There are places on our planet so stunning it can be difficult to discern whether what you’re seeing is real or imaginary. Landscapes so grand you can’t help but feel beset by Mother Nature’s magnificence. It’s here where colossal formations of stone, over time too great for any of us to truly comprehend, have been whittled into jagged peaks blanketed with mounds of white powder extending into the sky. Below, the freshly melted snow trickles down the mountainside and into the forested valleys where crystal clear lakes and thick pine trees drink it in creating this divine backdrop known as Mammoth Lakes.
Situated due east of San Francisco, on the California side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Mammoth Lakes is home to Mammoth Mountain, a popular winter resort and playground known for its copious amounts of snow, diverse array of outdoor activities, cozy lodging and restaurants. But for exactly 10 days each summer this sleepy mountain resort is awoken by a different sort of outdoor enthusiast—the two-wheeled kind for the annual Mammoth Motocross event.
When we travel to Mammoth we bring every piece of sporting equipment we can fit in our little Sprinter van.
Mammoth Motocross is one of the oldest continuously run races in America. It started way back in 1968 and has run every summer since. Over the years dirt bike racing’s elite, including James Stewart, Ricky Carmichael and Jeremy McGrath, to name a few, have bashed handlebars around its distinctive course carved from densely forested hillside. The track’s stomach-jolting layout, majestic panoramas and relaxed mountain atmosphere have made this event a sought after destination for any motorcycle riding enthusiast.
The Road to Mammoth
Wishing to receive the full Mammoth experience, myself and Motorcycle USA’s Digital Media Producer, Ray Gauger, packed our van with as much sporting equipment as we could fit without hooking up a trailer. We began by carefully wedging four affordable street legal dual-sports from Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki and Yamaha. Next we hung our mountain bikes and fishing poles, slid our freshly waxed snowboards in, and packed our bags with more clothes and shoes then your girlfriend ever could, before setting off north toward the Sierra Nevadas for a few days of adventure. Meeting us in Mammoth would be our industry friend Alec Dare and test rider Frankie Garcia, who was competing in the weekend’s races with our Kawasaki KX450F project bike.
Most good motorcycling exploits begin as road trips and as such we felt compelled to do a little exploration along the way. While the allure of nearby Death Valley was in the back of our minds considering that the average summertime temperature is in the mid-110s we thought it might be ‘cooler’ to check out something else. And that something else was the Lone Pine Film History Museum.
If you’re into movies you should check out the Lone Pine Film Museum off Highway 395 in Lone Pine, California.
Situated off Highway 395, the mostly two-lane road artery that runs north-south connecting rural California, Lone Pine is a classic frontier town. It looks like something out of a classic John Wayne western flick. As we came to learn after venturing inside the town’s museum, the area looks familiar because it actually was the film site of countless movies and commercials were filmed.
The reason Hollywood fell in love with this town was due to its Wild, Wild West topography including the nearby Alabama Hills, as well as its close relative proximity to Los Angeles. Inside there were many relics either donated or left behind from over a century of film making. All sorts of memorabilia from cars and wagon-wheel buggies, to costumes and props galore are on display. Perhaps our favorite was the underground monster from ‘90s sci-fi flick Tremors. I loved that movie growing up and now I was standing next to the giant latex monster only a few miles from where the film was actually shot. After filling our brains with as much Movie History 101 we could handle we were back on the road.
We pulled into town just as the sun was beginning to set over the rugged snow capped mountains to the west. After hunting down our fantastic digs for the next few days—a reasonably priced rental cabin/condo situated near the racetrack and right across the beautiful Snow Creek Golf Course. We loaded the fireplace with timber, lit a fire and called it an early night in anticipation of the next few days of non-stop entertainment.
Only at Mammoth can you snowboard in early June! Above, snow bunnies attack the slopes while we enjoy the view.
