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On the Verge: June Lake, Calif.

On the Verge: June Lake, Calif.

Travel
posted: 03/31/2000

Tucked at one end of a dramatic, horseshoe-shaped canyon of granite cliffs and waterfalls coursing through pine forests, June Lake is arguably the most beautiful town in California's eastern Sierra. The canyon floor is dotted by sparkling blue lakes and towered over by 12,600-foot Mount Wood, the most dominant in a skyline jammed with snow-covered Sierra peaks. June Lake resembles its famous neighbor Yosemite¿no surprise given the quaint town is just 8 crow miles outside the panoramic national park's boundaries. June also boasts a friendly little ski resort and some of the best trout fishing in California, both within a mile or two of town. So with all of that to attract outdoor devotees, not to mention a booming California economy, June Lake is a thriving mountain getaway packed with visitors, right?

Well, no. For starters, not many people outside of the eastern Sierra know much about the town. Also, June Lake is hard to reach. The nearest airport with regularly scheduled air service is in Reno, about a three-hour drive away. Most visitors hail from Southern California and never venture farther than their primary destination, the town of Mammoth Lakes and Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, 21 miles south of town.

But that wasn't always so. In the Thirties, June Lake was one of Hollywood's favorite summer hangouts and the premier mountain resort in this part of the world. Charlie Chaplin, Clark Gable and Greta Garbo vacationed here. MGM character actor Wallace Beery (who starred in "Dinner at Eight") built a cabin on an island in one of the region's chain of lakes and used to land his private plane on a lakeside strip. Later, Woody Woodpecker creator Walter Lantz owned a house in June, as did film directing legend Frank Capra. Herbert Hoover liked to summer in town, too. Then, in the mid-Fifties, Mammoth became an established resort and the June area was all but forgotten. But that's about to change.

Big development plans may transform this sleepy little mountain hamlet into an upscale, luxury resort. Because almost all of the land surrounding June Lake is owned by the U.S. Forest Service¿only 488 acres are held privately¿there's little chance that it will expand greatly. But development of the 90 acres owned by Intrawest Corporation seems inevitable. The megabuck mountain resort developer is currently investing $500 million in Mammoth Lakes after acquiring 58 percent of Mammoth Mountain Ski Area in 1996 and 1997. Mammoth Mountain owns and operates June Mountain ski area¿perched above June Lake¿so Intrawest already has a good bit of interest in the town. Local insiders believe that the corporation plans to start reinventing June as soon as it finishes constructing a base village, deluxe lodging and other tourist facilities at Mammoth, but the company isn't disclosing much. What Mammoth Vice President Dana Severy will say is, "Just as Vail has Beaver Creek and Whistler Mountain has Blackcomb Mountain, June figures large in our plans for the High Sierra."

Some locals are a little wistful about the prospect of seeing their low-key village, population 614, transformed into a glitzy resort. They worry that the town's friendly, laid-back atmosphere and sense of community might be sacrificed; others believe there's no reason that aura can't be maintained while the town is reconfigured.

Ryan Mahoney, a general contractor and former ski patrolman, has mixed feelings about some of the changes in June Lake. "I guess it's like they say in that old song, 'They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.' Some of the old-time homeowners who are here for different reasons are against it. But everyone who owns a business here and a lot of other people who own property are for it," says Mahoney.

Those in favor of Intrawest's anticipated renovations are the same locals who grumble about a lack of marketing of the town and its ski area. And the fact is that June's tourism-based economy has faltered badly in reecent years. Restaurants and other businesses have closed for lack of customers, and the town has acquired a worn, frayed look. But in the past year, June Lake has taken a few steps to turn its fortunes around. One of its problems was that the June Lake Loop road, the town's only access route, often was buried by avalanches. Locals and visitors were occasionally stranded in town, sometimes for days on end, and ski weekends had a way of turning into involuntary ski weeks. That nuisance was finally eliminated last year when the state built a second access road outside the avalanche zone.

Then again there are worse things than getting stuck in June in a snowstorm. "We can get untracked powder for two or three days after a storm," says long-time June skier/ snowboarder Chris Jackson. "At Mammoth, it's gone by 10 am."

Jackson is not alone. Many June Lake locals say they would rather ski 500-acre June Mountain than massive Mammoth any day. With its wide, cruising boulevards, lack of crowds and relaxed atmosphere, June Mountain is a great family resort¿small and uncrowded enough for parents to easily keep track of kids. But local powderhounds and freeskiers say they prefer June, too. "The Face," one of June's six double black-diamonds, is among the longest steep runs in the country, plunging more than 1,000 feet from the mid-mountain June Meadows chalet. Another little-known fact: The out-of-bounds skiing at June is impressive. Locals head through the trees just outside the boundaries on either side of The Face to runs with nicknames such as Four Seasons and Hooligans.

Jackson, 42, typifies one slice of the June Lake community. A 20-year resident, he runs an antique portrait business in summer and gets through winters putting chains on car tires after snowstorms. "I get close to 100 days of skiing in every year, and I try not to work too much," he says. During summer he trades in his snowboard for a sailboard, spending as much time as he can skimming across local waters. Fellow outdoor junky Mahoney says that while he moved here for the skiing and fishing, he was also attracted by the town's laid-back atmosphere and sense of community. "It's less trampled on, there are no traffic signals, and it's got a much smaller, pure feel to it," explains Mahoney. "And I love June Mountain. It's a lot friendlier than bigger resorts."

Nobody expects June Lake to change much overnight. Intrawest will be occupied with its plans for Mammoth for at least two to three years and won't turn its attention to June until after that. Meanwhile, the town is taking a deep breath and contemplating its future. June Lake definitely has star quality, but it may not be ready for its close-up yet.

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