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Can You Day Trip from San Diego to Mammoth?

2016-01-09 19 min read Snow Updates marco

So, maybe 2015 was not your year. Maybe everything went wrong in your personal and professional life. Maybe there have been long lasting relationships falling apart, or greedy and incompetent advisers. Maybe you have been in a funk for months, thinking dangerously frequently about that suicide scene in your upcoming novel with no suicide scene anywhere in it.

Fret not, a new year is here, a new leaf is turned, and a new adventure awaits. This time, to find the answer to the age old questions: Is a day trip from San Diego to Mammoth possible, advisable, worth it?

You cannot even believe how much just a stupid trip on a hunch can do for you. Set your mind, close the shutters of your brain, and just do it. Maybe it’s fun, maybe it isn’t (hint: IT IS!!), but you are for certain going to get out of your discomfort zone.

First, logistics: the trip from San Diego to Mammoth Lakes is about 400 miles, depending on where you start in San Diego (395 miles for me, to be precise). You can cover that with no traffic in about 6.5 hours, according to Google. To be at the lifts at opening hour, 8:30a, you’d have to leave at 2a. To leave at 8a means to get there at 2:30p, which is when the lifts are about to close. So you have to leave way too early for sanity.

On the flip side, leaving when the lifts close at 4p is perfectly fine for an arrival in San Diego. You leave at 4p and you’d be back – best case – at 10:30p. Even a morning person like me is perfectly fine with that.

Now the big problem: Los Angeles. As much as San Diego is lovely, leaving it usually and in this case means having to cross the LA basin. Any time of the year and any time of day and night, that can mean massive congestion, traffic accident road closures, and crazy drivers. You really want to time your trip to make it possible to have a relatively safe transit.

In the morning, that’s not much of a problem. It takes about 2 hours to get to the worst of LA, which means you have to leave well before 5a to make it through (7a is when the worst of rush hour traffic starts). If you drive on a weekend, that’s less of a concern, but why would you time a day trip on a weekend? Given that 5a lands you in Mammoth Lakes, CA at around 11:30a, it’s probably already too late for a day trip. Unless you are happy with a four hour boarding day, which I am not.

In the evening, you are lucky again. If you leave at 4p, you’d be in LA around 8p, which is when the worst of rush hour traffic starts to wind down. Caution on Friday nights, when the party people crowd the streets!

OK, so it’s possible, technically. Set the alarm for 4a with the car fully packed, bring a Thermos with hot coffee (or tea, or cocoa, or chicken soup for all I care), and drive. Board until your pants are soggy and your sinuses are clogged with the powder spray. Drive back home, exchanging stories about whose stunt was most epic and whose spill most abominable. Stop for dinner on the way and make a grand entrance in San Diego, shouting for all to hear (and not to care), “IT IS POSSIBLE!”

What actually happened?

I had planned the trip for a while. El Nino was rushing storm after storm and there was no way I was going to get into the ocean in cold, stormy, dirty water. So I would have to sit out a whole week or more. That’s good for planning, because I had plenty time to get organized.

Planning consisted mostly of two things: ensuring I had everything required, and packing. “Everything required,” in this case, means lift tickets and tire chains. Strictly speaking, you don’t need tire chains, but you may end up in Bishop with a highway closure and no chains for your tires in sight. That’s not fun, especially because then you have no other option but to turn around and pray there are no chains required in Big Bear.

Chains are easily bought, even in San Diego, on Amazon. That place is getting really smart about cars and found the one hook that nobody else has: automatic check that the object (here, tire chains) works for your car. Amazon already knew my model, because I had bought other gear for the Subie, so I was only suggested chains that would work, and when I clicked on one I liked, it double-checked it would fit my tires. I ended up paying $36 for a pair of chains, which compares to $100 on the highway. You do the math.

Tickets were an easy find, since I have a Mountain Collective Pass again. But you can also buy them online for a discount on the Mammoth Mountain web site. More on the Pass later.

Next you pack the gear. Since it’s a day trip, you don’t have to pack any overnight gear. No toiletries, no computers. Just the board, the boots, and most importantly the helmet. Since it’s a day trip, you’ll also not pack the clothes and other gear: you just wear them on the drive. That makes for a sweaty car, but I was alone on this trip and really didn’t care. Make sure you don’t forget the jacket, since that’s the only thing you are not actually wearing in the car.

I set the alarm for 4a, because that’s all I thought I could manage. But I always get so excited when I go boarding, what do you know, I was wide awake at 2a. I got everything together, took my time, and got out around 3a.

