It's a ritual that Southern California skiers know well. If you're driving to Mammoth Mountain from Los Angeles on a Friday night, you stuff the SUV with your family and a back-seat video library sufficient for a six-hour drive. Upon arrival, you dash into Von's supermarket for a power-shopping spree, then schlep your groceries, luggage and offspring into a rented condo. You studiously overlook the weathered 1970s-era exterior, the shag carpeting and the olive-green refrigerator. And then you set the alarm clock for sunrise so you can get a couple of runs in before the liftlines form. Truth is, Mammoth loyalists have endured so much pain through the years that they deserve medals of valor. Or, perhaps, what's happening now.
Over what might prove to be the most eventful 12 months of its woolly existence, Mammoth has been swept up by a tornado of transformation that could soon make it the one plus ultra of West Coast ski areas. Beloved for its monstrous peak and its stunning vistas of the eastern Sierra Nevada, Mammoth was long considered a superb ski area that lacked a central hub. Not anymore. A new mountain village has brought shops, restaurants and shag-free condos to a base now anchored by a speedy gondola. Luxury hotels are preparing to blossom like wildflowers, more new lifts are on the drawing board and millions of dollars worth of residential construction is under way. In April, Canadian developer Intrawest launched presales for the first phase of the future Westin Monache, a hybrid condo-hotel project next to the gondola, and sold all 141 suites so quickly that the company rushed the second phase (89 units) onto the market six months ahead of schedule—and sold those as well. News that Mammoth Mountain itself is up for sale has prompted interest from more than 50 deep-pocketed investors, some of them household names. Once typecast as a weekend ski area, Mammoth is beginning to look more like a destination resort, though it still lacks one ingredient—a bigger airport.
Paul Oster, owner of RE/MAX realty in Mammoth and a former town planning commissioner, has never seen a real estate market like this one. During an 18-month period ending last year, housing prices rose a whopping 40 percent, he says. And where money is spent, other money follows. "A lot of corporate jets have been arriving at the airport, and there have been more celebrity sightings than anyone can remember," says Oster. "The joke around town is that Mammoth might become the Planet Hollywood Ski Area."
Surrounded by federal lands, the town of Mammoth Lakes is a hole in a donut, covering just four square miles. The largest private holding is the 355-acre Snowcreek Resort, a golf- and fitness-themed second-home subdivision that changed ownership last spring. Now, Snowcreek is building The Lodges (two- and three-bedroom townhouses), and intends to add hundreds of other units, a second nine holes of golf and a self-contained village.Mammoth has also seen an influx of luxury homes, mostly along a ridgetop called The Bluffs and in the Greyhawk subdivision above the Juniper Springs base area, where a master plan calls for yet more development. Prices for larger homes have reached as high as $5 million, unheard of just a couple of years ago. And Mammoth's first residence clubs offering fractional ownerships—Tallus and the 8050 Club—are under construction.
In addition to three completed Village condo projects and the forthcoming Westin, Intrawest is focusing on a second condo-hotel project in what is known as the East Village. Other hotel and condominium sites, according to Intrawest Regional Vice President Doug Ogilvy, will be located around Sierra Star Golf Course, within walking distance of the Village.
Aware of local misgivings about the pace of redevelopment, Mammoth is intent on keeping the place livable, with its schools, community college, hospital and sufficient affordable housing that workers can avoidd commuting, says John Eastman, a veteran town councilman. "Mammoth may become the latest and the greatest resort in California," he adds, "but we intend to preserve its vitality and sense of community."