Photographs & Story by Todd Bigelow/Contact Press Images. Please contact Jeffrey Smith if interested in licensing. jeffreysmith [at] contactpressimages [dot] com
It’s tough growing up in the shadow of a legend; the relatively unknown neighbor linked to fame only through backcountry trails and one steep, winding road. But that’s Mammoth Lakes, California; Yosemite’s next door neighbor thirty-five miles east that lacks national name recognition but has an abundance of natural beauty and adventure that has drawn Southern Californians north in droves for half a century. That is, until the pandemic hit and all but sealed off the small town of about 8,000 residents.
Three hundred and one miles. That’s how far it is from my Los Angeles home to Mammoth Lakes and I can drive it with my eyes closed, having done it so many times. Although Mammoth, as the locals call it, is next door to Yosemite, it has its own identity and slightly different location. See, Mammoth is accessed via US 395 from the eastern side of the Sierras, not the western side where Yosemite’s iconic Valley, Half Dome and El Capitan are located. With that important distinction in mind, some joke that Mammoth is on the proverbial wrong side of the tracks, but the beauty of the Sierras extends far beyond any manmade boundary lines and makes Mammoth the perfect outdoor destination, even if it does have a less envious address.
The five hour drive is nothing to dread. In fact, it’s part of the allure for Southern Californians who for generations have made the drive up 395. The lofty peaks, including Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States at 14,505 feet, keep me company when I put LA in the rear view mirror and feel the stress and anxiety of life slowly dissipate. I pass the somber Manzanar War Relocation Center and not-so-somber “Gus’s Jerky,” zip by the turn-off to Death Valley National Park and gaze at the open fields where Caribou sometimes graze en masse. The drive reminds me how stunningly beautiful the eastern side of California’s premier mountain range really is, and how lucky I am that Mammoth is on the “wrong” side.
Mammoth was incorporated in 1984, 94 years after Yosemite, America’s third national park, which was born on October 1, 1890. Mammoth’s majestic mountain and pristine beauty began drawing visitors nearly a half-century earlier, though, after Dave McCoy, a bit of a hell raiser from the Los Angeles area who is considered the founder of Mammoth Mountain, rigged a rope to his car in 1937 and charged skiers 50 cents to be towed up the snowy slopes. McCoy, who died in 2020 at the age of 104 after living nearly his whole life in the Sierras, saw the potential to develop the mountain into a destination to challenge Yosemite’s grandeur. He succeeded beyond expectations.
It was the late 1970s when I made my first trip to Mammoth with my family, seated facing the rear in a wood paneled Ford LTD station wagon. Once the nausea from watching the world fly by in reverse subsided, I was hooked. As a teen barely old enough to drive I began to visit Mammoth on my own and spend weeks camping, hiking, skiing, fishing and, ultimately, photographing in the region.
Aside from a bit of notoriety from reality television and a couple of celebrities who have second homes in town, Mammoth is, at its core, a blue collar town less interested in fame and more interested in living life outdoors and to the fullest. It’s a place where a blizzard is an opportunity, not a storm. Truth is, it’s a town with a bit of Jekyll and Hyde syndrome coursing through its veins. It knows its supreme beauty will draw the tourists necessary for financial stability, but it clearly wants to avoid the notoriety that accompanies a brighter spotlight.
Mammoth’s real identity is evident in the parking lots where snowboards on Subarus far outnumber skis on Range Rovers, where street signs are unreadable thanks to hundreds of stickers and where gale force winds aren’t frowned upon, they’re embraced as a chance to go kiteboarding in an open field. There’s a renegade, do-as-you-please attitude that permeates within and can be traced to the founder who is said to have speeded along US 395 on a yellow Harley Davidson as a youth. That foundation of working class, living on the edge roots has been challenged at times, most notably when a luxury Westin resort opened in the upscale Village At Mammoth shopping and entertainment venue, but the reality is you’re more likely to see someone dressed in a bear suit than someone in a Burberry suit. Mammoth offers raw beauty that doesn’t need to be dressed-up as much as it just needs to be accepted, appreciated and utterly devoured.
Mammoth was no different than any of the world’s most beautiful places when the pandemic hit. As a small town with one hospital, they were forced to take an aggressive approach against the spread of Covid-19 and advised visitors who they normally rely on for revenue to stay away. The mountain closed operations just as a spring snowstorm enveloped the mountain in March and additional precautions in place through summer resulted in the cancellation of the annual July 4th celebration. To put this in perspective, just one year earlier was Mammoth’s largest winter snowfall on record and I was snowboarding a large portion of the mountain on July 2, 2019.
No matter how many times I’ve been there over the past forty years, it’s always the same, yet slightly different. The winter of 2019 was one for the record books as over 59 FEET of snow fell on the mountain with one blizzard after another slamming into Mammoth. I ventured out into one such storm after the mountain shut down due to the conditions. I could barely see in front of me, but the town carried on with its usual approach; which is to say they just ignored it and went about their day walking dogs, cross country skiing and running errands. That’s Mammoth. Hardcore.
It’s not just a winter resort town by any means. Trails weave their way through the thick forest of towering Aspens and Lodgepole pines, meandering by lakes and streams, and emerging to offer views that give Mammoth’s more famous neighbor a run for its money. John Muir, who is regarded as the father of National Parks and especially Yosemite, has a wilderness named after him that I’ve wondered through countless times with my camera, hoping to capture a bit of the beauty that would make Ansel Adams proud. I’ve ventured out to photograph Duck Lake, Ruby Lake, Parker Lake and along Agnew Meadow, Mammoth Creek, Rush Creek, McGee Creek, Rainbow Falls and the Owens River to name just a few. It’s never the same thing twice. The light is different, a storm’s moving through or the wildflowers are blooming. It never gets old.
The wonderful thing about Mammoth’s location is the ability to visit Yosemite for a couple hours and avoid the crush of tourists in the Valley. A quick 40 minute drive and I enter through the back door of Mammoth’s famous neighbor. I’ll readily admit to being less enchanted by the obscure domes that occupy the eastern edge of the park and lack the international acclaim of Half Dome, but I’ll take less congestion and more serenity over Disneylandish lines waiting at the Tunnel View lookout.
There’s no argument that Mammoth lacks the name recognition of its iconic neighbor to the west, but is living in the shadows of a legend a curse or a blessing? Anyone who has traveled knows the excitement felt when you venture outside the better known tourist destinations to discover that in their shadow lies a beautiful location full of its own adventures, history and scenery. That’s Mammoth.
Todd Bigelow has spent much of his life hiking, fishing, kayaking, photographing and otherwise exploring Mammoth Lakes with friends and family. His favorite hike, seen here, is the Duck Pass 10 mile loop. His work from Mammoth has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, AARP and Sports Illustrated. He’s a contributing photographer to Contact Press Images. All photographs ©Todd Bigelow.