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Discovering Snow Sports in Mammoth, California

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Southern California is well-known for its beaches, but what about its mountains? Contributing writer Margot Black visited Mammoth Mountain in SoCal with her family—and learned to ski for the first time. Together they also tried snowmobiling, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing. Here are her tips for visiting the area during the winter—including some can’t-miss restaurants. 

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They say you’re never too old to learn a new skill, so I thought I’d put that to the test and learn to ski with my eight-year-old. How hard could it be? No, don’t answer that. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but in my endless mission to introduce my tech-savvy son to the glorious outdoors, a trip to Mammoth seemed like an excellent idea. He’s a California kid who’s never seen snow, so it was time to let him explore the white stuff.

Mammoth is a beautifully sculpted 50,000-year-old volcanic eruption. A spectacular region of eastern California’s Sierra Nevada Range, it was once home to the Paiute tribe of Native Americans before arrival of the earliest mining pioneers in 1857. Its natural, breathtaking beauty became widely accessible to tourists in the mid-1930s (when the first highway was built), and by the mid century, it was thriving as a tourist destination. This was thanks to California native Dave McCoy, who founded the now-famous ski area in 1953. He fell in love with Mammoth and its 3,500 acres of skiing terrain (the highest elevation is just over 11,000 feet).

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Earlier this year, Olympic gold medal-winning snowboarder Shaun White took a minority stake in the company that runs Mammoth Mountain, spending $38 million to buy Snow Summit and Bear Mountain. Such is the draw that it continues to be a magnet for thrill-seekers looking to enjoy winter activities such as skiing, snowboarding, cross-country skiing, hiking, and fishing.

We wound up driving from LA to the resort, which took around six hours (after our flight was canceled at the last minute due to a snow storm) and then flew back. Our unexpected car journey gave us ample time to soak up the stunning views and enjoy the magical winter wonderland. Over the next five days, we tried so many forms of transportation–cars, planes, ski lifts, snowshoes, skis, shuttles, and tubes–that Mammoth literally became one of our biggest family adventures.

The Homestead

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We stayed at the Sierra Nevada Resort & Spa, which was perfect for our family’s needs. The rooms were cozy and there was a large social lobby with coffee and a big inviting fire near a pool table, which we all enjoyed using. The most epic feature was the hotel’s Cub Club for kids, which is open daily from from 4:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. It offers nightly activities, including arts and crafts, foosball, air hockey, movie screenings, and a video game I didn’t understand. Our son loved it and the independence and exploration it afforded him. One day while he was at Cub Club my husband and I enjoyed an outdoor Jacuzzi in the snow, and another day we slept and rested our weary old bodies. The hotel also offers easy access to all the shuttles and the city shuttle drops you off right in front of the hotel. A major plus for family travel were a drugstore and supermarket less than three walking blocks in either direction. Super easy access for all last minute “I forgot something” mom panics. This hotel was a family travel gem.

On the Slopes

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My husband is a competent skier, so Jett and I booked a three-hour private ski lesson, which was imperative. He’d never seen snow before and he loved it. His first words were, “It’s cold,” and then he proceeded to explore it in every way possible. During our stay, I saw him put on a hat and gloves of his own accord for the first time since birth, so I was a very happy mama.

Learning to ski in middle age is terrifying, but I knew I had to be the example for my son. While I didn’t doubt that he would take off without me, I had to show a willingness to learn and try not to be frightened in front of my kid. Even my husband didn’t think I would last more than an hour, but I did, and probably skied down that slope 25 times. Mom victory!

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Our skiing instructor Lindsay was adorable, and we had half-day lessons with her. My advice is to always go with a professional. Jett was very sensitive after my husband tried to teach him. It’s not always the best for family members to teach each other—hence ski school.

I was also inspired watching the other five-year-olds, and I even saw some intrepid and nimble 70-year-olds. But my number one goal was to not get hurt–and I didn’t. However, I insisted that my kid and I wear helmets. Within five minutes, a small human had whacked into me and I fell backwards. Later, getting on a ski lift, a guy got out too early and slammed into me (and I fell again).

At a certain point, Jett and I were skiing by ourselves and I couldn’t keep up with him. I had to tell him to play safe as I was in no position to help him should anything happen.

He was wearing a red Spiderman jacket that his aunt had given him last year, and since I couldn’t get down the hill fast enough (I was going at tortoise speed), I told a whole bunch of snowboarders and anyone who would listen to look out for him. “Hey, my kid is skiing for the first time in a red Spiderman jacket, if you see him in trouble can you help him please?” Everyone was super helpful and I was happy that he had a really identifiable jacket, so I could point him out easily or spot him quickly.

In the end, Jett–a diehard Spidey fan–said to me, “I don’t like my Spiderman jacket anymore–too many people were talking to me and saying. Hi Spidey, Hi Spidey, way to go Spidey.” I’ll tell him why one day.

Beg and Borrow Clothing

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My advice for anyone heading out to ski for the first time with the family would be to beg and borrow their clothing. I didn’t want to have a whole bunch of expensive garments that we may not use again gathering dust in the closet, so we all had one outfit that we wore every day. It worked out great and we all stayed warm. Jett already had his Spiderman jacket and I borrowed ski pants from a friend. I bought my neon pink jacket on sale at Big Five in the teenage dept (extra large for $24). I hope to never grow out of the teen department. I saw tons of adult gloves for $100, so we headed back to the kids department and I wore extra large kids gloves, which I bought for $25. We also needed goggles, but in the words of my eight-year-old, it’s important that everyone has their own goggles because of the “snot and boogers that go in there,” so no skimping on that expense!

