Summer in Mammoth Lakes, California, USA

Mammoth Lakes in California’s Mono County has a far-away-from-it-all location in a valley in the  eastern Sierra Nevada, yet remains in the centre of everything. It’s is just a five hours scenic drive from Los Angles, Las Vegas and San Francisco and a mere two hours from Lake Tahoe.

We drove for five and a half hours from Newport Beach (around 40 minutes from Los Angeles) along the CA-203 for 341 miles passing the Sequoia National Forest, the Death Valley National Park and the Inyo National Forest. Imagine the sensational scenery along that route.

We stopped off for a break in the quiet, dusty town of Lone Pine (87 miles from Mammoth Lakes) to check out the Museum of Western Film History – the story of filming in the area from the early days of the Round Up to the modern blockbusters such as Iron Man.

Mammoth Lakes is best known as a ski resort but when the snow finally melts what you get is a vibrant timber-clad village that is simply beyond quaint. It is surrounded by lush forest and bordered by the Ansel Adams and the John Muir Wilderness Areas. You can see the Minaret hills and peaks on the sky line and on the near horizon is the dizzyingly high Mammoth Mountain (11,053ft) that begs to be explored. The mountain is actually a volcano and you can even see steam escaping from its top from some vantage points.

There’s only around 8,000 locals in Mammoth Lakes and they seem unfazed by its elevation of 2,500 metres (8,000 feet) and its thinner air. They spend their time involved in marathon runs, bike tours (bikes are available to rent), kayaking, hiking or some climbing escapade or other when not working. In the evening there are alfresco film viewings in the village and live music and at the weekends a summer food market festival pops up.

Not sure if the term couch potato even exists here and with such a panoply of summer activities you would end up home alone in any case.

Panorama Gondola at Mammoth Mountain

Panoramic Gondola
Panoramic Gondola

Probably the best way to start exploring is to get oriented with a ride on the Panorama Gondala at Mammoth Mountain. Being whisked on a steep ascent of 11,053 feet (3,368m) to the summit of Mammoth Mountain is an exciting experience and delivers a joyful 360 degree view of the snow speckled Sierra Nevada. Even in June there’s still plenty of snow up there, certainly enough to build a snowman or two.

From here some people scramble up the Ritter range which emerges 13,143 feet/4006m high out of the Ansel Adams Wilderness. It’s a class 2 climb which means it’s mostly upright. I preferred to read about it and the area’s geology and history in the Eleven53 Interpretive Center.

Devils Postpile and Rainbow Falls

From the Mammoth Centre there is a 20-minute shuttle transfer to Devils Postpile National Monument. There are several hop off stops within its 324 hectares of lush scenery. We were told that we may spot a black bear. We didn’t.

But we did lose ourselves amid the fir trees and Jeffrey pines (whose bark we stopped to scratch to release its famous butterscotch scent) and the sound of bird song only bouncing back into the moment at the sight of tiny chipmunks and pine martens.

Devils Postpile
Devils Postpile

It’s hard to believe that Devils Postpile was naturally created by fire and ice. It is a column of basalt that was formed almost 100,000 years ago by flowing lava which cooled and split forming vertical and symmetrical 18 metres high columns forming an almost perfect hexagon. The columns have been made shiny and smooth by glacial ice.

Further along is Rainbow Falls, a waterfall on the middle fork of the San Joaquin river where it makes a staggering 101 foot (31m) drop. It is the highest waterfall in the area and on sunny days, a delightful rainbow hangs in the mist caused by the plunging water.

Rainbow Falls
Rainbow Falls

An information plaque says that the platy rhyodacite rocks in the surrounding cliffs were created by lava eruptions some 75,000 years ago. These are eroding thanks to the rushing water and pushing the waterfall back. By the time I got there it had already receded 500ft (150m). So no telling where it will be by the time you get there.

Bodie – a ghost town remnant of the gold rush

By rights, there should be tumbleweed and a chill wind passing through Bodie ghost town. The former gold rush town is 8400 ft above sea level and located 65 miles north of Mammoth Lakes.

Click on the image to enlarge:

In 1858 prospectors arrived and this led to the Bodie Boom of 1878 to 1882. The population reached 10,000 making it one of the top five biggest cities in California at that time. It even had its own China Town, a bowling alley and two churches.

You may think that bodes well, but the main street had an astonishing 65 bars and gambling dens which made it a pretty lawless place. With a 90 per cent male population, anyone could shoot someone in the back for cheating at cards or flirting with a “working girl” they had their eye on and get away with it. Basically you had to be a badass to live here. And those that survive would have a share of the gold mined valued at nearly US$34 million.

