But over here, on the southeast side of Mammoth Mountain, it is absolutely still. Every now and then, a cross- country skier glides by, skis making a quiet swish in the snow.
"The scenery is just gorgeous," said Aino Sten of San Diego as we passed one another on one trail. "It really is wilderness."
Well, it takes on that aspect in winter, at least. In the summertime, the Mammoth Lakes Basin teems with fishing enthusiasts, hikers, backpackers and people booked into a lake cabin or a campsite. In winter, the roads are closed with the first snowfall and are thereafter left unplowed. They become a network of cross-country ski trails.
This limited access results in only sparse visitation, and what an enchanting world it becomes. Skiers slide through conifer forests and around the lakes that cluster together here: Twin, Mary, George, Mamie and Horseshoe. Stunning glacier-sculpted peaks rise up on all sides: the Minarets, Crystal Crag, the Mammoth Crest and, of course, the broad backside of Mammoth Mountain itself.
The lakes freeze over and are covered in fluffy duvets of white. One of the real pleasures of a trek through here, especially if you hail from a busy urban environment, is to stop at regular intervals and simply bask
Veteran downhillers who wish to dabble in cross-country skiing might consider it a no-brainer and plunge right in, but a little instruction can be beneficial.
Group lessons are offered at the Tamarack Cross Country Ski Center, alongside the historic Tamarack Lodge on the shores of Twin Lakes. They re pretty affordable: For $68, an adult can get a 1 1/2-hour lesson, equipment rentals and a one-day trail pass. (By contrast, the daily lift ticket for Mammoth s downhill playground is $78.)
The center rents snowshoes for those who aren t keen on sliding through the snow. It also conducts guided full- moon tours on both skis and snowshoes; the remaining dates on this year s schedule are March 2 (skis) and March 1 and 3 (snowshoes).
Marcia Mohun was a cheery and unfailingly patient instructor for a recent group lesson.
"We get all different levels for lessons -- beginners, intermediates, racers," she said, "but our biggest group is beginners. Maybe they used to downhill and don t want to do that anymore, or downhill scares them. Or this is just something they always wanted to do."
The equipment is not at all like that used for downhill skiing. The skis are narrow, and have some buttons of tread on the bottom, just under the boot, because you need that traction to work your way up an incline. The poles are longer, so that it s easier to push yourself uphill. The boots are more comfortable, similar to hiking boots -- not the clunky, rigid alpine footwear that is canted forward so awkwardly. The binding is attached only at the toe, so that the heel lifts freely off the ski.
Mohun s session began out of this equipment, however, as students stood in the snow and worked on balance and body position. The next stage involved throwing aside the poles -- because they can be real crutches when you re learning technique.
We next proceeded to such essential skills as going uphill, downhill, skiing in the striding lanes, skiing outside them ... and, uh, learning how to stop.
Then it was time to venture out on our own. As in the main ski area, routes here are rated according to difficulty -- determined entirely by the steepness of the climbs and the downhill portions. On the trail map, green is fairly flat and easy, blue is a little tougher and black is most challenging.
In a robust winter, there will be 26 miles of groomed trails here around the lakes, but Mammoth has received such paltry snowfall thus far this season that only about 9 1/2 miles of trails are currently open.
Still, that allows for plenty of backcountry roaming. When the lessons conclude, Mohun said, "People ask, Where should I go? The instructors assess people and send them where they ll be most comfortable. You want to make sure people feel like they get it. It s frustrating for them otherwise."
Once out on the trails, you ll encounter a wide variance of ability levels. The newcomers tend to shuffle along in the striding lanes. When skiers reach the intermediate level, they are keen to "skate" down the groomed center of the track -- competitive technique.
Regardless of method, practitioners quickly learn that cross-country skiing is an ideal sport for heightening fitness.
"I like to do this because I m a bicyclist," said Alan Becker of Lomita, who has been cross-country skiing for the past three years. "I like to do a little cross training. It s a really good workout. I come back in better aerobic shape for everything.
"The only drawback is getting up the hill. It s 2 miles uphill (from the ski center to the lakes basin). It makes you wish they had a shuttle." Throughout the web of trails, temporary wooden signs are posted at intersections, and at many junctures there are also trail maps, with "you are here" arrows identifying your location. So getting lost is unlikely.
The cabins around the lakes -- Woods Lodge, Crystal Crag Lodge -- are shuttered and blanketed with snow. The campgrounds are closed, too. But the occasional restroom is kept open, and there is also a picnic table here and there, scraped free of snow and affording scenic views across the lakes.
There used to be a warming hut out here, too, dispensing restorative cider in steaming mugs, but, alas, it s been out of commission for some time now. It s a good idea to pack a lunch before striking out on the trails in late morning, and it is absolutely essential to bring along plenty of water. Even on a chilly winter day, you re likely to work up the kind of thirst more common to a 10K run in summer.
If you start early enough in the day, you can ski back to the Tamarack Lodge at midday. Settling into the lodge s 1924 main room for lunch is an abiding tradition of the cross-country ski culture here.
The lodge plays it to the hilt -- with mulled wine, hot buttered rum, spiced cider, homemade soup, chili and other hearty items. The grub and grog are served in paper products, which is a little disappointing, but the room exudes mountain coziness.
It is warmed by both a faux woodstove (it burns gas) and a great stone fireplace, where flames flicker over the pine logs and the soot of ages lends a black patina to the chimney.
The walls are adorned with vintage snowshoes, sleds, skis and mounted trophy fish, and the rustic ceiling timbers were installed with the tree bark still on them.
Freshly fortified with food and drink, and warmed by that hearth, you ll probably want to head back out for more explorations. But if you re new to the sport, be forewarned: Cross-country skiing exercises muscles in ways that few other fitness endeavors do, and it s easy to overdo it (the price for which is paid in creakiness a day or two later).
One afternoon, on a gradual uphill stretch near by Lake Mamie, I skied alongside a woman who was clearly struggling with the cumulative exertions of the day.
"I think walking would be easier," she puffed, but the complaint died away quickly. "I m a downhill skier, but this is so peaceful," she said. "Over there, no one pays any attention to the beauty around them."
Right. The other side of the mountain. But what do they know?
IF YOU GO
GETTING THERE: From Mammoth proper, head north on Main Street (Highway 203) past Minaret Road. The route changes names to Lake Mary Road and wraps around a steep slope on the way to Tamarack Lodge.
This is as far as the snow plows go in winter. The cross-country ski center is at the far edge of the parking area.
COSTS: Under normal conditions, a daily trail pass costs $25 for adults, $19 for seniors (age 65 and up) and youths (ages 13 to 18), $13 for children (ages 7 to 12). But because of sparse snowfall and a limited number of open trails, the center is currently charging afternoon rates all day long: $20 for adults, $15 for seniors and youths, $10 for children. Rates are further reduced for twilight skiing. Multiday passes are also available. Group lessons cost $30 per person, but a package -- equipment rentals, lesson, trail pass -- offers significant savings at $68 for adults, $63 for seniors and youths and $50 for children (though prices are slightly lower until snow levels catch up).
LODGING: The trails are groomed right up to the cabins at the Tamarack Lodge, so you can essentially have ski-in, ski-out accommodations. There are lodge rooms, rustic cabins, refurbished cabins and newly built deluxe cabins. Rates range from $89 for a lodge room with a shared bath, from $300 for a deluxe cabin. The lodge s Lakefront Restaurant offers some of the best dining in Mammoth.
INFORMATION (for skiing and lodging): www.tamaracklodge; (760) 934- 2442.