The drive was horrific. The second of the El Niño storms had decided to dump all its might right on my car, and from Pacific Beach to Los Angeles there was an uninterrupted sequence of buckets dumped on me. It felt like I was a wandering forest fire and the Fire Department was trying to squelch me.

Traffic was not bad at all, but what do you expect at 5a. It was surprisingly busy around 5:30, when I got to San Bernardino, which gives you an idea at what time Angelenos have to wake up to survive their city’s traffic. Of course, I drove the 215 at the Eastern outskirts of the basin, despite the fact it’s only two lanes per side in large sections, which makes for very variable conditions.

After the merge with the 15, the long uphill starts. It was cold enough that it started sleeting: the big clumps falling from the sky were clearly not rain, but there was no trace of them as soon as they hit the road surface. That causes the worst of Southern California driving conditions: the Big Mash Up.

You have to know that there are three types of SoCal drivers in bad weather (and anything more than a drizzle is bad weather, here).

  1. The people that behave like the entire road surface just turned into a giant air hockey rink and slow down to an absolute crawl
  2. The people that realize road conditions are challenging and slow down moderately
  3. The people that behave like their big wheel tires, traction control, ABS, 4WD, or bobbing head figurine of Saint Christopher inure them from road hazards and drive as if it’s a sunny October afternoon – that is, at 90mph

It wouldn’t be much of an issue if the three types could agree to disagree on separate lanes. Instead, you’ll find type 1 (the crawlers) on any lane, because it’s their g*****n right as Americans to get in other people’s way. The type 3s (racers) react in the most logical way (sarcasm) and start weaving between lanes like it’s NASCAR.

Needless to say, I was very, very happy when we got to the top of the hills/mountains and the precipitation ended. It’s good that most of the drive is in a desert, at least you don’t have to worry about precipitation much of the time. (Winds are more frequently cause for road closures.)

You get off the freeway in Victorville, where you get onto US 395. That place is a major challenge any day, mostly because large stretches are one lane per side, but it’s a preferred route for cross-continent truck shipping (precisely because of the dry drive). It is also relatively uneven in stretches, so that you frequently find yourself stuck with 100 cars behind a giant big rig crawling up a mountain at 30 mph. Also, they have this weird setup for the first miles where the highway is crossed every few miles and there are traffic lights. That would be a perfect place to put passing lanes, but no! You are stuck behind the big rig that accelerates from 0 to 50 in a week.

Once you leave the area, the highway is still two lanes per side, but traffic is a trickle. Here, there are stretches long enough to actually pass a big rig, and occasionally you find a passing lane. I wish they’d advertise them like they do on US 50 (where they tell you the next one is 10 miles away), it might avoid a few dangerous attempts to overtake.

Eventually, a big plain with a huge red mountain shows up. Right by it, a desolate town that looks like it was abandoned 30 or 50 or 200 years ago. Tiny little shacks that must have housed humans at some point are decaying. The shell of what looks like a restaurant tells you there must have been a community here.

The mountain, aptly named and beautiful in a sunset Red Mountain, is the mid-point of the trip as far as miles are concerned. When you are not on a day trip, you can stop at nearby Johannesburg or Randsburg, the latter billed as a Wild West Mining Town with an old-style soda fountain that impresses hundreds of bikers on a fall afternoon (but thoroughly failed to impress my company when we stopped there, years ago).

After that, things get more interesting. The landscape becomes fascinating, the drive undulated. You reach a big plain where the 395 merges with the 14 from Los Angeles. Here, the highway becomes four separated lanes most of the way and driving is mighty fine. You also pass the passable town of Ridgecrest to your right, where you can stop for anything. The enormous China Lake Naval Weapons Station fills up most of the basin, anchored in Ridgecrest. If I am not mistaken, that’s where the space shuttle landed.

From now on, you are in the Eastern Sierras. The mountains rise up to your left and right the entire way. To your right, volcanic landscapes with lava flows straight out of Hawaii. To your left, the Sierras rise sharply from the valley floor like an unbroken chain of shark jaws. It is a beautiful drive on a perfectly flat uphill.

Fortunately, after Ridgecrest things are not desolate. Unfortunately, every town has decided to overdo speed limits, and you find yourself crawling at 25 mph on a four lane highway like it’s a school zone. I’ve seen people break the speed limit, but I have a sense the cities on the route might derive some pleasure from the traffic fine revenue, so I always stick to posted limits, no matter how unreasonable.

