Mammoth Lakes: Small Town Vibe, Big Time Adventure

This mountain town is much more than the third most visited ski resort in the U.S.

Visit Mammoth

When you sleep in the shadow of an 11,053 ft. summit, you know you live by a mountain. When the day’s activities for eight months of the year revolve around the snow report, you know you live near a ski resort. When you run into an Olympian (or two) in the milk aisle at the grocery store, you know you live in Mammoth Lakes, California.

Despite the high proportion of professional athletes that call Mammoth Lakes home, the most famous resident of Mammoth Lakes is Mammoth Mountain—the third most visited ski resort in the U.S. The resort brings in more than 1.3 million annual visitors, but the year round population of Mammoth Lakes is a modest 8,234.

For the residents of Mono County’s only incorporated town, 2014 has been a monumental year— in August, the town turned 30 years old. Its tagline, “No Small Adventure”, pretty much sums up what life is like living at an elevation of 7,880 ft.

No one moves to the Eastern Sierra Nevada to make millions. While the first white settlers in the area were gold miners, the majority of today’s inhabitants probably came for the same things that the tourists do, to play outside. Of course the natural beauty is a big draw. Mammoth Lakes is conveniently located between the Ansel Adams and John Muir Wilderness Areas, but it’s the numbers that don’t lie. Mammoth Lakes averages more than 300 days of sun and almost 400 inches of snow a year.

Ask any of the six Sochi 2014 Olympic Games veterans who live in Mammoth Lakes why they like to live and train here as opposed to Colorado, and they’ll refer to these figures somewhere in their answer. Ironically, the amount of snowfall—which means that the ski season sometimes stretches into early July—was once a negative.

In 1952, when the U.S. Forest Service put the undeveloped area that now brings in more than $100 million in annual revenue up for bid, it practically had to beg builders to consider constructing a ski resort. Arguments were made that the mountain received too much snow and was too high and too far away from a major city. As a result, the contract received no bids.

Fortunately, a young Californian, Dave McCoy, saw potential in the dormant volcano and although he couldn’t afford to put in an official offer, by default, he got the permit. Now in his 90s, McCoy still calls Mammoth Lakes home, and he’s a hero to many of his neighbors—even if they weren’t alive to recall the days when he would use WWII M29 Weasels with ropes trailing off the back to tow skiers to the top of the mountain.

Today, the mountain operates 28 chairlifts, and it even boasts its own “official camera.” In an unprecedented partnership designed to build the largest social media following for a mountain, Mammoth Mountain partnered with GoPro for the 2014 ski season that began on November 13.

In addition to its well-rounded roster of runs, Mammoth Mountain has one of the world’s best terrain parks featuring 95 jumps and a huge 22-ft high half pipe popular with the likes of locals Kelly Clark and Greg Bretz who represented the U.S. in this past winter’s Olympic Games. Joining them in Sochi were more of the town’s resident winter athletes including John Teller, Kaya Turski, Stacey Cook and Trevor Jacob.

While many Mammoth Lakes residents spend most of their free time in the winter up on the mountain, others take the free transportation from the village to nearby Tamarack Cross Country Ski Center for miles of groomed trails that wind through the Mammoth Lakes Basin. Ice climbing, snowmobiling and tubing are also popular winter hobbies among the locals who work hard (and pay a higher cost of living than the average American) to play even harder in their backyard. But it’s worth it for those who want to live, eat and breathe the outdoors for all four seasons of the year.

When the snow melts, Mammoth Mountain does not shut down. Instead, it becomes Mammoth Mountain Bike Park and Adventure Center. As naturally as the leaves changing in the fall, the locals trade their skis and snowboards for mountain bikes. Other residents, including long distance runner and Olympic bronze medalist Deena Kastor, add hiking to their daily regimen. Mammoth Lakes is the perfect hub for hikers and while trails take off from town in every direction, some of the most popular are just up the road at Reds Meadow. Here, hikers can check out Rainbow Falls and the jaw-dropping geological masterpiece, Devils Postpile National Monument.

Trail running is also huge. Every summer, so many youth cross-country teams from across the country train in Mammoth Lakes that Nike comes in and sets up a pop-up shop in the heart of the downtown’s tiny shopping district. As a kid growing up near L.A., Kastor would spend part of the summer training in Mammoth Lakes.

Decades later, she’s more than happy to say hi and take photos with the star-struck teens who run into her on the trails. Until 2013 her friend and the winner of the 2014 Boston Marathon, Meb Keflezighi, also lived and trained in Mammoth Lakes. But it’s not just the world’s most elite runners who are welcome in the Mammoth Track Club coached by Kastor’s husband, Andrew.  General membership is open to anyone.

That’s the beauty of living in Mammoth Lakes. Casual runners can train alongside Kastor and her very fast friends. Novice skiers can call Stacey Cook their neighbor, and beginner snowboarders can drive just up the road and watch Kelly Clark and Greg Bretz ride one of the hardest half pipes in the country. But don’t expect the residents of Mammoth Lakes to be green when it comes to their experience in the great outdoors. After all, you’re probably not attracted to life in this mountain town unless the thought of spending more than ten consecutive minutes indoors makes you cringe.

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