If I’m going to sit on a plane for 10 hours I want to make it worth my while – and that usually means combining a ski trip with some kind of adventure. This years trip was no different – even if our original plans had to change somewhat due to covid.
Our trip started with a night in Las Vegas. As a gateway airport this works brilliantly, and BA operates direct flights from London. Customs and immigration was pretty quick and easy, and the airport is literally less than 10 mins in a taxi from the Las Vegas Strip. We went from the plane to the hotel in just over an hour. We were spending one night in Las Vegas before picking up our rental car and heading for Mammoth – so it was a fast turnaround in our hotel, and straight out. Gambling isn’t really my thing (and I was worried mum might take to it and get carried away..) so we’d booked tickets to see Rod Stewart – at the Colosseum in Caesars Palace. Sooo Las Vegas! Love him or hate him – Rod knows what the people want! Despite being somewhat exhausted from our long day, we left thoroughly entertained.. Rod’s getting on a bit, so the 9pm finish was ideal for all of us!
The drive from Las Vegas to Mammoth is a long one – it took us around 7 hours with stops. However, rather than being featureless freeway, this was a journey through the wild west. Fairly barren and arid desert land peppered with Joshua trees and wild burros. We passed ghost towns from the heyday of gold mining, and stopped in the small village of Beatty for some lunch. The Happy Burro Saloon was perfect! The road got narrower and wigglier as we passed through the ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. These trees are the oldest known in the world – one was dated at 4850 years old. Had we researched this in advance we’d have probably stopped for a wee walk, but it was still stunning landscape to drive through.
From the town of Bishop the road climbs steadily towards Mammoth Lakes. It’s a decent road but the area gets a lot of weather so we’d rented an SUV and we were able to pick out one with 4wd that suited our needs from a selection at Las Vegas. Definitely worth remembering that car rentals from Las Vegas or Los Angeles won’t come with snow tyres or chains. There’s always going to be an element of gambling with the weather – but the authorities tend to clear the roads of snow pretty fast.
Mammoth Lakes is a mid size mountain recreation town that is actually busier in summer than winter, and there’s a nice selection of restaurants, a couple of supermarkets and some other shops. Most skiers will stay in the mountain village – a little over a mile away and that’s where we stayed. The Alpenhof Lodge is independently owned by the Shaubmayer family and it’s a simple 3 star European style ski lodge with large comfy rooms, complimentary breakfast, an excellent restaurant and a European style apres ski bar (in the basement so there’s no disturbance to guests). The village gondola is just 50 metres across the road so you can enjoy the easy location at a nice price.
Mammoth mountain village is quite small but has a convenience store and a nice selection of bars and restaurants. There’s excellent margaritas and generous happy hour specials to be found in Gomez Restaurant by the gondola base.. and just 2 mins walk down the road the Mammoth Brewing Company offers excellent local beers and delicious food at great prices.
I had an idea of what to expect from Mammoth. I’ve skied at most of the Lake Tahoe resorts and loved them. When it snows in California it snows BIG and these mountains that rise violently from the desert plains capture all of that snow. It makes for incredible views of the surrounding peaks, with arid desert land below. What I hadn’t appreciated was the size and scope of Mammoth mountain and it’s one of those places that a piste map doesn’t do justice to.
The gentle gladed areas above the Eagle Lodge were perfect for play time on a snowy day – with pockets of powder and generous spacing between the giant pines. Our favourite part of the Mountain was higher on that side where the Cloud Nine chair gave access to a fantastic bowl with opportunities to venture off piste without getting lost. Thanks for the tip, Pete! Over on the other side of the mountain from chairs 13 and 14 the sun was slower to hit, which made for slick, fast groomers in the mornings and the potential for off piste in better snow conditions looked immense.. the trick was to time skiing that part of the mountain at lunchtime and then hit The Outpost – an outdoor eatery which pretty much just serves cheese toasties. I might add, the most expensive cheese toasties I’ve ever seen, and we did think twice.. but trust me: 100% worth it!
After a brilliant 5 days of skiing it was time to head to the next part of our adventure: driving through Death Valley. The entrance to Death Valley National Park is about 3 ½ hours drive from Mammoth and the last town you pass through is Lone Pine – if the landscape looks familiar then it’s because over 400 films have been shot in the area, and there’s a museum dedicated to Western Movies in Lone Pine.
We weren’t sure what to expect from Death Valley. Was it just going to be unbearably hot and dusty? Was there much to see? We loved it! The route we drove took us from Panamint Springs on the western edge through Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek. The scenery is jaw-droppingly fabulous with impossible rock formations, rainbow colours and endless desert studded with wild flowers and cacti. March and April are definitely a good time to visit as the temperature is manageable and if you’re lucky the flowers are in bloom. We took a little time to drive round Artists Drive – a short one way loop through rainbow coloured canyons where mineral ores make a natural palette. Our highlight was hitting Zabriskie Point – one of the most famous views – at sunset. The colours were amazing!
An overnight stop in the small hamlet of Shoshone, near an eastern entrance to the Park was another highlight. Our accommodation had us opposite the Crowbar Saloon – less threatening than it sounds. And in the morning we were greeted by a short eared owl and a desert tortoise in the garden. Having spent a week in the snow, sitting outside in 20 degree heat in the desert to eat your breakfast is quite special!
And from there it was back to Las Vegas. That wasn’t the original plan – but the best laid plans of mice and men.. and all that! And with the lights of Vegas switching off all around us we flew home to a very different place to the one we left, but we’re already planning next winter’s adventures and can’t wait to get back on the slopes.