Thursday – Snow Bunnies and Dual-Sport Rally Racing
Practice for the weekend’s races began on Thursday and while Frankie pounded out laps around the motocross track, Ray and I did what most good Mammoth visitors would do—we shredded the pow. Considering how much snow fell during winter months, Mammoth had an astounding amount of snow coverage—even in June! Three chair lifts plus the Panorama Gondola—which takes you all the way to Mammoth’s 11,053-foot summit—were running allowing us to carve a decent amount of the mountain.
Daytime temperatures can easily reach 90 degrees in town so for optimum summer skiing or snowboarding it’s recommended to hit the slopes early before the snow turns into slush when the strong midday sun hits. Even so, it was so warm by mid-morning we were wondering if we should have ditched our sweatshirts like the bikini-clad snow bunnies we were sharing the mountain with. After cutting a handful of runs we headed back to our cabin had some lunch and waited for Frankie and Alec to return from the track so we could all log some dual-sport miles.
Once they arrived we picked bikes and headed out on the road. Originally I had a route planned but the curse of technology struck when I powered-on my Garmin GPS and saw that the map was locked and unable to be accessed meaning that we’d have to resort to manual navigation. Fortunately, there just so happened to be a Visitor Center along the road so we pulled inside and got a map of the area.
With the plethora of crisscrossing trails and roads selecting a trail to ride can be more difficult than it looks but we settled on one that we could pickup right from the Visitor Center. Within minutes the pavement gave way to a dusty but fun tree-lined fire road that we were speeding down reminiscent of little kids with their first dirt bike.
Being the map savvy riders we are after taking a few wrong turns and riding in a gigantic circle we eventually pulled over to ask some hikers for directions. As Ray got the info I was playing around on the CRF230L. And if you know me, you know that I absolutely love doing wheelies. Whether it’s a dirt bike, ATV, cruiser, or sportbike I’ll wheelie it and if I can’t I’ll at least give it a good shot. So now it was the CRF’s turn.
While the rest of the guys tried to figure out which direction we were going, I leaned back, pinned the throttle and simultaneously dropped the clutch. In an instant I was straight up and down like a rocket preparing to take flight. The speed at which the front wheel shot into the air had caught me off guard and I wasn’t covering the rear brake pedal so within a second I was on my head with the bike ghost riding away from me. As I sat there laying on the dirt the boys started laughing hysterically while the hiker posse stared at me with jaws dropped open as if they had just witnessed the craziest crash ever.
With our mental compasses loosely set we kept motoring across the trail network. Every few miles the topography of the trail would change a bit, varying from the aforementioned thick tree-lined fire road to narrow sand trails cut inside brush fields, and even some mountain bike-style single track. It was surprising how easily each of these bikes maneuvered through the variety of terrain we encountered as long as you keep the throttle wrapped open and your body weight more toward the rear of the bike.
A short while later we had found another fire road that led us directly toward the mountains. The road twisted back and forth making me think that we were racing Colorado’s Pikes Peak Hill Climb. As we climbed into the elevation we saw more and more snow on the side of the road. Soon enough we were actually riding through it. It’s funny how the white stuff has a mischievous effect on people. Moments later we were romping around in it pitching our bikes sideways or throwing up snow roost as if we had never ridden in snow in our entire lives…
Heed-Grylls takes a much needed water break at one of the many snow-fed moutain creeks around Mammoth Mountain.
With daylight quickly running out we kept on pushing onward anxious to see if we’d run into a bear or some other sort of wildlife that would make for an epic tale. Unfortunately we didn’t see anything aside from the occasional deer, hawk, and rogue camper. A few miles later the road ended—closed due to a slew of downed trees and deep piles of snow.
Adjacent to the road there was a shallow creek so we stopped there for a break and to take in the scenery. The diversity of the landscape here is astonishing. On one side the ground was completely covered in snow maybe six to 12-inches deep in some spots. Along the creek thick grass and green moss grew liberally. In contrast on the opposite side the composition of the soil is like a fine volcanic sand and perfect for throwing up in the air with the spinning back tire. Having failed to bring any water bottles we sipped ice cold water from the stream before calling it another day and heading back home.
