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WEEKEND ESCAPE : An Interlude at Off-Season Mammoth Lakes

August 25, 1991|SHARON DIRLAM | Dirlam is a Santa Barbara-based free-lance writer. and

MAMMOTH LAKES, Calif. — "This place is like going back in time. It's like Tahoe was in the '50s," my husband said as he coaxed a spark into flames in the fireplace of our rented condo at Mammoth Lakes. We'd decided to drive here, about 100 miles south of Tahoe, on a rare four-day weekend. We wanted a change of scenery, just to relax in the mountains and go on interesting hikes. No deadlines, commitments or crowds.

A few years ago, with similar intentions, we had gone to Emerald Lake in the Tahoe area, where my husband, John, had camped as a teen-ager. There were wall-to-wall college kids, partying and drinking beer and getting sunburned. Tahoe was all grown up. Crowds, fast food, plenty of action. He couldn't get out of there fast enough. But Mammoth in the '90s--that's another story.

We left Santa Barbara on a Thursday morning this June and drove through Castaic Junction and Lancaster before stopping in Lone Pine for a hamburger at P.J.'s (and a view of Mt. Whitney). We arrived at our condo--La Vista Blanc condominiums on Minaret Road opposite the Snowcreek golf course--at 4 p.m.

We liked the condo's location, on the southwest edge of town, although the budget price had been our chief concern. Our unit, with fully equipped kitchen, living room with fireplace, two baths and a loft bedroom, cost $55 a night (in winter, the same unit rents for $100). We'd made our reservations in advance by calling the Mammoth Reservation Bureau (800-462-5571 or 619-934-2528), one of several associations that handle condo accommodations. But the next morning, when we looked around town, there seemed to be plenty of available units, most of them fairly new.

A one-main-street resort town at 7,800 feet surrounded by lakes and ski runs, Mammoth Lakes is full of skiers' condos. We were told that the condo occupancy rate drops to about 30% in the off-season--thus the attractive bargains in condo accommodations in summer. So far, summer crowds don't seem to exist in Mammoth.

But some of the lakeside cabins are booked by the same people for certain weeks every summer, such as our friends Jinny and Paul's cabin at Woods Lodge on Lake George about four miles southwest of town. After unpacking, we drove out to their cabin, took a short stroll and admired the alpine beauty of their hideaway, which they rent for $65 a night. We sat on their little front porch overlooking the lake, sipped glasses of wine and watched the late-afternoon sun playing on the water below.

We had dinner that night at the Ocean Harvest, a seafood restaurant on Old Mammoth Road. We shared a wickedly delicious, three-layered chocolate mud pie for dessert, vowing to hike it off the next day. It was the height of summer, but there were only a few other people in the restaurant, where they'll also do the cooking for fishermen who bring in their catch.

By the time we arrived back at the condo, the night air was refreshingly cold and the stars were out in force. There were stacks of wood waiting on the deck, and we enjoyed the warmth of the fire in our fireplace before climbing to the big bed in the loft.

Mammoth Lakes is also the backdoor to Yosemite National Park; it's a two-hour drive north out of town and over Tioga Pass to the park's eastern entrance and Tuolumne Meadows. We thought about going there--for one thing, the traffic is nothing compared with the jam that threads into Yosemite Valley from the west.

Instead, on Friday morning we decided to take an hour's drive north to Mono Lake, a salty body of water where 85% of California sea gulls hatch their eggs and raise their young. We spent the morning strolling around the lake shore, taking pictures of the tufa towers, weird calcium formations that form in shallow lake water where mineral springs bubble up, and eating the picnic lunch we'd packed before we left. Only one other pair of visitors showed up.

After lunch, we drove east to Bodie, a ghost town from the Gold Rush days, marginally maintained by the California Park Service and offering a wretchedly realistic look at the "good old days." In a dubious nod to historic accuracy, the Service grades the last several miles of the dirt road into town in a washboard pattern, giving one the full effect of bone-jarring stage-coach travel. Inside the dilapidated old buildings are dust-covered remnants of hardscrabble lives. On the hillside is a little graveyard of broken tombstones and fallen crosses. The artsy picture possibilities were endless.

Friday night we had dinner at Whiskey Creek on Main Street and Minaret Road. We had reservations, but again, the place wasn't all that crowded although it's one of the best restaurants in town.

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