Hiking trails in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., are uncrowded in the fall.(Marc Stirdivant)
A look inside a deluxe one-bedroom cottage at the Tamarack Lodge in Mammoth Lakes, Calif.(Marc Stirdivant)
Mammoth Mountain minus the snow and the crowds.(Marc Stirdivant )
A bartender puts the finishing touch on a Switchback at the Tamarack Lodge in Mammoth Lakes, Calif.(Marc Stirdivant / )
The hearty Sierra Sunrise is a great way to start the day in Mammoth Lakes, Calif.(Marc Stirdivant)
The celery root and pink rose apple soup at the Lakefront Restaurant in Mammoth Lakes, Calif.(Marc Stirdivant)
The Stove in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., has served up hearty breakfasts since 1970.(Marc Stirdivant / )
Crystal Crag and the Eastern Sierra on a cool autumn evening.(Marc Stirdivant)
When my wife, Jeannie, was a girl, she and her father spent every summer in Mammoth Lakes. Similarly, I traveled here with my dad year after year to backpack. When our daughters arrived, Mammoth became an annual winter destination. But our visits stopped when the girls grew up. What would Mammoth be like on our first trip back in 23 years? The tab: $724, including fees and taxes, for two nights at the Tamarack Lodge, $161 for dinner for two at the Lakefront Restaurant and $33 for breakfast at the Stove.
The Tamarack Lodge was built in 1924, and Jeannie and I both had stayed here when we were young. The lodge’s current owner, Alterra Mountain Co., seems focused on maintaining its rustic charm, which suited us just fine. We chose a deluxe one-bedroom cabin with a king bed and a gas fireplace, which was steps away from childhood memories at Lower Twin Lake. The main lobby is a cozy meeting place and is home to a tiny bar. Here, bartender Victor Meier — part-mixologist, part-mad scientist — offers tasty libations and good conversation. His signature offering, the Switchback, is a fresh take on the classic old-fashioned.
The Lakefront Restaurant is steps from the lobby. It’s expensive, but it was so good we ate here twice. Everything on the menu was special, whether it was soup made of celery root and pickled pink rose apple or the New Zealand elk strip loin with black peppercorn sauce. For dessert, do not pass up the Sierra Bounty. Chef Patrick Jacobus concocts this gelato out of juniper brittle, white sage, elderberries, and red and white currants. It is served on — I know it sounds crazy —the bark of a Jeffrey pine. For breakfast we found it hard to beat the Stove, a longtime favorite, which has been serving huge portions of eggs and pancakes since 1970. The Sierra Sunrise — a skillet full of eggs, potatoes, bell peppers, onions, ham and cheddar — is a great way to start a Mammoth morning.
Our find was not a place or an event. It was a season. Mammoth in the summer is a circus, and in the winter it is a zoo. But on this weekend away, we realized we had never made the journey in the spring or fall. Although this is what locals call the “slow season,” we found late autumn ideal. The crowds were thin, the hiking trails nearly empty and the wait for a table, or a seat at the bar, was almost nonexistent.
THE LESSON LEARNED
We vowed that future Mammoth memories would be made between April and June or September and November. At the right time of the year, you can go home again.
The Tamarack Lodge & Resort, 163 Twin Lakes Road, Mammoth Lakes; (760) 934-2442. No wheelchair accessibility.
Lakefront Restaurant, 163 Twin Lakes Road, Mammoth Lakes; (760) 934-2442. No wheelchair accessibility
The Stove, 644 Old Mammoth Road, Mammoth Lakes; (760) 934-2821. Wheelchair accessible. Open 6:30 a.m.-2 p.m. daily.