Friday – Cycling Sans Engines and a Visit to the Boiling Hot Springs
Racing kicked off Friday with the Open classes and FMF 2-stroke challenge. So while Frankie bashed bars around the track the rest of us designed to try downhill mountain biking. We rented brand-new $5000 full-suspension downhill mountain bikes courtesy of Footloose Sports and headed back to the mountain for an few hours of cycling sans engines.
Since there was so much snow still sitting on the mountain a good chuck of the trail network including most of the really steep double black diamond runs were inaccessible meaning we’d have to pedal down less intimidating trails. Even though the trails weren’t quite as gnarly as we had anticipated they were still challenging enough to get our blood pumping.
(left) Waheed and Alec analyze the map before heading off into the wilderness. (Right) Local sporting goods store, Footloose Sports rented us these awesome downhill mountain bikes for a reasonable price.
After pedaling a short ways uphill the trail gradually flattened before shooting downhill but it wasn’t until we reached the ‘Shotgun’ black diamond run before the fun started. Here the narrow pathway cut back and forth between trees and around boulders. Keeping your momentum up and balancing your body weight was the name of the game as we sped downhill hopping over rocks and stumps. I was surprised how well the suspension and disc brakes worked on these pedal bikes with them actually feeling akin to full-on moto bikes. Shotgun ended up being so entertaining that we kept hitting it over and over until the shuttle bus shut down at 5 p.m.
Although our muscles weren’t sore yet we knew that they would be tomorrow so we began searching with our phones for a hot tub to soak our old bones in. As usual Ray and his beloved iPhone was the first to track one down. We hurried back to our cabin, hopped on our dual-sports and raced over to Hot Creek.
Located just south of town, a few miles from Mammoth’s airport, Hot Creek is a chain of natural geothermal hot springs. Up until a few years ago the springs were actually open for bathing but now the water temperature has become so unstable that they have been closed and physically fenced off from the public.
Still, being the pioneers we are, we hopped over the fence anxious to find out for ourselves if the springs were swimmable or if big brother was trying to buzz kill us. A narrow fast moving creek fed the steaming pools of water that looked like gigantic boiling grottos. Walking toward the creeks edge the smell of sulfur filled the air. I dipped my hand into the water and it felt cool in spots and warm in others. There was also an incredible amount of small fish swimming about which proves how thriving the ecosystem is here.
A few feet from the water’s edge there was a small bubbling water hole in the ground. I touched the water and it was scalding hot, yahoo! I strolled over to another stagnant pool of water and the temperature had to be in excess of 110 degrees—way too hot to safely swim in thus ending my notion of taking a relaxing dip. With muscles beginning to ache and bellies rumbling we called it a day.
Saturday – Ghost Town Adventure
Maybe it’s the chiseled scenery or the crisp morning air but you can’t help but feel good and excited to get out of bed when you wake up in Mammoth. Even for a self-confessed sleepaholic it’s hard to sleep-in much past sunrise. Saturday’s on-track racing activities were comprised of the 250F classes so while Frankie raced the rest of us went on a touring ride to the deserted ghost town of Bodie.
Despite the relatively small engine sizes of the bikes we were riding (under 250cc) these machines had enough beans to cruise at 65 mph as we headed north on Highway 395. Both the Kawasaki and Yamaha engines benefit from liquid-cooling as compared to the air-cooled motors used in the Honda and Suzuki, so they were capable of nearly 100 mph top gear pinned and heading down a hill fully tucked.
We rode as a procession with each rider neatly tucked in behind the next. Either myself or Ray would lead aboard our liquid-cooled bikes while Alec with his air-cooled CRF stuck within inches of our rear fender making full use of the draft. Even though these bikes won’t impress you with their outright power or speed they are still plenty fun to ride this way as you’ve got to keep the throttle pegged, your body tucked, and make sure to use the draft as efficiently as possible to maximize and maintain your speed as a group. It felt akin to competitive road push bike ride but without as much sweat and leg straining.