Savoring Snow Sports

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We didn’t know if our kid would like skiing, so we planned lots of different activities. We went snowmobiling with Snowmobile Adventures, and it was my favorite activity. I loved it. But for the novices, beware: we missed our first scheduled time because we didn’t understand that the posted 9 a.m. start really means, “Please arrive at least 20 to 30 minutes early to get fitted with gear, sign forms, and have a lesson.” But once we got going it was a glorious nature immersion and a super fun activity for the family. I would recommend this adrenaline rush activity to anyone and would do it again in a heartbeat. Snowmobiling was an unexpected Mammoth highlight.

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We also tried out snow tubing at Woolly’s Tube Park, which was very fun and an easy activity. Your dog could do it. You sit in a giant rubber tube and whizz down a snowy hill. You can race down, hold hands, or just scream with joy. It was very popular and requires a reservation; as there are limited amounts of tubes and slopes, so plan ahead. But this might have been one of the most joyful theme parks I’ve ever been to. The lady who gives you the tube is telling you how exciting it is, the guy high fives you as you get on the tube, and the guy who pushes you is screaming with delight. It was a tube of joy park. I’ve never seen so many people so happy and it was all so well executed. Easy snow fun for the entire family, regardless of age. No skill, all thrill.

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Day four was spent at the glorious Tamarack Cross Country Ski Center. Cross country skiing is peaceful but physical, almost like a workout (we were shedding layers of clothing as we were doing it). But it was a really enjoyable time outdoors, and while it’s a little awkward for the first 10 minutes, you quickly get the hang of this activity. We also tried snowshoeing here and it was a super fun outdoor family activity. It was great walking through the snow and up hills wearing these most unusual shoes. The best part was that you could cut through all the snow and keep on trekking. We went up and down around little cabins and yurts, and through some snowy patches. The location was so empty and delightfully stunning. We skied by cabins near the lake that were so secluded; it was just precious. The guided full moon hikes are also really popular, and you can relax by the fire with a cup of hot apple cider or hot buttered rum. This was day four and I could not face another activity. Jett was also really tired and my mom legs were done—I got up after dinner that evening and my legs were trembling! I’m glad that I took lots of chocolate and snacks for energy. Jett needed constant refueling, so make sure you have plenty of snacks with you on the trails.

Keep Fueled

We really enjoyed the food in Mammoth. You need plenty of calories to power all the activities, so there’s barely a lettuce leaf in sight!

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On our first evening, while Rob and I still had the energy to stand, we went bowling at the Mammoth Rock ‘n’ Roll Bowl, which is a relatively new addition to the area. It offers upscale bowling, dining, and even golf. We ate delicious entrees and sipped chic cocktails while we were all having fun. I really appreciated the culinary break from the standard bowling fare of French fries and chicken fingers (but it serves that too).

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The next night we treated ourselves to a splurge at Jimmy’s Taverna, an upscale Greek/Mediterranean restaurant next to our hotel. The décor was stunning and the food was tasty, inventive, and savory—they delivered on many levels. We devoured the not-to-be-missed flaming cheese appetizer, a delectable grilled wild salmon, and a piquant plate of pan seared scallops. They presented us with the most beautiful Greek salad I have ever seen. Our son had filet mignon for his main course, and not a morsel was left on the plate.

Our hotel restaurant, Rafters Restaurant & Lounge, offered great casual food. I ate the tastiest bread on the planet; it was a Rosemary and Lemon loaf, which the server told me came from a local bakery named Blue. We enjoyed the inventive, modern take on a chicken pot pie and a fabulous sundae called the Schoolyard Mash Wipeout that had five types of candy bars in it!

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The Yodler Restaurant, which is at the base of Mammoth Mountain, is a Bavarian-themed eaterie and was a big hit. We ate a giant sharing pretzel which is served with three types of dips (stout mustard, honey mustard, and aged cheese sauce), and a huge schnitzel with Belgian fries, which was to die for. We loved it so much we returned to try the fondue, which didn’t disappoint. I loved the fact I could eat without thinking, knowing that the next day I would be burning off all excess calories.

Because we were traveling with a kid, we must consume cheeseburgers at some point along the journey. For a casual lunch in town we tried a place called Burgers Restaurant; we figured that they’d have to get it right and they did. With a two-fisted burger in his hand, our kid was too busy chewing to speak, but with every bite kept giving us the “two thumbs up” signal of appreciation. When we yearned for a more upscale experience we dined at 53 Kitchen and Cocktails. Also located in the heart of town, it’s won awards for the burgers, but it was the creative and quirky cocktails with names like Hot Mess, Bad Santa, and Giggle Juice that won my mom heart.

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All in all, we loved our Mammoth family travel adventure. My thighs are more muscly, and I’m delighted to know that I can pull off a teen-sized neon pink jacket and orange scarf. But more importantly my kid became a real snow junkie. We’ll definitely be heading back to enjoy the rush of many glorious outdoor activities that you can enjoy as a family.

For more family-friendly travel tips from Margot Black, check out:

Text and Images by Margot Black for PeterGreenberg.com

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