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WEEKEND ESCAPE : An Interlude at Off-Season Mammoth Lakes

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“This place is like going back in time. It’s like Tahoe was in the ‘50s,” my husband said as he coaxed a spark into flames in the fireplace of our rented condo at Mammoth Lakes. We’d decided to drive here, about 100 miles south of Tahoe, on a rare four-day weekend. We wanted a change of scenery, just to relax in the mountains and go on interesting hikes. No deadlines, commitments or crowds.

A few years ago, with similar intentions, we had gone to Emerald Lake in the Tahoe area, where my husband, John, had camped as a teen-ager. There were wall-to-wall college kids, partying and drinking beer and getting sunburned. Tahoe was all grown up. Crowds, fast food, plenty of action. He couldn’t get out of there fast enough. But Mammoth in the ‘90s--that’s another story.

We left Santa Barbara on a Thursday morning this June and drove through Castaic Junction and Lancaster before stopping in Lone Pine for a hamburger at P.J.'s (and a view of Mt. Whitney). We arrived at our condo--La Vista Blanc condominiums on Minaret Road opposite the Snowcreek golf course--at 4 p.m.

We liked the condo’s location, on the southwest edge of town, although the budget price had been our chief concern. Our unit, with fully equipped kitchen, living room with fireplace, two baths and a loft bedroom, cost $55 a night (in winter, the same unit rents for $100). We’d made our reservations in advance by calling the Mammoth Reservation Bureau (800-462-5571 or 619-934-2528), one of several associations that handle condo accommodations. But the next morning, when we looked around town, there seemed to be plenty of available units, most of them fairly new.

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A one-main-street resort town at 7,800 feet surrounded by lakes and ski runs, Mammoth Lakes is full of skiers’ condos. We were told that the condo occupancy rate drops to about 30% in the off-season--thus the attractive bargains in condo accommodations in summer. So far, summer crowds don’t seem to exist in Mammoth.

But some of the lakeside cabins are booked by the same people for certain weeks every summer, such as our friends Jinny and Paul’s cabin at Woods Lodge on Lake George about four miles southwest of town. After unpacking, we drove out to their cabin, took a short stroll and admired the alpine beauty of their hideaway, which they rent for $65 a night. We sat on their little front porch overlooking the lake, sipped glasses of wine and watched the late-afternoon sun playing on the water below.

We had dinner that night at the Ocean Harvest, a seafood restaurant on Old Mammoth Road. We shared a wickedly delicious, three-layered chocolate mud pie for dessert, vowing to hike it off the next day. It was the height of summer, but there were only a few other people in the restaurant, where they’ll also do the cooking for fishermen who bring in their catch.

By the time we arrived back at the condo, the night air was refreshingly cold and the stars were out in force. There were stacks of wood waiting on the deck, and we enjoyed the warmth of the fire in our fireplace before climbing to the big bed in the loft.

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Mammoth Lakes is also the backdoor to Yosemite National Park; it’s a two-hour drive north out of town and over Tioga Pass to the park’s eastern entrance and Tuolumne Meadows. We thought about going there--for one thing, the traffic is nothing compared with the jam that threads into Yosemite Valley from the west.

Instead, on Friday morning we decided to take an hour’s drive north to Mono Lake, a salty body of water where 85% of California sea gulls hatch their eggs and raise their young. We spent the morning strolling around the lake shore, taking pictures of the tufa towers, weird calcium formations that form in shallow lake water where mineral springs bubble up, and eating the picnic lunch we’d packed before we left. Only one other pair of visitors showed up.

After lunch, we drove east to Bodie, a ghost town from the Gold Rush days, marginally maintained by the California Park Service and offering a wretchedly realistic look at the “good old days.” In a dubious nod to historic accuracy, the Service grades the last several miles of the dirt road into town in a washboard pattern, giving one the full effect of bone-jarring stage-coach travel. Inside the dilapidated old buildings are dust-covered remnants of hardscrabble lives. On the hillside is a little graveyard of broken tombstones and fallen crosses. The artsy picture possibilities were endless.