Approaching the city of Lee Vining you could see the reflection of the sky on the glass smooth water of Mono Lake. It is said that this lake is one of the oldest in North America having been formed in excess of 760,000 years ago. Mono Lake is unique in the fact that the water is almost three times more salty than ocean water and too saline for fish to live in.
(Left) Dual-sporting across the Sierra Nevadas is one of the best motorcycling experiences you can have. (Center) With all the gambling, boozing, and prostitution that was alleged to have gone down in Bodie they should have built more churches.
As we sped down the highway we saw an adjacent dirt road and pulled off to get a closer look at the water. This in essence is the beauty of street-legal dual-sports. They are the Hummers of the two-wheeled world ready, willing and able to go virtually anywhere your eyeballs point. We rolled down to the water’s edge where strange puzzle piece formations of white rock jut up from the water. Above armies of seagulls float through the sky while modest sized mountains of Nevada loom in the background creating a captivating view.
The Bodie ghost town is extremely well preserved and gives us an insight of what it was like to live over a century ago.
Anxious to visit a real life ghost town we pressed onward at the controls of our motorcycles. A few miles later we steered east on Highway 167 before making a left onto Cottonwood Canyon road. From here on the road morphed from pavement to washboard-style rock but with the forgiving suspension action of our bikes a 60 mph cruising speed remained unaffected.
Out of nowhere a chill ran up my spine as we motored across this deserted trail which appeared eerily similar to the one in the ‘The Hills Have Eyes’ horror flick. But a stab of the throttle and a little body english and all of a sudden I’m power sliding around the bend and my momentarily trepidation is squashed by excitement. A few miles later we’re greeted by a pair of friendly Park Rangers. We pay our nominal entry fee and proceed into town.
The town cemetery welcomes you to the left as you roll inside. The landscape is littered with light green brush but toward the middle of the town there is green grass which is surprising considering the arid climate. The rest of the landscape is relatively barren and devoid of any trees. To the right more than 100 buildings still stand after a fire destroyed all but roughly 10% of the town in 1932.
Bodie has fascinating history. It’s said that the town was founded by Waterman S. Bodey after he unearthed gold here. Later on the mine was purchased by the Standard Company and within a few years the population jumped from a few dozen to nearly 10,000 at its peak in 1880. In addition to mining precious metals Bodie was known for its illicit entertainment with a collection of bars, brothels, gambling halls, gun stores and all the associated thugs, bank robbers and hooligans that sort of business attracts. In a way it was like an early Las Vegas!
Over the course of its mining days more than 1.5 million ounces of gold were excavated from the earth here. At today’s gold price it would be valued in excess of 1.8 billion dollars! But by the turn of the century its valuable resources had been exhausted and the population rapidly declined and by 1940 only a few people remained. In the years since, it’s become a California State Park and for a modest fee you too can explore this old western outpost.
As we strolled around town I’m in awe of how well preserved many of the buildings are. The majority of the structures are built from wood that has endured time well. All of the windows were also intact though I suspect that they’ve been replaced. Park Rangers claim that the interior of the buildings remain the same as when the people left town and it was neat to see a dusty old pool table and bar in a former hotel. Some of the buildings, like the church and general store, you can actually walk inside while other buildings are completely sealed. Makes you wonder if they are sealed for a reason…
Monster Energy drink hosted a party Saturday night at Hyde Lounge at Mammoth. It was more fun that it looked too.
After moseying around for a while it was time to hit the road. Alec and Ray were the first ones to head back to the parking lot while I stayed back for a minute when one particular building caught my eye. I peered inside the small rectangular window and saw what looked like a kitchen only the roof was really low. Like midget-style low. Inside there were a bunch of smashed objects, glass, etc. I tried to peek in another window but this one was completely blacked out. Just as I turned around and started walking toward the parking lot I heard someone say “Adam…” I looked around for Ray or Alec thinking they were trying to spook me but there was no one around. To say I was just a little startled as I trotted back to the parking lot would be an understatement.
