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Weekend Escape: Mammoth : A two-family getaway involving a rented van, a condo, and the mellower pleasures of summer in a well-known hotdogger's paradise

August 28, 1994|KEVIN RODERICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Roderick is a Times Assistant Metro Editor. and

MAMMOTH LAKES — Our family has a new tradition for escaping the hottest days of summer. We line up a cat sitter, stock the Subaru and drive north into the desert.

Then we keep going, through the railroad and fast-food junction of Mojave, and up the Owens Valley. About 5 1/2 hours from home, we put down the windows, turn off the air conditioner and savor the cool mountain air. Our refuge of choice is the town of Mammoth Lakes, the winter destination for caravans of Southern California skiers, but to us a more pleasing spot when the elements are milder and the clientele mellower.

The most recent visit was an experiment in co-op vacationing. We split expenses with a friend and rented a van big enough for two mommies, a daddy and a high-energy trio of girls age 9 and under. The Dodge Grand Caravan from Thrifty Car Rental came well-equipped but barely held the two families plus the food, luggage and diversions conducive to a long weekend in a mountain condo.

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Our route from Los Angeles--north on California 14 and U.S. 395--tops my personal list of scenic California drives (inland division). In a few hours you climb through a red rock canyon, skirt numerous volcanic deposits and pass beside an enormous dust bowl that defies explanation without some knowledge of local history. The vast alkali flat used to be Owens Lake, across which in the 1880s steamboats ferried silver ore mined in the Inyo Mountains. The shallow salt lake was a welcome splash of blue to desert travelers until early this century, when Los Angeles bought up its source, the Owens River.

Just past the dry lake bed we stopped for gas in Lone Pine and even the kids began to enjoy the scenery. Snowy High Sierra peaks towered over the desert floor, and the attendant at the Unocal station kindly pointed out Mt. Whitney, the highest in the land outside Alaska.

Less than two hours later we glided into Mammoth Lakes. Our plan was to abuse the health club and pool privileges that come free with a condo rental at the Snowcreek Resort just outside of town on Old Mammoth Road and to explore the area's lakes and high country. Most meals would be eaten in to save money or would become picnics.

My wife, Judy, and our 4-year-old, Sean, had stayed before in older, more wooded sections of Snowcreek. This time we booked a newer unit closer to the pools--to everyone's disappointment. The rich lawns, copious pavement and careful landscaping could have been in the Los Angeles suburbs. "This looks like Westlake Village," wailed our friend Victoria. But at least the accommodations were as promised. We had two bedrooms and baths, a living room with sofa beds for the girls, a fireplace, cable TV, VCR, stereo and washer-dryer. Towels were too skimpy--par for Snowcreek--and we had to rewash the kitchen utensils to get rid of a funky odor. Outside, the view of 11,053-foot-high Mammoth Mountain and parking-lot gossip about marauding bears helped us forget the city. The girls were soon chasing each other and herding the ducks and geese that patrol the grounds.

Even with a stocked refrigerator and a beckoning bottle of Cabernet, no one could face kitchen work after a day in the van. We grabbed a low-key supper of salads, pasta and minestrone at O'Kelly and Dunn, a favorite stop where Judy adores the chicken noodle soup. The restaurant is next to the Booky Joint, the best-stocked book and video store we've found in Mammoth. The selection of children's books is impressive, and we returned to the condo well-supplied with magazines and new books for the girls.

Friday morning we fashioned a breakfast feast of pancakes and fruit. Determined to stay out of the van, we hung by the heated outdoor pool most of the day. It felt great to climb out of an 85-degree pool, spread a towel on the grass and bake in the alpine sun while the Sierra breezes rustled the quaking aspens.

This was the first time in Mammoth for Victoria and her daughters, 9-year-old Alexa and 6-year-old Katie, so after dinner we all piled into the van in search of some nature. We found a gorgeous view of dusk a few minutes later at Twin Lakes, the closest in the chain of fishing lakes located in the mountains above town.

Summer weather at this elevation is usually pleasant, but don't depend on it. On Saturday a chilly front blew through, postponing plans for a gondola ride to the summit of the mountain. Clouds swirled around the peak and the weather report at the top promised fog and winter-ish winds. Instead we shivered through a lakeside picnic of fruit, sandwiches and cheese. The girls enjoyed watching the chipmunks and blue jays, but were just as happy as the adults to retreat to Tamarack Lodge to sip hot chocolate beside the fire.

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