The highlight of the drive at this point is first Lone Pine, where on a good day you’ll have the company of Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the Lower 49 (sorry, Colorado!). It’s quite impressive, as sharp as it rises from the valley floor.

After that, Bishop. Bishop is a hidden gem of sorts. It is by far the largest city between the Los Angeles and Reno areas, a stretch of over 500 miles. It is still small, with only 3000-odd people living in it. But it has enormous potential as a leisure capital: it is close to world-class skiing in Mammoth, to amazing mountain climbing and hiking trails, and of course to Yosemite in the summer, to Mono Lake, to hot springs. I could see myself living there, where the Starbucks is next door to the gun and ammo store and the most advertised business is Erik Schat’s Bakery, Home of the Original Sheepherder Bread® (don’t ask me what it is, I never stopped there and always wanted). It is also home to the VONS with the cheapest gas in the valley, with the discount. I stopped to fill up, although the Subie said there was enough gas for the remainder of the drive.

Bishop is at the Northern end of Owens Valley, a long and flat valley that is volcanic in origin (hence the hot springs everywhere). After the town, you soon start ascending a ridge that gets you into the next valley, Long Valley. Here is where the police car was stopped to make us put on chains.

Mind you, it wasn’t like on the 50, where police simply stop you and tell you to put on chains. They let you drive on, and most people do. But I had been in Mammoth Lakes the city on a regular day, and it wasn’t a fun drive. I’d rather put on the chains now than find myself on the freeway, suddenly losing traction with no shoulder to stop on to put on chains.

The chain-up spot, of course, was several miles downhill from where you needed chains, so I had to endure people zooming past me at 80mph while I was crawling up at 40. When the ice then hit, though, I felt really happy. The chains from Amazon worked just fine – they were not easy to put on without getting dirty, but all in all easy to put on and sturdy.

It took me about 40 minutes to cover 20 minutes worth of roadway. But then I was in Mammoth Lakes by 9:45a and perfectly happy. I only stopped once, because the tire pressure gauge on the Subie told me the tires were flat, but they weren’t. (Incidentally, it’s amazing how many gas stations don’t feel the need to keep their gas and water pumps in working condition. I made it a rule to only buy gas after I check that they work).

I put on the boots, the jacket, and the helmet. Piped some MP3s through the quietspeakers (they are not loud, I want to be able to hear what’s going on, and to chat with people on the mountain). Went to the ticket counter.

The line was not bad at all. A bored girl told me everything was fine, after checking the computer, and sent me on to the mountain. Up the gondola (I didn’t venture the drive to Main Lodge). Canyon Lodge. Lift gate. No dice. The thing said my ticket was invalid.

A friendly and helpful (more than I deserved) lift operator came over and told me to remove my old ticket. I said I only had one ticket. He checked it told me I had to get a new pass. I told him the girl at the line down at the Village told me this one was fine. He said they didn’t know what they were talking about and offered me one free ride, but I would have the same problem every time I hit a lift gate. Grumble.

I was cranky. I realized after the fact I could have spent the entire day on the upper mountain without a single encounter with a lift gate, but I knew I wanted to run down Dry Creek, which goes all the way to Mill’s. So I made a big stink (sorry!) and went to the ticket counter. A poor girl there had to deal with this fuming moron, but managed to give me my replacement pass in under a minute.

Which gets me to a meta-point: Mammoth Mountain needs to deal with their Mountain Collective membership, or the Mountain Collective with Mammoth. They seem not to like each other. To this day, you cannot load extra days on your pass online. You have to show up at the ticket counter. Nominally, that’s because they want to verify it’s you that buys the ticket with the 50% discount, and not some random person with your pass. But they don’t do the same thing with the season passes they have, and the logic is identical. You could give your season pass to someone else, and the resort would not be any the wiser than in the case of Mountain Collective.

As soon as I got off Canyon Express, though, my mood changed. There were large expanses of fluffy powder everywhere. A dump of more than a foot the day before blanketed the entire place. The Canyon lift line alone looked like there had been barely ten people on it, with each single track clearly visible on its own. I was in heaven!

First day of the season, I am always gingerly. I picked a blue (Dry Creek) for the first run and had the time of my life. That is, until some idiot at the bottom of the run, who had gotten stuck in the powder and crawled out of it, decided it was a great idea to prevent others from making it through. Done with the day, he just stepped in my way as I had yelled “Coming through!” for the third time. I may have wished him less than the best of days as I landed in the powder.

