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Weekend Escape: Mammoth : A two-family getaway involving a rented van, a condo, and the mellower pleasures of summer in a well-known hotdogger’s paradise

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Our family has a new tradition for escaping the hottest days of summer. We line up a cat sitter, stock the Subaru and drive north into the desert.

Then we keep going, through the railroad and fast-food junction of Mojave, and up the Owens Valley. About 5 1/2 hours from home, we put down the windows, turn off the air conditioner and savor the cool mountain air. Our refuge of choice is the town of Mammoth Lakes, the winter destination for caravans of Southern California skiers, but to us a more pleasing spot when the elements are milder and the clientele mellower.

The most recent visit was an experiment in co-op vacationing. We split expenses with a friend and rented a van big enough for two mommies, a daddy and a high-energy trio of girls age 9 and under. The Dodge Grand Caravan from Thrifty Car Rental came well-equipped but barely held the two families plus the food, luggage and diversions conducive to a long weekend in a mountain condo.

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Our route from Los Angeles--north on California 14 and U.S. 395--tops my personal list of scenic California drives (inland division). In a few hours you climb through a red rock canyon, skirt numerous volcanic deposits and pass beside an enormous dust bowl that defies explanation without some knowledge of local history. The vast alkali flat used to be Owens Lake, across which in the 1880s steamboats ferried silver ore mined in the Inyo Mountains. The shallow salt lake was a welcome splash of blue to desert travelers until early this century, when Los Angeles bought up its source, the Owens River.

Just past the dry lake bed we stopped for gas in Lone Pine and even the kids began to enjoy the scenery. Snowy High Sierra peaks towered over the desert floor, and the attendant at the Unocal station kindly pointed out Mt. Whitney, the highest in the land outside Alaska.

Less than two hours later we glided into Mammoth Lakes. Our plan was to abuse the health club and pool privileges that come free with a condo rental at the Snowcreek Resort just outside of town on Old Mammoth Road and to explore the area’s lakes and high country. Most meals would be eaten in to save money or would become picnics.

My wife, Judy, and our 4-year-old, Sean, had stayed before in older, more wooded sections of Snowcreek. This time we booked a newer unit closer to the pools--to everyone’s disappointment. The rich lawns, copious pavement and careful landscaping could have been in the Los Angeles suburbs. “This looks like Westlake Village,” wailed our friend Victoria. But at least the accommodations were as promised. We had two bedrooms and baths, a living room with sofa beds for the girls, a fireplace, cable TV, VCR, stereo and washer-dryer. Towels were too skimpy--par for Snowcreek--and we had to rewash the kitchen utensils to get rid of a funky odor. Outside, the view of 11,053-foot-high Mammoth Mountain and parking-lot gossip about marauding bears helped us forget the city. The girls were soon chasing each other and herding the ducks and geese that patrol the grounds.

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Even with a stocked refrigerator and a beckoning bottle of Cabernet, no one could face kitchen work after a day in the van. We grabbed a low-key supper of salads, pasta and minestrone at O’Kelly and Dunn, a favorite stop where Judy adores the chicken noodle soup. The restaurant is next to the Booky Joint, the best-stocked book and video store we’ve found in Mammoth. The selection of children’s books is impressive, and we returned to the condo well-supplied with magazines and new books for the girls.

Friday morning we fashioned a breakfast feast of pancakes and fruit. Determined to stay out of the van, we hung by the heated outdoor pool most of the day. It felt great to climb out of an 85-degree pool, spread a towel on the grass and bake in the alpine sun while the Sierra breezes rustled the quaking aspens.

This was the first time in Mammoth for Victoria and her daughters, 9-year-old Alexa and 6-year-old Katie, so after dinner we all piled into the van in search of some nature. We found a gorgeous view of dusk a few minutes later at Twin Lakes, the closest in the chain of fishing lakes located in the mountains above town.

Summer weather at this elevation is usually pleasant, but don’t depend on it. On Saturday a chilly front blew through, postponing plans for a gondola ride to the summit of the mountain. Clouds swirled around the peak and the weather report at the top promised fog and winter-ish winds. Instead we shivered through a lakeside picnic of fruit, sandwiches and cheese. The girls enjoyed watching the chipmunks and blue jays, but were just as happy as the adults to retreat to Tamarack Lodge to sip hot chocolate beside the fire.

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Tamarack, erected beside Twin Lakes in 1924, rents rooms and lake-view cabins and operates one of the few elegant restaurants in Mammoth. The inn is popular with cross-country skiers, but on this August Sunday the lobby held just us, two women waiting for their fishermen-husbands and a family of French tourists.

Once everyone got warm and toasty we remapped our day. Judy and Sean decided to spend the afternoon at the Snowcreek health club. I offered to give the rest of the group their first Mono Lake experience, a kindness that drew only a lukewarm response from Alexa and Katie. They slept on the 30-mile drive north, which outran the blustery weather, but even they appreciated the dramatic views from the Mono Lake National Scenic Area visitor center, which opened recently on a promontory outside the town of Lee Vining. We all gazed across the lake to the island rookeries for migrating birds and pondered the exhibits, which explained that the lake water is so salty it is habitable only by brine shrimp and flies.

The girls were jazzed when we drove down to Navy Beach so they could touch the lake water and explore the tufa formations--towers of calcium carbonate--made famous in photographs of Mono Lake.

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Reunited back in the condo before sundown, we played backgammon, listened to tapes, pulled together a stir-fry dinner and agreed our last full day would begin early. Nature cooperated with a cloudless morning, but it was 10 a.m. by the time we trundled into the Mammoth Mountain Inn, the area’s sole hotel, for our only breakfast out.

Seating was slow--the hostess chatted on the phone, then mysteriously went to “check our table” in the deserted room--and Judy and I had to laugh that after many complaints through the years, the tea water still arrives lukewarm. At least the pancakes and oatmeal were satisfying.

After breakfast we walked to the Mammoth Mountain Ski Area and plunked down $28 for gondola tickets. We fit snugly in one car for the ascent, which became the highlight of the entire weekend. The girls gasped as we soared 3,000 feet up the mountain, at times almost vertically.

Up top we found a postcard setting--zero wind, no clouds, incredible views of the Sierra Nevada. Judy chatted up two bikers who had just ridden up the mountain, while the girls added their names to a guest book.

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We had one more adventure in us: an afternoon side trip to Tuolumne Meadows in the Yosemite high country to look for deer, loll in the sun and skip stones on the Tuolumne River.

The next morning we took off across the desert for home--where the temperature was pushing 100--the experiment a success.

Budget for Six

Condo, four nights: $545.00

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Rental van: 387.26

Gas: 61.50

Groceries, Vons: 95.73

Dinner, O’Kelly & Dunn: 65.61

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Breakfast, Mammoth Mountain Inn: 40.15

Scenic gondola rides: 28.00

Books and souvenirs: 53.27

Hot chocolate: 5.00

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FINAL TAB: $1,281.52

Snowcreek Resort, Box 1647, Mammoth Lakes, Calif. 93546; tel. (619) 934-3333, (800) 544-6007.


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