeting point, rental hire shop and après bar. There was a lively buzz to Mammoth Mountain with Oakley Week and Mammoth's Gay Ski Week, Elevation, both running.
Surprisingly, with a considerable capacity for overnight guests in resort (15,000 beds no less), there are still no five star properties in Mammoth, although we hear that a Fairmont and a Four Seasons may be on the horizon.
We left Mammoth early to enjoy a scenic drive to South Lake Tahoe, stopping at Mono Lake, a salty, alkaline lake, on the way. The salt from the lake has crystallised to form dramatic pillars.
There is a visitor centre on one side of the lake, but I would recommend turning just before the visitor centre where you can park away from the crowds and leave your $3 contribution for the privilege in an honesty box.
Lake Tahoe boasts one of the highest concentrations of ski resorts in the world, located high in the Sierra Mountains on the state line of California and Nevada. It's the eighth deepest lake in the world and if you could drain the water from Lake Tahoe it would cover the entire state of California by 16 inches. I spent the second part of my trip in South Lake Tahoe.
Heavenly has some really gentle skiing with wide, cruisy groomers but it's also home to ‘The Face’, the steepest mogul field I have ever seen or been on! Our guide took us (three boarders) down and our thighs were burning by the end of the day.
We were there for a flying visit, but if you're staying for a few days there are 11 resorts to choose from and maximise your lift pass use - including Squaw Valley, which was put on the map thanks to the 1960 Winter Olympics it hosted. We were hoping to travel to Kirkwood but unfortunately a storm rolled in so we stayed in Heavenly instead and experienced pretty strong wind storms (we're talking trees blowing horizontally). However, if you know how to read the wind to your advantage, you can find pockets of beautiful powder all day long.
The day we left Heavenly it had snowed 12 cm overnight. We drove the scenic route over Echo Summit pass (not advisable in very heavy snow!) and on to the outlet shopping malls in Vacaville.
I would definitely recommend a shopping break of at least two hours. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, my credit card was blocked as I was attempting to buy my second pair of Ray Bans... If you're also a keen shopper like me, there is a large selection of shops to choose from including Levi's, Vans and Ralph Lauren.
After shopping we drove into sunny San Francisco and watched the surfers under the Golden Gate bridge.
We could see Alcatraz in the distance but didn’t have enough time to visit. If you're interested, it's worth booking early as tickets can sell out weeks (sometimes months) in advance. If you have a few days on your hands I would recommend at least a few nights in San Francisco. It's a beautiful city to explore.
Experience it yourself
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