Mammoth Lakes is new and improved, but still affordable

 
LA Times | Travel
 

You used to be a cheap date, a weekend fling who didn't care that my budget was tight and my wallet thin. In the old days, you would welcome me with open arms, even if I showed up on your doorstep with a brown bag lunch and blue jeans sticking out of my ski boots. But you've changed. You've be...

By Hugo Martín // 12.11.08
 

You used to be a cheap date, a weekend fling who didn't care that my budget was tight and my wallet thin. In the old days, you would welcome me with open arms, even if I showed up on your doorstep with a brown bag lunch and blue jeans sticking out of my ski boots.

But you've changed. You've become a diva with expensive tastes, a snob who associates with country club types in time-share condos and designer ski outfits.

I just can't believe what I'm hearing. So I corralled my wife, Tina, and 10-year-old daughter, Isabella, and headed up U.S. 395 to see whether a penny-pinching weekend skier was still welcome in Mammoth Lakes, Southern California's favorite winter sports getaway.

 

When I arrived in mid-November, the Village at Mammoth teemed with noise, shoppers and light.

The European-style pedestrian hub is the crown jewel of a multimillion-dollar makeover that its detractors claim is turning this blue-collar ski town into the Aspen of the West. The makeover was accelerated when Starwood Capital Group, led by hotel mogul Barry S. Sternlicht of Greenwich, Conn., bought a controlling interest in the resort in 2006 from Dave McCoy, the resort's founder.

Before the face-lift, Mammoth was known for its rustic charms. It was a hodgepodge of hotels, strip malls and mom-and-pop eateries, but that didn't bother most of the skiers and snowboarders who came only for the mountain experience. Thanks to an average of 33 feet of snow and 300 days of sunshine each year, the experience was usually good.

The resort took a transformative step this summer when Mammoth Mountain teamed with Patina Restaurant Group in an effort to improve its culinary offerings. To make the slopes more convenient, Horizon Air this week begins nonstop flights from Los Angeles International Airport to the Mammoth Yosemite Airport.

Considering the economic crisis, this may not be the best timing for hedonism on the hill. And yet, surveys suggest that Americans will not forgo vacation plans. They'll merely spend less on them.

This raises the question: Can a family on a budget still have a good time at the new and improved Mammoth Lakes?

Lodging

The lodging near the lifts in Mammoth Lakes is pricey, but with legwork you can still find a few bargains. Room rates typically skyrocket in peak snow season, between Thanksgiving and mid-April, but if you can schedule your vacation before or after that period, you can save a bundle.

Thanks to online comparisons (try www.priceline.com), I found a bargain early in the season at the 1849 Condos, ([800] 421-1849, www.1849condos.com) within walking distance of the lifts at Canyon Lodge. I booked a two-bedroom, two-bath condominium with a kitchen, fireplace, living room and sun deck for $117 a night, plus tax. The rates were low because the condos were being renovated and only five runs were open at the time. (Canyon Lodge, a ski hub with a large outdoor deck, a bar, meeting rooms and access to lifts, had not yet opened.) Once the renovations were completed near the end of last month, the weekend rates at the condos jumped to $400 a night.

By using the kitchen in the condo to prepare our breakfasts -- cereal, milk, coffee and pastries bought at the local supermarket -- we also saved at least $30 to $40 each day on restaurant costs.

Even less expensive: On the drive up, I noticed that hotel rates advertised on the marquees in Bishop were nearly half the cost of lodging in Mammoth Lakes. Although it's 42 miles south of Mammoth Lakes along U.S. 395, Bishop has much to offer visitors, including Erick Schat's Bakkery (763 N. Main St.), the ideal place to stock up on apple strudel and sheepherder bread, and Jack's Restaurant & Bakery (437 N. Main St.), where the omelets are huge and tasty and the fishing advice is free.

Another money-saving idea for Mammoth Lakes: package deals that include free lift tickets for each hotel guest. These deals, offered by the resort ( www.mammothmountain.com), can cut your lodging costs by at least half, if you meet the restrictions. For example, Mammoth Mountain is offering a January midweek package that starts at $119 a night, with a two-night minimum.

Least expensive: Ryan Groat of Huntington Beach and his 4-year-old son, Luka, found the cheapest lodging in town: They slept in a camper on the back of Groat's pickup, parked on the outskirts of town near a hot spring called Wild Willy's, which is on Bureau of Land Management property. The federal government allows free camping on BLM property for up to 14 days. In return, campers must promise not to litter or damage vegetation. Besides camping on BLM land, Groat said he saved big bucks by shopping at a supermarket and preparing meals on a portable gas grill.

"It gets a little chilly at night in the camper, but it saves a lot of money, and nowadays that's important," he said.

Food

Although there's no such thing as a free lunch, you can still find some cheap eats in Mammoth Lakes.

As I pulled into town, I stopped at the Mammoth Lakes Welcome Center (2510 Main St.) and picked up a coupon book for local restaurants and shops. (Before my trip, I also printed out several coupons from the city's tourism department's website, www.visitmammoth.com/coupons.)

Less expensive: Our first night in town, we used a 20%-off coupon for a large pizza at John's Pizza Works (3499 Main St.). The food was decent and the atmosphere festive, with TV football games and arcade machines seemingly on all sides. The coupon book also includes discounts for coffee shops, sandwich joints and a Thai restaurant. And who can say no to a dollar-off coupon for a Ben & Jerry's hot fudge sundae?

Even less expensive: Local merchants can also be a treasure-trove of money-saving tips. A fishing gear store manager recommended a couple of his favorite eateries: Salsa's (588 Old Mammoth Road), where tacos cost $1.75 each, and Hot Chicks Rotisserie (452 Old Mammoth Road), where a family of three can feast on a whole chicken with two side dishes for $18.95.

