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Cross-Country Skiing at Mammoth

January 17, 1988|FRANK RILEY | Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

MAMMOTH LAKES — n the quiet of the meadow and stillness of the mountain slopes, cross-country skiing continues to grow, despite the nearby location of the world's largest downhill ski complex, under single ownership and capable of handling more than 20,000 skiers daily.

You won't read much about Mammoth Mountain's cross-country skiing in this winter's ski magazines and guidebooks. So much else has been happening here.

Yet in this Eastern Sierra mecca of downhill skiing, off U.S. 395, about six hours driving time from Los Angeles, there'll be more cross-country skiing than ever this winter, reflecting the growing popularity of Nordic skiing for both fitness and serenity.

Humble Beginnings

Californians began to discover Mammoth for both downhill and cross-country skiing in 1944, when Dave McCoy opened Mammoth Mountain with a single rope tow hooked to a Ford engine. He's still gracefully skiing the slopes at age 73, but now the ski area has reached out to include the slopes of 10,200-foot June Mountain, acquired two years ago.

Last summer, McCoy's Mammoth/June Ski Corp. put more than $10 million into improvements at both Mammoth and June, adding some 32 acres of new runs on Mammoth Mountain. The base altitude at Mammoth is 7,953 feet, reaching to 11,053 feet at the top of the mountain. Longest run is 2 1/2 miles.

Mammoth has grown from that first rope tow to two gondolas, three quad chairs, seven triple chairs, 15 double chairs, plus two T-bars and two pomas. And June has a new 20-passenger aerial tram along with one quad chair and five double chairs. You can ski both mountains on the same $27 lift ticket.

The Mammoth Lakes community has developed into an all-seasons resort with accommodations for 32,000 visitors.

There are restaurants with a range of international cuisines, a golf course, tennis courts, year-round horseback and hiking trails, an Oktoberfest and a summer festival of music and art.

The more than 50 restaurants in Mammoth Lakes include such popular spots as Whiskey Creek, Shogun's (for sushi), The Rafters and The Mogul.

There are three cross-country ski courses in Mammoth, all within a few minutes of the resort community's center.

Tranquil Trails

Sierra Meadows Ski Touring Center is right at the edge of town. More than 55 kilometers of tranquil and groomed cross-country ski trails begin there. Instruction is available, as is group touring, or you can take off on your own.

With some two feet of new snow, there's a base of more than three feet on the meadows and up to six feet on higher trails.

The all-day trail ticket is $7, half-day is $5. Group lessons in cross-country skiing are $15, private lessons $25. Equipment rental for the day is $12. You can also take a winter horseback ride or go snowmobiling and dog-sledding.

For weekend and holiday evenings, the touring center offers a sleigh ride and dinner combination at $29.50 per person, complete with hot wine and cider and violin and guitar music. Call (619) 934-6161.

The Tamarack Lodge at Twin Lakes, scarcely three miles from town center and close to Chair 15 of Mammoth Mountain, is its own historic base for cross-country skiing. The lodge is a landmark, originally built in 1924 by the Foy family of Los Angeles, a name memorialized in the Hollywood film, "The Seven Little Foys," with Bob Hope.

The all-day trail pass is $9. A $30 package includes the trail pass, a two-hour lesson and rentals. Accommodations at Tamarack Lodge are from $55 for a double room to $110 for a suite. Rates for the cabins, complete with wood-burning stoves and kitchens, start at $70. Call (619) 934-2442.

Now Four Lanes

Mammoth Lakes is three miles west of U.S. 395 on Highway 203, which is now four lanes leading right into Main Street. At the edge of town, the U.S. Forest Service Visitor Center is a source of maps and information for ski touring--more than 25 miles of trails marked by blue diamonds.

Hot Creek Road, now closed by snow for the winter, can be followed on cross-country skis right up to the geysers bubbling with hot water.

The creek brought nude bathing by moonlight to Mammoth, even in the midst of winter snows, but the Forest Service advises against any Hot Creek bathing this winter.

Due to a less-than-normal snow melt last spring, the waters are too hot for comfort. The run-off from this winter's heavier snows should return temperatures to normal for next summer's moonlight.

The visitor center can guide you into the natural and human history of the area. This was a Gold Rush boom valley between 1857 and 1880.

Petroglyphs symbolizing the sun, moon and rain in geometric design are so old that the Paiute Indians, long settled here when the first white men came, didn't know who had made them or what they meant.

The slopes of Mammoth now have about seven feet of snow, and June reports 40 inches of packed powder; you can make your own cross-country trails around scenic June Lakes Loop.

Mammoth Mountain Inn at the base of the main ski area has double room rates starting at $72, studios at about $95. Condominium accommodations range from about $75 to $200, depending on location.

For reservations and information call the Mammoth Lakes Resort Assn. toll-free at (800) 367-6572. For accommodations close to June Mountain, contact the June Lakes Chamber of Commerce at (619) 648-7584.

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