Moonlight snowshoeing requires only two things, and we were some moonbeams short.
We'd trekked half a mile through pine forest to an 8,000-foot lookout near Panorama Dome. Ordinarily, the town and valley below shimmer and snow-covered mountains glow on all sides. The waning moon was up there but cloaked in thick and stubborn clouds. Glumly, we trudged back down the hill to Tamarack Lodge. Hot drinks and crème brûlée warmed us inside and out while we reassessed.
Snowshoeing through a forest is a special experience at any hour. The boughs and snow deaden the sound, and silence enfolds you. But my two teenagers and I had planned our long weekend in January around the popular moonlight snowshoe tours offered by Tamarack Lodge & Resort, part of the Mammoth Mountain complex.
The moon would still be up in the predawn hours, said Ueli Luthi, the Swiss ski instructor who was our guide. "How do you guys feel about getting up before sunrise?" I asked 16-year-old Dylan and 13-year-old Courtney. They admirably restrained their enthusiasm.
When the alarm shattered the 5 a.m. stillness on Sunday, we struggled out of our warm beds. Our room in the Royal Pines Resort, a reasonably priced hotel in increasingly expensive Mammoth Lakes, was cozy. Very much so. With three people, you had to be either family or very good friends, to share the room, which held a double and twin beds. It did have a kitchenette, so we heated up some cocoa and slurped it down before stepping out into the darkness.
"It's really cold," Courtney said. As we drove the 10 miles to Tamarack, the car's outdoor temperature gauge dropped from 11 degrees to minus 2. We moved quickly from the car into the Tamarack's heated ski and snowshoe center.
Ordinarily, Tamarack offers monthly moonlight snowshoe and cross-country ski tours of the eastern Sierra in the days leading up to the full moon. They also have popular naturalist-led ski and snowshoe tours during the daylight hours. "We take 15 or 16 people on the snowshoe tours and 10 on the cross-country ski tours, and we always sell out," Ueli told us. "We just can't meet the demand."
That morning, however, it was just Ueli and the three of us. We stepped into snowshoes that bore no resemblance to the heavy wooden variety made famous by Sgt. Preston of the Yukon. They had light aluminum frames, and once they were strapped to our hiking boots, we barely knew they were there.
We followed Ueli, one-time head coach of the U.S. men's alpine ski team, downhill toward the lakeshore, his blinking flashlight our guide through the trees.
When the temperature drops below zero, the air turns brittle. Our warm breath hung in front of us, then collapsed to the ground. The snow crunched sharply, a constant reminder that it was minus 2. Yet the vista swept away thoughts of the chill.
We stood on the snow-blanketed ice of Twin Lakes and watched the first fingers of dawn stretch out across the sky. The clouds parted, and we could see the moon hanging above the Mammoth Crest. The sun slowly painted the granite ribs of the mountainside in rich shades of golden orange.
A lone coyote made its way across the snow. Across the lake, warmer air collided with the subzero air to add an ethereal atmosphere. Any residual disappointment over the aborted moonlight tour the night before was wiped away.
As we moved on, Ueli pointed out the Hole in the Wall on the backside of Mammoth Mountain, which rose above us. It's a combination chute and tunnel through which daredevil skiers plunge on a dramatic descent toward the frozen lakes below. Reluctantly, we turned back toward the lodge.
Foreboding fog The snowshoeing whet our appetites for a hearty breakfast at the Stove, where hungry skiers consume huge plates of eggs, pancakes and more. We'd prepared a few earlier meals in our kitchenette to keep within our budget but had a notable lunch at McCoy Station on the Mammoth Mountain ski area. We rode a gondola directly to McCoy Station, where the old Mid-Chalet had been. Both the ride and the food were a treat.
After Sunday's breakfast we drove 30 minutes toward Mono Lake, through some of the most striking winter scenery the Sierra has to offer. The turnoff from U.S. 395 to Mono Lake is usually cleared by snowplows, but the small road down to the South Tufa area, a popular summertime destination, doesn't get plowed. Snowshoes or cross-country skis (which can be rented in Mammoth for about $15) are the best — and sometimes only — way to visit.
When we piled out of the car above Mono Lake, a Poconit fog was rolling in. The fog, as dark as storm clouds, makes seasonal appearances, giving the environmentally fragile lake a more foreboding feel. The recent storms that had dumped a record 25 feet of snow on Mammoth by the end of January had also coated the ground around Mono Lake. Its famed tufa towers, limestone formations exposed by the lowered water levels, held delicately balanced snow over the iceless water.
Mono Lake, 2 1/2 times as salty as the ocean, doesn't freeze, and the snow at its edge becomes too sparse to ski. But we spent the sunny morning gliding over the flat terrain around the lake.
The mountains that frame the eastern approach to Yosemite National Park, through the seasonally closed Tioga Pass, loomed above us. Below were prints left behind by what seemed to be scores of rabbits and small rodents. In some places, they were overlapped by the larger prints — hungry coyotes. The story of the winter food chain was written for us in the snow.
Budget for three
Three nights at Royal Pines Resort $413
The Stove restaurant $28
McCoy Station $27
Two lunches and meals en route $109 Groceries $30 Gas $108 Snowshoe tour for three $75 Final tab $790
Royal Pines Resort, 3814 Viewpoint Road, Mammoth Lakes, CA; (760) 934-2306, http://www.royalpines.com . Budget accommodations about 10 miles from Tamarack Cross Country Ski Center. Doubles from $85 to $135 for rooms with full kitchens.
Tamarack Lodge & Resort, Twin Lakes Road, Mammoth Lakes; (760) 934-2442, http://www.tamaracklodge.com . Double rooms with shared bath start at $84, up to $230 for rooms with full kitchen. Cabins from $165 to $360.
Tamarack Cross Country Ski Center, adjacent to the lodge, offers its final moonlight snowshoe tours of the season this Tuesday and Thursday. The final moonlight cross-country ski tour is Wednesday. $25 per person, includes equipment, hot drink and dessert. Daily snowshoe or cross-country ski rental is $19, $15 for half-day. Pass to use the 26 miles of groomed ski trails is $19, $22 on Saturdays. Snowshoers can follow rolled trails for no fee.