A ski shop owner suggested I scan the ads in the local newspapers for deals. With that, he opened the free weekly paper, the Sheet, and pointed out an ad for Whiskey Creek restaurant, where entrees top out around $27. But during a promotional period, the restaurant had entrees for $9.95. That night at Whiskey Creek, the family and I enjoyed a tasty down-home meal of meatloaf, salad and chicken strips in a relaxing upscale setting (cloth napkins and real silverware, not plastic forks and paper plates.) Total tab: just under $50 for three people.

Rock bottom: The supermarkets in town also get lots of skier and snowboarding business, judging by the number of people I saw in the resort parking lot munching on sandwiches and chips.

Equipment

Skiers and snowboarders have several options for saving when renting skis or snowboarding equipment.

The rental shop at the resort offers a standard ski rental package for $34 a day. But I found a coupon at the welcome center for 20% off a rental package at the Ski Renter, a small shop at California Highway 203 and Old Mammoth Road. With the coupon, I paid $20 a day for skis, boots and poles for me and $12 for the same package for Isabella.

The coupon book also includes discounts for several other shops around town, including bicycle rentals.

Lift tickets

No way around those steep lift ticket prices, right?

Almost right.

During the peak ski period -- Nov. 25 to April 20 -- lift tickets at Mammoth Mountain sell for $83 per day for adults, $62 for youths 13 to 18 years old, and $41 for seniors (65 years and older) and children. (That's a $4 increase per ticket from last year.)

Less expensive: You can shave off a few dollars -- up to 5% -- by buying your lift tickets online (www.mammothmountain.com) in advance or by purchasing multiple-day tickets or a season pass.

Even less expensive: Before Nov. 25 and after April 20, the rates drop to $69 for adults, $51 for youths, and $34 for seniors and children. So if the weather cooperates, you can ski early or late in the season and save a few bucks.

Weekday rates are usually lower than weekend. In January, Mammoth Mountain will offer tickets Mondays through Thursdays for $57 for adults, $43 for youth, and $28 for seniors and children. (Horizon Air will also offer midweek flights in January for $79 each way, about $20 cheaper than the usual fare.)

Rock bottom: Mammoth Mountain is, obviously, the big dog in town but another way to save money is to visit the quieter, less-crowded June Mountain, about 20 miles north of Mammoth. It offers daily lift tickets for weekends and weekdays for $64 for adults, $58 for young adults (19 to 23 years old), $48 for youths (13 to 18 years old), and $32 for children and senior citizens (65 and older). And college students can get a big break this year at June Mountain by paying $125 for a one-year pass. The only catch is that you have to prove you are taking at least 12 units of college courses in the current semester. (Pottery and wood-shop courses count.)

Other activities

On the slopes, my daughter was flying down the hill with the reckless abandon of a first-time skier after only an hour of lessons.

Convincing her to put away the skis was the hard part. Finding a fun alternative was easy.

Our lift tickets gave us free access to the new gondola that takes riders from the main lodge to the 11,053-foot peak. (If you don't have a lift ticket or a pass, a ride on the gondola sells for $21 for adults. Kids ride free with a paying adult.) At the Sierra Interpretive Center at the summit we admired the range of peaks to the west. We also watched in horror as daredevil skiers launched from the steepest slopes over the gnarliest moguls, the wind spraying gusts of snow in their faces.

Less expensive: While Tina relaxed at the condo, I took Isabella to the supermarket to buy a plastic sled for $16. (The cheapskate in me cringed when I later learned that I could get a similar sled at a hardware store in Lone Pine for $6.) Along the side of California 203, between Mammoth Lakes and the main lodge, we found several snow-covered hills, ideal spots for sledding. For nearly two hours, we slid down the hills, pummeled each other with snowballs and, basically, acted like kids playing hooky from school.

Rock bottom: Back at the base, we piled into the car and headed a few miles out of town to the Hot Creek Geological Site, near the Mammoth Yosemite Airport. (Take the Hot Creek Hatchery Road north and follow the signs.) At the end of a washboard road, we stopped at a paved parking lot and hiked along a walking path until we reached the creek. The steam and boiling water are the result of water seeping into a chamber of hot magma 3 miles beneath the Earth's surface.

Don't even think about swimming here. The unpredictable water temperatures have burned and even killed several swimmers over the years.

For my daughter, the creek was a weird -- but cool -- bubbling vat of river water. For me, it was a free and fascinating geology lesson. Her only complaint was the rotten egg smell that permeated the creek. "That's gross, Daddy," she protested.

As we headed out of town, having eaten well, enjoyed our fill of snow play and slept comfortably, we totaled up what we'd spent: about $700 for a family of three for three days, including gasoline. But we were not done yet. Our interest in Wild Willy's, the hot spring just west of the airport, had been piqued.

From U.S. 395, we turned north on Benton Crossing Road and after three cattle grade crossings, we turned right and continued along a dirt road until it ended at a dirt parking lot. From there we hiked along a wooden boardwalk to an open meadow, where hot spring water gurgled out of a fissure in the ground. The water trickled down to a 3-foot-deep pool -- about the size of a large hot tub -- that was lined with rocks and concrete.

We stripped down to our skivvies and climbed into the hot tub-sized pool, looking like throwbacks from Woodstock trying to commune with nature.

The magma-heated water drained the tension and aches from my muscles. A cool breeze rustled the short meadow grass. The only sound, besides our laughter, was the rippling of hot spring water.

More cheapskate fun. More priceless memories.

Martín is a Times staff writer.