Mammoth is the third most visited ski resort in the United States, although it has often ranked second and even first. For southern Californians, the big mountain’s enduring appeal is elemental—part of the cosmology of California living, like a reset button for the Angeleno soul.
The journey from one big, bold Golden State reality to another is key. The trick is to leave home well before dawn. Pack the car the night before, wake at a ridiculous hour, layer long underwear under track pants, then pull away from the world of rustling palm fronds, bougainvillea, and perennial hibiscus flowers before L.A.’s 10 million or so other residents wake up and clog the roads. At this hour, freeways flow in a flash from beachfront ’burbs through Valley sprawl, then slip through the San Gabriels and stream into the Mojave Desert. Strip malls give way to wide-open spaces. Dawn illuminates the rugged Owens Valley—think John Wayne or Ben Cartwright—with its red rock and tumbleweeds, its Joshua trees and vintage motels. The Sierra Nevada surges skyward on the left. Puffs rise from heat vents in the earth’s crust. The mind slows and the heart rate drops. The body says, “Ahh.”
By late morning, the car is parked alongside a huge snowbank, steps from Mammoth’s Stump Alley Express. Two quick lift rides lead to Mammoth’s 11,053-foot summit, where arid wilderness vistas extend for hundreds of miles in every direction—and wind-buffed steeps beg to be skied. One run later and L.A. is but a distant memory.