MAMMOTH LAKES — In the late 1850s the miners couldn't help themselves.
When they looked intently on the Sierra Nevada's rugged eastern range they saw visions of gold--and they were right! There is gold here. It is cold, white and feathery and draws millions of outdoor enthusiasts.
Mammoth, already one of the world's most successful alpine ski resorts, is becoming a reputable cross-country skiing center.
"The range is perfect. It is relatively high but relatively gentle," said John Dittli, a guide at Tamarack Lodge.
With four centers for daily cross-country skiing in the Mammoth area, the sport's growth is evident. The Rock Creek Lodge to the south, the Sierra Meadows at Old Mammoth, Tamarack Lodge at Twin Lakes and the Mammoth Ranger Visitor Center offer day trips for skiers of all abilities.
Hiking or Skiing
Before putting on their skis, cross-country skiers should stop at the visitor center to find out what kind of trail passes are required, as well as information on weather conditions and avalanche danger. The ranger station is on California 203 about three miles west of U.S. 395.
Mammoth Lakes has always been the center of some of California's best hiking, what with John Muir and Pacific Crest trails intersecting at Reds Meadows in Devil's Postpile National Monument, only a few miles behind stately Mammoth Mountain.
Guides say skiers with intermediate skills--those who can make a good wedge, kick turns, traverse a steep slope and have basic orienteering knowledge--can enjoy cross-country skiing.
The following are four popular day trips:
--Morgan Pass Trail. It is 14 miles round trip. The trail starts at the parking lot at East Fork, a state-designated snow-parking area two miles from Rock Creek Lodge, five miles south of Tom's Place off U.S. 395.
Ski two miles to the lodge and continue to Mosquito Flats on Rock Creek's groomed trail system. Skiers will enter into Little Lakes Valley. The trail crosses frozen lakes and gentle rises between the lakes. Follow the summer trail to Bear Creek Spire. There is an elevation gain of 600 feet to reach Morgan Pass.
Overall, there is a 2,000-foot rise more than seven miles toward Sierra Crest.
Begin at Lodge
--Duck Pass Trail. It's also 14 miles round trip. The trail starts at the Tamarack Lodge trail head and follows Lake Mary Road to Cold Water campground. From there it follows the summer trail to Duck Pass.
This trail involves steeper climbs than Morgan Pass, and skiers must break their own trail some of the way. Two sections test even advanced skiers, but the effort is worthwhile. Duck Pass offers a fine panorama toward Silver Divide or Mammoth Lakes basin. The more adventurous can connect with the John Muir Trail once over Duck Pass, and continue far into the back country.
--Reds Meadow Trails. The round trip covers 18 miles. The trail starts at the Mammoth Mountain ski lodge near the base of chairlift 11 where the road to Devil's Postpile is no longer plowed. Take the route to Minaret Vista, then descend into the valley forged by the middle fork of the San Joaquin River. The return trip is a 2,100-foot elevation gain.
Reds Meadows also can be reached on a shorter but more difficult route, via Tamarack ski area over Mammoth Pass. The longer route follows the road past Agnew Meadows and into Reds Meadow.
Many make this an overnight trip, and ski to Rainbow Falls and Devil's Postpile.
--San Joaquin Ridge Trail. It's 10 miles round trip to Deadman Pass. The trail starts at the Mammoth Mountain parking lot. Ski to the summer road at Minaret Summit and ski north along San Joaquin Ridge.
This path is good for open and bowl skiing; it has glorious views of the Minarets and the Ritter Range, including Banner Peak.
According to Marcus Libkind in his book, "Ski Tours in the Eastern Sierra," skiers can get a firsthand look at Deadman Pass and the cornices that adorn it north of the summit, but the vantage point along the ridge is narrow. Many skiers like to take this route to Thousand Island Lake.
Mammoth to Yosemite
This route also is the start of a Mammoth to Yosemite back-country excursion.
Rock Creek offers eight-day tours from Mammoth to Yosemite for $525 with meals, although experienced skiers can make the trek in a day with a light pack.
Once in the solitude of the Sierra, John Moynier, a guide for Rock Creek Lodge, and friends saw coyotes climbing steep cliffs to go skiing down the embankment on their hind legs, using their front legs as brakes.
Because of the mild California winters the bears do not hibernate and can be seen foraging for food. Moynier said he has seen bears at the 12,000-foot level.
With the use of climbing skins, a mohair surface attached to the bottom of the skis, it is possible to ascend the sheerest ledges. Some tours to Yosemite climb the marvelous peaks bursting through the granite-filled gorges.
Though Mammoth to Yosemite is the Sierra's most popular tour, according to Moynier it has fewer than 10% of the summer usage.
A Picnic Brunch