Despite the fuel sipping 60-plus miles-per-gallon efficiency of our dual-sports, the limited capacity fuel tanks caused some concern as we pulled back out on the dirt road. Moments later the low fuel light illuminated on the WR250F signifying Bingo Fuel status. Correspondingly I slowed down my pace in order to maximize fuel efficiently until we refueled in Lee Vining. Thankfully we made it back and after topping off our bikes with gas and our tummies with good old’ fashioned barbeque at Bodie Mike’s Barbeque we were back to NASCAR-style drafting all the way back to Mammoth.
Later on that evening there was a podium ceremony for Friday and Saturday’s dirt bike races inside the Mammoth Village area. In spite of taking multiple holeshots, our man Frankie wasn’t able to seal the deal recording a best finish of 17th in Friday’s Open Jr. (novice) main. The podium presentation was followed by an invitational mini-bike race hosted by Transworld Motocross in which three-rider teams competed on Kawasaki KLX110s around a course complete with small dirt jumps right into the Village. Afterwards Monster Energy hosted a party at Hyde Lounge that we went on way into the wee morning hours.
Sunday – Fishing by the Creek and A Hole in the Earth
With our fishing poles gathering dust in our van since we arrived I decided to try and catch dinner Sunday while Frankie had his hands full with his last chance to pull off dirt bike racing glory. After purchasing a one-day temporary sport fishing license I stopped by the bait and tackle store to get a brand-new lure in anticipation of snagging some fresh trout.
(Left) Waheed tests out his new lure at Mammoth Creek. (Center) Our first-ever summertime Mammoth was so much fun we didn’t want to leave. If you’re looking for the perfect vacation retreat we highly recommend a visit to Mammoth Lakes. (Right) Fissure crack in the earth just off Minaret Road in Mammoth.
One of the coolest things about Mammoth is the multitude and close proximity of fishing spots. And it just so happened that our Snow Creek rental condo was literally 500 feet from Mammoth Creek—a popular locals-only fishing spot. Given how fast snow was melting the creek was running strong since we arrived Wednesday. In spite of this locals claimed it was still possible to yank some trout out from the water. So for the next hour I cast, and then waited, then cast, and then waited—well, you get the idea…
I’d like to say that after a solid 30-minute angling session I actually got a bite, but, I didn’t. So I prematurely gave up eager to do some more dual-sporting. Hey, it’s just another excuse to eat some fabulous pizza from our favorite Mammoth restaurant—Perry’s Italian Café.
Having already tackled a sizeable touring mission on Saturday we wished to stay a little bit closer to home base this time so we decided to run up Minaret Road and check out the giant earthquake fault. A big sign points the way as you climb the road so you can’t miss it.
Basically the fault is a humongous crack in the earth that is in excess of 500 feet long and 25 to 30 feet deep in some spots. According to geologists this gaping hole is technically a fissure because both sides would fit together almost perfectly if pulled together. No one really knows how the fissure formed but some speculate that it was the result of an earthquake or volcanic activity.
Even more exciting than the gaping fissure crack are some of the local stretches of pavement that run up and down the mountain. Even on Sunday there’s little traffic and considering how much tourism dollars flow into Mammoth these roads are in pristine shape. And despite rolling on soft, semi-knobby tires these dual-sports still serve up a remarkable level of performance on pavement which is yet another reason why we’re in love this genre of motorcycling.
By the end of most trips the majority of folks are yearning to get home and sleep in their own bed and enjoy a home cooked meal. Not so if you’re returning from a Mammoth adventure. Maybe it’s the picture perfect backdrop everywhere you look. Or perhaps it’s the fantastic mild mountain weather. Or possibly the relaxed country atmosphere that’s capable of evaporating every worry or concern you have. Whatever ‘it’ is Mammoth has it in spades and it’s why the area is such a popular retreat regardless of season.