Fifty years ago, the story goes, Warren Miller would sleep in his freezing '49 Chevy at the foot of Mammoth Mountain, Calif., waiting for the lifts to open. Ever since, the resort, which Blackcomb creator Hugh Smythe calls "the best ski mountain in the United States," has inspired great devotion, despite a lack of world-class amenities and a layout that's left skiers utterly dependent on having a car.
As recently as last spring, Mammoth's coolest après scene was in the parking lot. Every weekend at the base of Stump Alley Express (a.k.a. Chair Two), tailgates came down, hatchbacks flipped up and van doors slid open. Out came the beer, the beach chairs and the bikini tops. Later, everyone would pile into their cars and drive away-four miles down Minaret Road to the motels, condos, restaurants and bars scattered widely aboutMammoth Lakes' four square miles. And that was just about that for Mammoth's après and nightlife.
Now, suddenly, Mammoth skiers-including longtime locals-are ditching their cars and thronging the brand-new Village at Mammoth. They lounge on Hennessey's sprawling sun-drenched patio, eating crab cakes and drinking tall drafts of beer. A few steps away, those who lingered late on the mountain (perhaps savoring the wind-buffed perfection and breathtaking steeps of Dave's or the snow-glutted ramps and rolls of Lincoln Mountain) spill off the new Village Gondola and into a central plaza buzzing with activity. A live band plays jazzy acoustic rock. Hyped-up kids with painted faces dance and dart around. Shoppers stroll among funky shops like the locally owned Gallerie Barjur, which specializes in vintage jewelry and avant-garde sculpture, and Splash, a gourmet bath shop. Singles head to Lakanuki, where tiki torches, Polynesian-stylepu-pu platters and hula-dancing waitressescompete for your attention. Sports fans settle into deep booths at Dublin's and check out the latest plays on any of 36 TVs. Down the hall, an underground grotto called Fever Nightclub offers disco lights and steamy go-go dancers who specialize in wrapping themselves around poles. Those more inclined to the fleece-wrapped, baseball-capped Mammoth of old can simply cross the street and descend into the cozy Clocktower Cellar.
"This town really needed some energy," says Joel Springman, one of Lakanuki's owners, noting that until now Mammoth's lone nightclubs were the '80s hotspot Whiskey Creek and a makeshift disco located in the back room of a fish restaurant. Springman is far from alone in his assessment. During the early 1980s, Mammoth was the top destination for skier visits in the country-more popular than even Vail. Its allure hinged largely on the resort's natural assets: a craggy, spacious landscape of granite peaks, abundant snowfall, thick pine forests and high-alpine lakes. Capping it all was the mountain itself, a sun-soaked, snow-draped giant.
But by the late '80s, none of that was enough. Visitor numbers plummeted. Customers complained: They didn't like the food. They hated the liftlines. They didn't like the condos. And most of all, they were less than charmed by the strip-mall town. "They were talking about what a pain it was to get around," says Mammoth CEO Rusty Gregory. "It was inconvenient for families. It was hard to get to the hill. And the town didn't have a center, a place to meet."
Now there's the Village at Mammoth, 16 years in the making. Unlike other new base villages, this one has risen smack in the midst of a large and well-established community, adding pizzazz, cohesion and ski-in/ski-out convenience to a destination already rich with movie theaters, beloved breakfast joints and a baker's dozen of excellent restaurants. The new 15-person Village Gondola-which giant-steps through an established neighborhood of upscale mountain homes, courtesy of an easement the ski corporation has held for more than 30 years-ferries skiers seamlessly from the Village to Canyon Lodge, one of the mountain's foour primary access points.
The buzz in Mammoth, however, radiates from more than just Hennessey's deck, Fever's dance floor and the new gondola. Since 1998, the resort's owners have spent more than $100 million on the mountain. The lift system whisks skiers swiftly and effortlessly around the mountain's nine-mile-wide breadth, with waits rarely exceeding 10 minutes. On-mountain dining has gone post-modern chic, with Asiancreations, rotisserie platters and made-to-order salads in the main cafes and white-tablecloth service and epicurean fare (such as pepper-seared ahi caesar salad and wild-game chili) in Parallax. Moreover, the Town of Mammoth itself has undergone a $6 million facelift. The result is a resort that's lively and accommodating, from the moment the family gears up in the village's new Mountain Center and ambles easily onto the gondola to the undulating ski back to your condo door at the end of the day. Best of all, when it comes to lodging, après-ski and nightlife, everyone can finally get out of the car to stay.