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.