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Mammoth Creek as you've never seen it before

January 14, 2011

Mammoth Creek

There’s a place not far from here where the wind blows quiet and clean, the creek sings softly under its winter blanket and the wide, gold roots of an old juniper shelter the perfect place to sit warm and dry, even in deepest winter.

It’s a sweet place, sometimes warm and calm, sometimes wild and furious. In the daytime, the sharp high country sun turns the white to indigo and that inexpressible aqua color seen only in deep depressions in the snow on a sunlit day.

At night, when the moon is out and bright, you can ski this place like a dream, gliding down the creek on whisper-soft tracks, the moon leading you on. It’s hard, then, to turn around and head home, even as the winter night bites cold and icy, calling you to a warmer place.

To your right, across the creek, the mountains hold the sky up. In front of you, other mountains cradle Long Valley in its winter daze. To your left, the sage and Jeffrey pines break the deep snow, green and gold against the blue. Behind you, Mammoth never sleeps.

It’s a remarkable place, really, made even more so because this section of Mammoth Creek is only minutes from town but is still wholly and fully wild, even as it’s accessible during a one hour lunch break.

And, because, for some reason, almost no one else seems to head out there, preferring instead the pitted and post-holed Mammoth Lakes Trail system route that winds its way far above the creek, rather than following the creek, as this route does.

Getting there

It’s a couple hundred yards from Vons grocery store south on Old Mammoth Road to the Mammoth Creek Park parking area, just to the north of Mammoth Creek.

Park there and grab skis, dog(s), and gear and climb up onto the snow, heading south a hundred yards to the creek.

Follow the tracks to a pedestrian underpass under Old Mammoth Road. The tunnel, while appreciated, is also often icy inside. Big snow storms like the most recent ones can create drifts high enough to require taking off your skis to climb down.

Go through the tunnel carefully and climb up the other side, Mammoth Creek burbling just to your right.
Follow the tracks as they bypass the picnic areas and rest rooms, heading east to open country.

In about a quarter mile from the paved road, the signed Mammoth Lakes Trail system route heads north, in all its well traveled glory.

Don’t.

Instead, break away to the south, heading down the old gravel road that parallels Mammoth Creek, now buried under four feet of snow.

You might be the first tracks out there, but don’t worry. The route is safe enough for a child and impossible to get lost on.

Just continue skiing slowly downhill on the old road, following the creek.

The grade is mild and easy, no big thrills if you seek adrenaline over all else.

But within seconds of leaving the trail system and joining the creek, the true beauty of the place hits home.

It’s quiet. It’s blue and white, cream and gold. It’s the silver aspens that shimmer against the indigo sky, the creek that shifts and murmurs just minutes from your skis, the wind-whipped drifts across the creek that are 20 and 30 feet high.
It’s the rich Sienna gold-brown of Jeffrey pine bark against the white and blue, the warm deep smell of vanilla bark on a warm winter day.

It’s a juniper, somewhere you will have to discover on your own, that cradles a warm and fragrant place to sit and read or dream, complete with a flat, warm rock, facing south to the winter sun. The snow never falls in this spot, and if it does, it melts, a rare and precious place indeed.

Continue skiing, following the creek as far as you wish on an easy descent heading toward the Owens River, where the creek eventually ends.

But not today.

Turn around when you wish and retrace your steps. It’s four miles to U.S. 395, where you can turn around and retrace your tracks, or the ski can be as short as you have time for.

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