Since 1997, Mammoth and co-owner Intrawest have pumped $75 million into on-mountain improvements at this big, brawny destination beloved by Southern Californians. "I'd gladly drive six hours for a slice of heaven," comments one Angeleno. He's not alone: A No. 5 ranking for Lifts, a No. 6 for Grooming and five new or improved restaurants prove the investment is paying off. Mammoth's other gold medals-in Terrain, Challenge, Snow and Scenery-hail from its natural abundance, a money-can't-buy-it essence that remains unchanged since founder Dave McCoy set the first ropetow here in 1945. True, the hulking High Sierra hideaway, and its 3,500 acres, is a long drive from anywhere. But once you arrive, "you can explore and explore and hardly hit the same run twice." Pick your pleasure: beginner avenues such as Christmas Tree, entire basins of bumps off Face Lift, wind-buffed steeps like Scotty's or stashes of powder in Lincoln Mountain's secret trees. Off the mountain it's another story. Two luxury slopeside lodges at Juniper Springs base area have added upscale options to the outdated mix. Otherwise, "the town is a hodge podge" with great restaurants hidden in strip malls but "lousy après and nightlife." You can bet Intrawest's master plan, which tags another $55 million for on-mountain improvements and at least $500 million more in town, intends to remedy every shortfall. Until then, skiers who value mountain majesties more than ancillary amenities can "ski here forever and not get bored."