There are 200 buildings left (there were originally 2,000 but most burned down in a fire) including a bank and a prison and all still have the belongings in them. The townsfolk simply left everything and walked away. Furniture, kitchens have cutlery and schools have kids’ homework. Even the merchants’ stores have products on the shelves. It gives one hell of an eerie snapshot into life here.

Some say there are real ghosts that patrol the dirt streets and hide in its century-old buildings. The most famous is Rosa May a disgruntled working girl. Guides are available to walk you around town after sundown and you may even meet her.

Mono Lake

Mono Lake
Mysterious Mono Lake

Located just off Highway 120 East is South Tufa Grove and this road leads to the south end of Mono Lake. This bizarre desert lake has a stealth-like, silent existence where nothing much moves other than the alkali flies that hover around the lake. Certainly no fish can survive.

The turquoise-hued water, which is two and a half times saltier and 80 times as alkaline as the ocean, has no way out. It can only escape through evaporation. Yet this huge expanse of water has been here for over a million years.

White rocks – made from calcium carbonate and limestone known to geologists as tufa (too’-fah) – frequently emerge out of the water – some tall and strangled others wider but always in unusual forms. Ospreys make their home here and I took a close up look at the clear water and saw tiny white shrimp nestled on underwater rocks.

Yosemite

We entered the Yosemite from the eastern part of the scenic Tioga Park. It stretches an incredible 1,200 square miles yet 95 per cent is considered to be wilderness. The other five per cent is easy to traverse thanks to modern roads.

The highest peak in the park is Mount Lyell 13,114 feet and the lowest point is 2252 feet. That means in just one park you get to experience a staggering 11,000 feet in elevation difference and within that you get to see ancient giant sequoias especially in the Mariposa Grove, the deepest of valleys, waterfalls and huge stretches of meadows.

Environmentalist John Muir came here in 1869 as a sheep herder. He mapped the park and was the first to discover that much of the park was carved by glaciers. We saw some polished granite which looked and felt as polished as the worktop in my kitchen.

One sad note is that at one time the area was packed with California Grizzly Bears. The last was killed in 1925 and the only way to see one now is on the Californian flag.

Where to eat in Mammoth Village

Toomeys: This is a great place to have breakfast. Pancakes, eggs as you like them with potato and sourdough and great coffee too.

Skadi Restaurant: First impression are not always right, and this is proven by the intimate and refined Skadi restaurant. It seems almost hidden behind an industrial looking building but once in the scene is Swiss style chalet decor with just ten tables, a small four-stool counter and a Norwegian menu. Chef Ian Algeroen refers to his menu as California Sierra alpine food with a Scandinavian twist. For instance a smogarsbord of gravalax, smoked trout and horseradish and pork belly confit and roast spiced tenderlion.

Smokeyard: A fun, chilled out gaff where burgers and streaks are served. These are huge portions and I wondered if anyone actually finishes their food. Waiters always offer a doggy bag.

Old New York Deli: For snack attacks or picnic lunch (we shopped here for our picnic at Rainbow Falls) this place is great. Bagels galore with a huge selection of fillings even egg white egg and spinach.

Fact File

GET THERE: Fly to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) served by myriad of airlines.

RENTAL CAR: Hire a car with Rentalcars. Book online or download the app. An SUV for two weeks from LAX starts from £182, when booked at least a month in advance.

STAY: The Village at Mammoth offers spacious luxury self contained flats in the heart of the village close to the restaurants and shops. They have their own gym. Rental prices star from $169 / £130 per night. We stayed at Lincoln 1 which had its own gym.

EXCURSIONS: Lucas at Maws Shuttle offers a superb guided tour of the excursions mentioned here.

Summer fun in Verbier, Switzerland

Verbier, along with other alpine ski resorts, wants tourists in the summer as well as the winter, and they’ve devised a special offer. Every hotel guest, staying one night or more, is entitled to the Verbier Infinite Playground (VIP) Pass.

This grants free travel on cable cars and postal buses plus a reduced price or free entry to more than 25 activities. It sounds like fun, so I set off to give some of them a try

Cheese Making Workshop

Raclette Wheels

The day I arrive it’s raining heavily so it makes sense to retreat to the indoor workshop at La Laiterie de Verbier. Marc Dubosson is going to show me how to make traditional Tomme cheese so I put on my apron and take my place at my copper cooking pot.

He fills it with that morning’s milk and I light the flame underneath and start heating it up to 35C. When it reaches temperature, I add a small glass of bacterial milk culture and then some rennet and stir. I then let it cool whilst Marc shows me the cellar.

As well as Tomme, it’s crammed full of wheels of Raclette, all maturing. He makes 18-2000 wheels a year, each costing around CHF100, and a quick calculation shows that there’s more than half a million francs worth stored here. Back upstairs, the cheese has formed a skin which I’m told to cut it small squares. I then heat it up again, stirring as I go, then drain off the whey and put the curds into a mould and press. This is then washed in salt and a couple of days later I pick up my cheese to take home.

