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WEEKEND ESCAPE: MAMMOTH LAKES

Going Top Cabin

At Tamarack Lodge in the High Sierra, warming up to winter's chill with fine dining and cross-country skiing

January 16, 2000|LUCRETIA BINGHAM | Lucretia Bingham is a freelance writer based in Lyme, Conn

MAMMOTH LAKES — Outside my car window, the stars looked close enough to grab. A meteorite flashed down behind the flank of a mountain. Black ice shone in the curves. I was finding my way, alone and at night, from Los Angeles to Tamarack Lodge, a mountain resort that sits 2 1/2 winding miles up behind the town of Mammoth Lakes.

For years, friends had raved about Tamarack, though I had never been there. A few months before, a cross-country skiing friend and I inked in this weekend in early December. At the time, the reservations clerk at Tamarack assured me there was usually snow this early in the winter. And though the base was not yet deep, 4 inches of fresh powder fell the day before I arrived. But my friend took a powder as well, canceling too late for me to arrange another companion.

I skittered across a snow-encrusted parking lot to a thick pine door that opened into a hallway lined on either side with sweet-smelling stacks of firewood. Inside the main lobby, a fire roared in the deep stone fireplace, but the room was deserted. Finally I found a sleepy clerk who gave me my cabin key.

With some difficulty, I managed to find my cabin up several flights of snow-covered stairs. Despite my love of the rustic Sierra, I wished there had been a bellhop. Still, the gas heater in my cabin was on, and it was toasty inside even though it was 13 degrees outside. I soon fell into a deep sleep.

I awoke to a very blue, cold morning. There was not a breath of wind. The lodge's setting is superb; peaks ring the valley, and all 24 cabins and some of the 10 rooms in the main lodge face the small and shallow Twin Lakes. I could see the half-frozen lakes from my bedroom window. My knotty pine three-room cabin, No. 36, was ringed with windows and filled with light. The living room had a wood-burning stove; there was a separate kitchen, and the bath was sunny. The amenities--a good bed, a phone and everything spanking clean--made it more comfortable than most Sierra cabins I have stayed in.

I had a cup of coffee in the lodge's living room, comfortably furnished with deep red- and green-striped sofas, a forest-green carpet, thick beams and the requisite stuffed fish and historic pictures of the resort in the '30s. The lodge was built in 1924, and most of the cabins in 1927. The living room's roughhewn simplicity was comforting, though I wished for more books or newspapers.

Upstairs, opening off a varnished pine hallway, are 10 rooms that cost less than my cabin. (The prices range from $90 for a room with shared bath to $145 for No. 1, a corner room with a bathroom.)

Breakfast, not included in the room rate, was served in the lodge's Lakefront Restaurant. From my table by the window, I looked up at sunshine striking gold onto cliffs about a thousand feet higher than the resort. My eggs Benedict had a light citrus-flavored sauce, and the hash browns were crispy. The food was as good as any I've had in the Sierra.

A Sierra Club group that comes up every year on this same weekend in early December filled half of the other tables. I quickly made friends--this is the kind of resort where everyone looks as though they could be a friend--and arranged to go cross-country skiing with Anne, who was traveling with the Sierra Club group. The cross chatter among four tables--the restaurant is cozy--made me feel less awkward about being solo.

I rented cross-country skis and boots from the Tamarack Ski Center just off the parking lot of the main lodge. Not only does the center offer group and individual lessons and trail passes, but it also patrols most of the 22 miles of trails around the lodge throughout the season. Most of the trails, which range from beginner to advanced, head off directly from the resort. Unfortunately, because the snowpack was still thin around Tamarack, we headed to Mammoth Mountain for groomed cross-country trails.

Across from the main Mammoth Mountain lodge, five miles up the mountain from Warming Hut II, a well-groomed cross-country trail led to Minaret Vista, elevation 10,800 feet. At first it was pretty steep going. Anne and I were soon shedding layers of clothing like snakeskins.

The cross-country skiers on the trail were convivial. A grandmotherly woman flashed past, pumping her legs but being hauled even faster by her golden Lab. Several skimobiles sped past; I resented their noisy intrusion.

After a while the track narrowed and was not as steep. I slotted my skis into a groove laid down by other skiers and worked on my gliding lunge, which was a bit unsteady after more than 15 years away from the sport. As I struggled to keep up with Anne, I told myself I should have taken a lesson. Finally, after a last icy patch, we reached the ridge top and Minaret Vista and I remembered why I liked cross-country skiing: My efforts were rewarded by the view, a panorama of peaks and minarets with a deep canyon below.

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