But who cares? At the bottom, Stump Alley boasted an almost infinite line. It was quite spectacular, really, considering that Gold Rush on the other side was virtually empty. I decided I didn’t want to wait in line, despite the fact that Stump Alley is the only way to get to Main Lodge, where all the good runs are. So I thought.

I decided to go back and over to Eagle Lodge. I love the trees there, and they would be spectacular today. But no such luck: the mountain there is too flat for powder trees, and I ended up barely getting my feet wet and realize over and over again I had to go back on the run, lest I get stuck.

Back at Canyon, I wondered what to do next. I had already run most of the place and wanted to go to the top, but the only way to get there was one of the freaky slow lifts. If you only have one day to snowboard, you don’t want to be stuck on a lift that crawls up a mountain, no matter how wonderful the terrain it unlocks!

But wait! I saw an alternative! I could go from Canyon or Gold Rush to High Five, and from there take the cat track to McCoy Station! Of course, Mammoth old-timers know that, but to me (and the four people that asked me about it) it was news.

Once on that side, I had everything I wanted in life. I took Face Lift a few times, but preferred the runs on High Five (the creek that runs to its right, Dry Creek, is just enormous fun – except when skiers decide to stop in the middle of the narrow part and then drop in without looking uphill. Which is always.

Then it was time for the piece de resistance: Chair 23. I could have gone for the gondola, but I’ve already taken the Top of the Sierras picture several times, and the line was atrocious (as usual). Chair 23 was empty!

I had never had good snow off Chair 23, so it was always a bit difficult and dangerous. Any turn could be the last turn of the day. But on a day like this, with hero snow everywhere?

It was pure heaven. I went up the chair and down the face over and over again, never repeating my tracks, never tempted to try the backside. I knew if I did that it would take me forever to get back to this chair, and I was just so giddy with snow pleasure! Even the moguls were fun to maneuver, and by the fourth or fifth try, I had started turning to the beat of the music – which made for some spectacular spills when Likke Li decided it was time for a left turn, but the mountain had different ideas.

I was running on no fuel. Literally. I had had a cup of coffee before leaving and nothing but water on the drive. I hadn’t stopped for food, not eaten any of the protein bars I had with me. I just wanted to get as much snow in as I could. It started getting darker. I didn’t have much time left.

I took the last ride up Chair 23, sad I had to leave, wishing I had more time. Then I barrelled down like a mad banshee and retraced my steps to Canyon Lodge. The gondola attendant said, “You look like you had fun!” I replied with the brightest grin I must have ever had in my life, “You have no idea!”

Back to the car. I thought I’d stop to get something to eat or some coffee, but I wanted to leave before the roads would ice over. The chains were still on, but the roads looked clear. I drove off, realizing by Main Street that there was no risk, so I stopped and got them off. It was even easier than putting them on.

I drove. Bishop. Stopped at the Starbucks by the Gun & Ammo store. Nice people there. Giant coffee and two pastries. Back in the car. Drive back with no traffic. I am strangely not tired, not even after waking up at 2a and having only had two pastries to eat all day.

In Victorville, Google told me there was an accident on the 15 and routed me to the East. That makes no sense, since if there was an accident on the 15, I would have gone through it whether I got on the 395 onramp or the position farther to the East. Something was off.

The weather was great, though traffic was bad. I drove up the mountains again, then down. Google had another one of its strange hickups and sent me on the old US 66 (the famous one). I was at first not particularly annoyed, despite seeing traffic high above me flowing at normal speed while I was much slower. Then, though, I noticed a very odd pattern of cars parked by the highway with a single occupant inside. I have no idea what that was all about, but it looked seedy and dangerous.

Back to the freeway. Traffic everywhere, but nothing serious. Just the usual slowdowns. I recall from my college years that we had a professor that used a camera to do some mathematical modeling of traffic jams on the local freeway. His conclusion was that most traffic slowdowns there were not cause by “congestion,” but by drivers that decide they need to change lanes, do so unsafely, and thus force the person in whose way they get to suddenly break. Then the slowdown becomes like a wave that moves backwards, slowing down everyone.

The Subie was a champ. Despite having driven from Bishop to Mammoth Lakes and then all the way back, there was enough gas in the tank to make it through. I still stopped because I didn’t want to buy gas the next day, and because I could use a break.

163, 52, 5, home. The cat acted like she had been left alone for two weeks. I unloaded the car, sat down, and of course watched my favorite episode of Frasier, The Ski Lodge. I was in the mood for more mountain.

TL;DR: It is possible to do a snowboarding day trip to Mammoth from San Diego. It is also incredible fun!!!