The decision was spontaneous and poorly planned. Jen and I had been in Tahoe for 4 days when we decided to blow out of town after lunch on a Thursday. Jen had never been to Mammoth and I had not been there since the early 90’s. Tahoe is an amazing place but lets be honest, it is way overpriced and often too crowded to really enjoy. This week was empty by Tahoe standards even though we found ourselves sitting in lines everywhere we went. The closer to the weekend you get, the more crowded things become. The crowd is strangely old too. I suppose this is likely due to the price of everything. Either way, Jen and I had decided to try our luck at Mammoth.
Last Minute Decisions
We hastily packed the truck and said our good byes to Ellexis and Eric. We thanked them for the room and headed out the door. Jen decided she wanted to drive so I could try to get some sleep. We headed south east towards Carson city and eventually to the 395.
The drive was pretty easy. It was amazing to see how much snow had fallen on the Sierra’s. The landscape was frozen as far as you could see. The occasional rocky peak poked its head through the snow capped mountains like a giant whale coming up for air. The road on the other hand was a different story.
The 395 heading south from Carson city was well maintained in sections. It was an easy drive for us for quite some time. Despite Tahoe being 40-45 degrees that day, the Central Valley was well into the 20’s. Northern California had been recently blasted by a few storms resulting in record snowfall. The temperature in the Central Valley never increased enough to melt any off like Tahoe had. It made for some intermittently “fun” driving conditions.
Most of the road was freshly plowed and clean. As we came down one of the larger grades, you could see the clouds settle into the valley. It kept the temperature well below freezing and made it difficult to see the road ahead.
The Unknown Road
Upon reaching the bottom of the hill we entered the fog covered valley. I am told this section of the highway has some insanely beautiful scenery, provided you can actually see it… We could barely see the road in front of us let alone the lake to the east.
We cautiously maintained our speed as we drove deeper into the fog. At one point we could no longer see the lines on the road and had to use the wall of snow left from the plow to guide us. It made for a long and stressful drive until we finally cleared the fog.
We ended up stopping for gas near Mono Lake. It seemed like a good time to change drivers as well. We had to use 4wd to get out of the parking lot and back on to the road due to the amount of snow and ice on the ground. As we continued southbound we kept seeing signs requiring chains or snow tires. The roads still looked ok and I had been passed by a few trucks without chains. I figured we would be ok.
As we crested another small grade the ice on the road became thicker and more consistent. The temps were now in the single digits. We were following a pickup truck through the sporadic patches of ice. We entered into a large straight section as we watched the truck in front of us begin to lose traction and slide sideways.
I have been driving in worse conditions many times before. The outlier in this scenario is that I had no idea how the other driver was going to react. If you have ever driven on ice, you know that if you tap the brakes at all, you will also lose traction and likely slide into the other cars or off the road entirely. I did what I could do to ease off the gas pedal and slow down.
The truck was now almost completely sideways. I could see the other driver now through his passenger side window. Jen was slightly freaking out in the passenger seat. I began to laugh and calmly asked Jen what was wrong. The truck in front of us slowly began to slide back the other way. We were inching closer to them. Jen went silent. We were now roughly 6 feet behind the other truck and still doing about 30mph. The other truck suddenly hooked up and began pulling away with traction.
I shifted my foot to the accelerator and felt the back of our truck begin to slide. I slowly eased off once again until we hooked up. There was a line cars behind us now so I slowly moved to the right snow covered lane. I allowed everyone to pass us as I shifted into 4wd again. I pulled back into the left lane and continued forward.
After several hours of intense driving, we finally made it to Mammoth. I had booked a room at the Mammoth Mountain Inn located steps away from the Gondola. We apparently got the last room. Jen and I were burned out from the drive and looking forward to relaxing with a nice dinner. We quickly checked in and headed to our room.
Worth Every Penny
We ended up spending roughly $400 for the room on Thursday night. The room was quaint and definitely got the job done but for $400 you could find a nicer place. I suppose the price was justified due to the location. We found a parking spot about 50 yards from the room and about the same distance to the actual ski lifts.
The room was basically a 12′ x 12′ box with a queen bed occupying the majority of the real estate. There was a single flat panel tv on top of a dresser. A table sat awkwardly in the corner with a single chair that felt out of place as it blocked most of the walkway. On the bright side, the room had a single fire sprinkler with a bent diffuser. I’m not sure if it was bent on purpose or for dramatic effect.