Early Morning Yoga

Yoga

I spend the night at Cabane Brunet, a mountain hut at 2103m eating even more cheese. The morning dawns bright and the rain has stopped so I get a one hour yoga session on the grass outside provided by Wholeycow Studio. I can’t quite make the stretches of Svetlana Negashova, the brilliant teacher, but nobody is paying too much attention and it’s an idyllic situation. Relaxation, at the end of the session, when the only sound is the rushing of the stream, is the highlight.

Tour of the Alpine Pasture

Herens cattle
Herens cattle

Above the Cabane is the alpine pasture of Sery and Marc Maret, my mountain guide, takes me up among the cows. These hardy Herens cattle are one of the smallest breeds in Europe and are well adopted to altitude. They’re black with a muscular body and relative short legs and very quickly establish their place in the herd’s hierarchy by fighting each other. This has led to a tradition of organised cow fights throughout the canton, with the winner being crowned Queen.

As it’s late summer, the herd’s hierarchy has already been established and there’s no sign of combat. Instead we eat lunch alfresco at 2200m with cheeses made from their milk. As well as Tomme and Raclette, there’s also a fresh variety called Serac, a type of ricotta. Homemade apricot preserves and rye bread complement the cheese and it’s all washed down with local wine.

Sunrise at Mont-Fort

Sunset at Cabane Mont-Fort

Later that afternoon I hire an Ebike in Verbier and take it up in the cable car to Les Ruinettes at 2200m. From here I follow a track through the outdoor sculpture park to Cabane Mont-Fort, perched precariously above the valley. There’s a tremendous sunset and it’s an early night as I have to be up at 4am. Next morning it’s dark as I ride the bike down to La Chaux, a slightly perilous descent with only my head torch to guide the way.

It’s also very cold, but the cable car takes me up to Mont-Fort at 3300m, then I climb to the summit on a roped path and wait. Of course I’m not alone, as there are quite a few people with the same idea of seeing the sunrise. As the light comes up there’s a 360° view of some of the most beautiful peaks of the Alps, including the Matterhorn, and Mont-Blanc. Unfortunately there’s some cloud so the sunrise is a bit of a let-down. The consolation is an excellent breakfast at the Igloo des Gentianes.

Wild Plant Foraging

I pick up my E-bike back at La Chaux and cycle across the side of the mountain before descending to La Tzoumaz. There I meet Cherries von Maur who tells me that we’re going to forage for our lunch. She steers me past plants that might have been watered by dogs, before pointing out wild spinach, also known as Good King Henry. Apparently it needs cooking three times, otherwise you risk kidney stones. Dandelion leaves are also edible but it’s late in the season so they’re too bitter to eat.

Instead we collect nettles, braving their sting by pinching the tops with our fingers, and various edible flowers including fireweed and clover. Berries are out in force including wild strawberries and raspberries, but the surprise are the clumps of red lingham berries, lying close to the ground. Add some wild rhubarb and we have our dessert.

At the Maison de la Forêt we chop the nettles into the couscous she’s prepared earlier. There’s also the Serac cheese to spread on local rye bread which we top with the flowers. The fruits go into a pot to make a delicious compote. Local wine completes a tasty lunch.

Géraldine Fasnacht

I have my final dinner at the Hotel La Cordée des Alpes with Verbier ambassador Géraldine Fasnacht. She’s an extreme athlete and won the first of her three ski trophies at the Xtreme Verbier competition when she was only 21.

Needing something crazy to do in the summer, she took up parachuting and then base jumping, throwing herself over cliffs. Now she dons a wingsuit and flies off the top of mountains including the Matterhorn. She’s keen to teach this sport to others but, before you even think of joining her, you should watch her videos.

Fact File

FLY: SWISS operates up to 180 weekly flights to Switzerland from London Heathrow, London City, Manchester, Birmingham, Edinburgh (seasonal during summer) and Dublin from as little as £52 one-way* (Economy Light fare only includes hand luggage).

TRANSFER: The Swiss Transfer Ticket covers a round-trip between the airport/Swiss border and destination. Prices are £112 in second class and £182 in first class.

PASS: The Verbier Infinite Playground (VIP) Pass offers free entry or discounts to more than 25 of Verbier’s top activities and attractions and is available to every guest staying a minimum of one night in the region and paying the tourist tax.

TRAVEL PASS: The Swiss Travel Pass offers unlimited travel on consecutive days throughout the rail, bus and boat Swiss Travel System network. This pass also covers scenic routes and local trams and buses in around 90 towns and cities and also includes the Swiss Museum Pass, allowing you free entrance to 500 museums and exhibitions. Prices from £185 in second class.