2001 Number 3 Resort in North America: Mammoth Mtn., Calif.

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Since 1997, Mammoth and co-owner Intrawest have pumped $75 million into on-mountain improvements at this big, brawny destination beloved by Southern Californians. "I'd gladly drive six hours for a slice of heaven," comments one Angeleno. He's not alone: A No. 5 ranking for Lifts, a No. 6 for Grooming and five new or improved restaurants prove the investment is paying off. Mammoth's other gold medals-in Terrain, Challenge, Snow and Scenery-hail from its natural abundance, a money-can't-buy-it essence that remains unchanged since founder Dave McCoy set the first ropetow here in 1945. True, the hulking High Sierra hideaway, and its 3,500 acres, is a long drive from anywhere. But once you arrive, "you can explore and explore and hardly hit the same run twice." Pick your pleasure: beginner avenues such as Christmas Tree, entire basins of bumps off Face Lift, wind-buffed steeps like Scotty's or stashes of powder in Lincoln Mountain's secret trees. Off the mountain it's another story. Two luxury slopeside lodges at Juniper Springs base area have added upscale options to the outdated mix. Otherwise, "the town is a hodge podge" with great restaurants hidden in strip malls but "lousy après and nightlife." You can bet Intrawest's master plan, which tags another $55 million for on-mountain improvements and at least $500 million more in town, intends to remedy every shortfall. Until then, skiers who value mountain majesties more than ancillary amenities can "ski here forever and not get bored."

WHAT'S NEW $11 million in upgrades in the Juniper Springs base area, where a new base facility, Little Eagle, includes a 150-seat bar and restaurant; a high-speed six-seater, Eagle Express, replaces two fixed-grip doubles; an outdoor pool and spa at slopeside Mammoth Mountain Inn.

A GOOD DEAL Stay and ski free: $99 per person for two nights and two days, Nov. 9 -Dec. 15 (excluding Thanksgiving weekend) and anytime after May 1 (excluding Memorial Day).

MEDALS GOLD Snow, Grooming, Terrain, Challenge, Lifts, Scenery; SILVER Value, Service, Weather, Dining.

HIGH/LOW RANK Terrain (3), Challenge (5), Lifts (5); Value (42), On-Mountain Food (42), Accessibility (63).

DON'T MISS A soak in nearby Hot Creek, about 20 minutes from town.

READER REMARKS (+) "One of the best in the West." "I've loved this place for 25 years." (-) "Too many people and too spread out."