Over the past decade, Mammoth Mountain has spent nearly $500 million transforming itself from L.A.'s weekend playground into a full-fledged destination resort - while keeping its essential appeal. It's still ruggedly beautiful and California cool, with a mountain that shares the love with beginners and thrill-seeking experts alike. But where rubbery burgers once ruled, there are now made-to-order Caesar salads and gourmet snowcat dinners. Musty condos have been replaced by slate-floored lodges. And instead of an après scene circa 1982, a resort village offers laid-back pubs, wine lists for the discerning and even a tiki bar. Yet one Mammoth fact remains: Ninety percent of its winter visitors drive up for the weekend from Southern California, so spending three perfect days here is all about staying one step ahead of the crowd.
Many Mammoth-lovers admit to actually enjoying the big drive (five to seven hours each way from Los Angeles or San Diego), and waxing poetic about the transition from the city's busy freeways to the high desert's open spaces, then onward through the Wild West landscape of the rugged Owens Valley. The key is to get an early start. "You definitely do not want to get stuck in Friday rush hour," says a frequent visitor. To avoid it, leave before 3 p.m. - the earlier the better. (Check road conditions at 800-427-7623.) Stop for dinner in either Lone Pine (try the Whitney Portal Restaurant, rich with Hollywood memorabilia from decades of Westerns) or Olancha (the Ranch House Café is a truckers' favorite).
Once in Mammoth, head straight to your hotel. The sleek, new Westin Monache Resort, steps from the Village Gondola, is Mammoth's only luxury, full-service hotel (from $239; westin.com; 888-625-4980). Nearby condos in the Village at Mammoth can feel tight for a big group, but they're unbeatable for convenience, particularly for families with older kids (from $219; mammothmountain.com; 800-626-6684). After checking in, unwind in the nearest hot tub and consider downing pints of water instead of beer; the town of Mammoth Lakes sits at nearly 8,000 feet.
Walk to the Village Gondola just before 8:00 a.m. and upload (no ticket required) to the Canyon Lodge base. Breakfast at Canyon's Grizzly Square on a hearty burrito then head outside to catch first chair at 8:30.
Board the Canyon Express (Chair 16), then follow the fall line to the Roller Coaster lift (Chair 4), getting your ski legs going with a few laps on its well-groomed rollers. Mammoth Mountain is six miles wide, with three primary base areas and two secondary ones. The easier runs cluster near the base lodges while its infamous double-diamonds drop from the craggy, treeless heights. Between are thousands of acres of intermediate and advanced runs, plus four terrain parks.
Ride back up Chair 4, then glide down Easy Rider to Chair 5, which carries skiers out of the pines. Intermediates can challenge themselves on Solitude; experts can work out their kinks on Face of Five or the cluster of black-diamonds on skier's left. After a few laps, make your way through the sparse trees of Goldhill to the new Cloud Nine Express six-pack. Explore Cloud Nine's meadows and forests, then beeline it to midmountain McCoy Station. You need to get there by 11:30 to beat the rush. Try the vegetarian pizza or the BBQ station's pulled pork.
After lunch, board the gondola and take a thrill ride down black-diamond Cornice Bowl (usually groomed) or Dave's Run, or cruise on scenic Road Runner. Enjoy the upper mountain until early afternoon, then flow from summit to base down the spacious Broadway zone. Finish with a few laps on the Thunder Bound Express, gawking from above as the terrain park's pros sail through the air, then hit Broadway's glades and avenues on the way back down.
For an apr#232;s-ski adventure, join a dogsledding tour to the Minaret overlook (mammothdogteams.com; 760-934-6270). Or walk across the parking lot to the historic Yodler for a beer, then take the free shuttle back to the Village. Get cleaned up and leave for dinner by 6 p.m. Walk to Nevado's for its three-course prix-fixe dinner with savory entrees such as roasted elk loin and desserts such as vanilla crème brûlée. Wind down by shooting pool at Lakanuki or sipping a nightcap at LuLu's mahogany bar.
Pack up, check out and drive to The Good Life Cafe in Mammoth Lakes for steel-cut oats and omelets with local flavor. Park at the Chair 2 or Chair 4 base areas, a few miles from the cafe, before 9 a.m., and warm up with a couple runs off Chair 2's broad boulevards. When crowds build, make your way across expansive St. Anton to Chair 12, a quiet preserve of groomed and gladed blues. Drop over the backside and board Chair 14, which accesses an overlooked section with fun trees and untracked steeps. If there's new snow, hike up Hemlock Ridge for fresh tracks. Grab a snack on Outpost 14's sundeck, then cross back to the frontside. Sunday's crowds start thinning at midday, when the highway exodus begins. Keep skiing, and revisit your favorite areas. Take a late lunch at the Mill Café, steps from your car, and plan to leave Mammoth between 3 and 4, stopping just south of town for a soak in Hot Creek's mineral waters. A quick break at Bishop's beloved Schat's Bakery to pick up sandwiches and sweets for the road is well worth your time. Head home. Then do like the rest of the Angelenos: Wait until next weekend and repeat.
SIGNPOST: Mammoth Mountain
3,500 skiable acres; 3,100 vertical feet; 400-plus annual inches; 150 trails; 29 lifts
Lift tickets: $79; youth (13–18) $59; kids (7–12) and seniors (65–79) $40
Getting There: From L.A., take I-5 north to Route 14 to US 395 north to Route 203. From San Diego, take I-15 north to US 395 north to Route 203.
Info: mammothmountain.com; 800-626-6684