Friday night we had dinner at Whiskey Creek on Main Street and Minaret Road. We had reservations, but again, the place wasn’t all that crowded although it’s one of the best restaurants in town.

The next day we packed another picnic lunch and took Minaret Road north to the Mammoth Mountain ski area, where we parked the car and hopped on the shuttle bus for the half-hour ride over Minaret Summit and down into Red’s Meadow. In winter, the road into this valley is buried under 10 to 15 feet of snow, inaccessible except to cross-country skiers and snowmobiles.

Summer campers who arrive at the ski area before 7:30 a.m. are allowed to drive on into campsites in the valley, which is part of the Inyo Wilderness. After that hour, one must take the shuttle bus in, a rule that helps reduce traffic and keep the air clear. The shuttle costs $6 for an all-day pass, and takes visitors from the Mammoth Mountain Inn to a number of drop-off points for hiking, sightseeing, camping, picnicking and back to the lodge.

At the first shuttle stop, where the road levels off at Agnew Meadow, we got off and took a short hike through the high mountain clearing. (We had gotten a free map of the hiking trails from the Mammoth Lakes Visitors Bureau in town.)

The eastern Sierra Nevada has suffered through five years of drought like the rest of California, but a snowy March had brought relief to the evergreen forests and high meadows. Wildflowers were predominately yellow rabbit brush and blue lupine. Under the hot afternoon sun, the thin air was redolent with sage and pine, but the streams and lakes were ice-cold, fed by melting snow.

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Back on the next bus (they run every half-hour in summer), we rode another couple of miles southeast to Red’s Meadow, where the hiking trails begin to Devils Postpile, less than half a mile away, and Rainbow Falls, about 1 1/2 miles.

We hiked to the top of the Postpile, an imposing, 100,000-year-old volcanic formation of basalt columns, and walked around on the smooth ends of the “posts,” which look like a petrified parquet floor.

Returning to Red’s Meadow--which has a small store, cabins and horse stables--we ate lunch at a picnic table, and then hiked the 1 1/2 miles south to Rainbow Falls, a rushing torrent that plunges over a 100-foot rock wall. Late in the day, we took the shuttle back to the Mammoth Mountain Inn, and lingered there over coffee. We chatted with a mountain biker who told us that Mammoth has the fastest downhill run in the world (in summer, the ski runs are transformed into wild and woolly mountain biking trails where experts can reach speeds nearing 70 m.p.h.).

Sensing a good thing, the inn has rigged up its gondola with attachments to transport bikes to the top of the run--from which trails head out in all directions. Some are suitable for beginners; others are best left to expert riders. Bike rental is $30 a day, and there are mountain bike, lift and lodging packages.

Saturday night, we had reservations at the Sierra Meadows Equestrian Center, off Old Mammoth Road, for a hay ride followed by a catered dinner in the lodge. A pair of draft horses lumbered across the meadow at sundown, pulling a wagon load of about 30 of us happy campers, while a guitar-pickin’ cowboy sang “Home on the Range,” “Clementine” and other old songs.

Back at the lodge for dinner, all of the guests, mostly locals, sat at long tables and dined on barbecued chicken, ranch-style beans and plenty of wine and beer while the cowboy entertainment continued. (Reservations are needed for the twice-a-week dinner and hayride.)

Sunday morning, we reluctantly packed up and had a quick cup of coffee and an orange before dropping off our condo key in the office. We drove all the way to Bishop before stopping for more coffee and outrageously huge apple fritters at a small shop on the right side of the highway bearing only a large sign in its window: OPEN. We had left many lakes, trails and restaurants unexplored, but we’ll be back.

(For more information, call the Mammoth Lakes Visitors Bureau at 213-659-6684 or 619-934-2712.)

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Weekend Budget

Gas from Santa Barbara: $ 34.00

Condo, three nights: 165.00

Lunch: 11.85

Groceries for picnics, etc: 23.70

Dinner, Ocean Harvest: 32.75

Admission to Bodie: 5.00

Dinner, Whiskey Creek: 52.50

Shuttle tickets: 12.00

Coffee: 2.50

Dinner and hayride: 60.00

Coffee and fritters in Bishop: 5.40

FINAL TAB: $404.70


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