We unloaded our gear and headed to dinner. The lodge front desk had told us that they had a shuttle that would take us to town for dinner if we didn’t want to stay there. It was a nice amenity but we were tired and just wanted to eat and call it a night.
Its No Kodiak Mountain but…
The hotel lobby was old school, like walking onto the set of Hot Tub Time Machine. It was a mix of large cedar beams with a large stone facade. The stairs went up to a second story where the bar was. The bar was facing directly out at the resort and made for an amazing backdrop for the evening. In comparison to the Bar in Tahoe, this one blew it out of the water. The Tahoe bar was nicer and felt more luxurious but this one felt “real” like I wasn’t going to have to auction off a kidney to eat there.
Jen and I settled in to a couple seats at the bar. We wanted to be able to stare out the windows at the snow. Jen was in amazement at the amount of snow and the size of the runs compared to Northstar, Donner, and Sugar Bowl in Tahoe.
Dinner and Drinks
Maintaining consistency, Jen and I ordered the same Old Fashioned and an Apple Toddy. We wanted to have a full comparison to the places we ventured to in Tahoe. The drinks came out and went down so fast that I can hardly remember the specifics. I suppose that’s a good thing. I think we were just too mesmerized by the fleeting adrenaline surge from the drive combined with the awe inspiring view mixed with alcohol. We were also just looking forward to eating something other than the hot tamales and trail mix from the 4 hour drive.
We ate our food which was adequate enough to keep you happy but not amazing enough to devote an entire paragraph to. I think the price of the food was fair given the location. This brings me to question why we justify paying more for something just because it is in a different location. I have had numerous chicken sandwiches over the years. Some of them at places you feel will likely give you hepatitis and others that you would be under dressed even in a tuxedo. The taste and quality is all over the board. They likely source their food from the same Cysco or Smart and Final as every other restaurant out there. So why do we pay exponentially more for the same stuff served in a different location? I digress…
With dinner out of the way, we headed back to the hotel room. A short walk through a musty corridor, out the back door, across a parking lot, and into a different building. We had decided to snowboard first thing in the morning. Lift ticket prices were $229 per person. You can save a few bucks by ordering them online. This included access to the Gondola.
In terms of the hotels for comparison – The Hyatt at Incline Village cost about $400 per night for weekday rates and was modern and spacious. It was about 30 minute drive to Northstar and the hotel restaurant was terrible. If you want to compare apples to apples, the rooms at Northstar cost roughly $1000 per night. The Mammoth Mountain Inn was a much better deal and much closer to Southern California. You essentially save money on gas and parking while also getting cheaper and better food/drinks in the Mammoth scenario.
On Top of The World
The mountain itself is massive. There are numerous areas to go and you could ski from one side to the other and back without hitting the same run twice. They have a good advanced section with some awesome backcountry areas for the more adventurous and skilled. Jen and I mostly spent our day off the side by chair 12/13. We did end up taking the gondola to the summit for lunch and to see how bad Jens fear of heights were.
The Gondola is a scenic way to check out the entire mountain without having to be skilled enough to ski or board your way down it. You can take the kiddos up to the summit and take in the views of the region and then when you are done, you can ride the gondola back down. If you are not advanced enough to drop in off the cornice into some intense downhill moguls, you can take a slightly more advanced intermediate run down the back side to chair 12 region. Its a steeper intermediate run but should be doable for most intermediate skiers or boarders.
A little trick to locating your car at the end of the day if you park on the street is to leave an apple air tag in it. You have enough service to locate it and the runs will allow you to essentially ski or board directly to your car regardless of where you park. Otherwise, they do have shuttles that will take you to specific stops along the road. Parking is easy and for the most part convenient. Unfortunately, all bets are off on a busy weekend though.
If you are planning on hitting the slopes this year it is important you know how inflation and the Covid situation has changed things. Traffic patterns have increased in density, prices have sky rocketed, and crowds have become a factor even on the weekdays. If you are debating on Mammoth Vs. Tahoe, my recommendation is to head to Mammoth. The cost is essentially the same as Tahoe but you save money on gas, parking, food, and the resort is bigger than anything Tahoe has to offer.
If you are wanting to drive further and still be similar to Tahoe, stay tuned for the next post. I may have a solution if you don’t like waiting in line…