Minds wandered further than snow boots in 2021, but that is about to change. As NSW flings its international borders open, we explain why California is high on our post-pandemic travel list.
There isn’t much more you can wish for than vast skies and seemingly limitless wilderness from a post-COVID holiday. Skiers and snowboarders know this more than most; we long for the unique thrill and distraction of careening down a fluffy white mountain, dancing between joy and terror, totally oblivious to crowds, Wi-Fi, or the pandemic news cycle.
It’s not the first place Australians think of when skiing the US, but California ranks high on my post-pandemic bucket list for a few reasons. Not least for its epic departure from mundane Sydney lockdown views and activities. Sandy beaches and wooded national parks roll up to the doorstep of the towering Sierra Nevada mountains. Flying into the US’ west coast from NSW, over miles of Pacific Ocean with the snowy peaks of the Sierras looming on the horizon, is one dramatic way to re-enter global travel.
It’s on the other side of the world, yet a single flight between Sydney and Los Angeles or San Francisco. More flight time with no stopovers equals more sleep. You can even ski on the same day you arrive: simply hop on a one-hour domestic flight to Mammoth Yosemite or Reno Airport. United Airlines has scheduled new routes through the winter season to Bishop airport, too, offering the easiest-ever access for Australians heading to Sierra resorts like Mammoth Mountain and Squaw Valley.
Everything is bigger in America: cars, distances, Big Mac meals. Ski resorts are no exception. The appropriately named Mammoth Mountain is the pick among the giants, boasting California’s highest lift-served summit at 3,369m above sea level, with four separate peaks and 2,500 skiable acres of terrain. That’s a full kilometre higher than Australia’s highest lifted ski run at Thredbo (hit the lower runs first while adjusting; altitude sickness is real). The resort draws crowds for its size but, blissfully, skiers and snowboarders disperse over 150 different runs. Watching Gortex-clad figures slip downhill from the summit is like studying tiny ants trickling down different routes on enormous white rice bowls.
The great thing about snow holidays, however, is that skiing can be an afterthought when visiting destinations like Mammoth.
Mammoth boasts an average 10 metres of snowfall annually and excited weather forecasters are predicting this winter could be even bigger given the outlook of a La Nina (more moisture than normal) season. Despite all that snow, there’s a reason they call it sunny California: the area that is lashed with deep powder snow also somehow manages 275 days of sunshine each year. I’ll admit it’s hard to fathom as I arrive in February 2020 to some of the worst whiteout conditions I’ve seen. On day one, I can barely read the branding on my skis as I lurch through howling winds on chairlifts, unable to tell the ground from the sky. Even my committed mountain guide and Mammoth marketing guru, Justin, has no good way to spin the horrendous weather as we scurry to shelter in a mountain café.
The great thing about snow holidays, however, is that skiing can be an afterthought when visiting rich destinations like Mammoth. Hate skiing? Try a guided snowmobile adventure, a scenic gondola ride or snow tubing instead. Après skiing (end-of-day drinking) often becomes the main game in this town, which buzzes year-round with hikers, mountain bikers, fishers, horse riders and summer camp groups. I start one Tuesday evening at the trendy Shelter Distillery and find myself so enjoying the deceptively strong agave cocktails and moreish happy hour tacos that I accidentally become very late for a dinner reservation at another Mexican restaurant in town. I’ve made the right call, though: the Shelter tacos are leagues ahead of the latter venue.
On day two of the snowstorm, I escape pelting ice-snow on a luxe après snowcat tour complete with blankets, wine-tasting, and charcuterie. The vehicle – a sort of snow bulldozer with a bus-like cabin on the back – is deliciously warm and the hot mulled wine keeps my fingertips toasty despite the storm outside.
Just as I begin to question my commitment to actual skiing, on day three, the clouds vanish to make way for clanging sunny days and stunning views in every direction. A morning of carving turns on fresh-crimped groomers, followed by a long lunch, tall beer, and oversized pretzel at Bavarian restaurant The Yodler cement my love for this kind of travel.
Fresh air, space, and even masks (for the cold), put skiing among the most COVID-safe activities for Australian tourists taking tentative steps out of lockdown in 2022. And while the re-opening of the world presents an array of vices, there’s only one thing I’ll lust for when dreaming of white powder. That’s a ski trip.
GET THERE Fly Sydney to Los Angeles, then hop on a domestic flight to Mammoth Yosemite, Reno or Bishop Airport. There’s a free shuttle bus between Mammoth Yosemite to Mammoth Village.
STAY THERE The luxe apartments and rooms of The Village Lodge are a prime pick for skiers – offering slopeside accommodation just a short walk (in ski boots) from resort lifts, restaurants, and bars. There’s also a gym, pool and spa for winding down.
INSIDER TIP If you buy an Ikon Pass for season-long access to Thredbo or Mt Buller in Australia, you can also ski for free at Mammoth Mountain under a reciprocal rights deal. See ikonpass.com for details.