Mammoth Lakes/June Lake, CA
Family Friendly?: Yes
Age Range: Teens
Recommendations: Strong intermediate skiers/boarders in decent shape should enjoy this. Be aware of snow stability and travel with someone who has backcountry experience.
San Joaquin Mountain is a great backcountry ski destination in California’s Eastern Sierra. It is actually one of the bigger mountains in the region but it is often overshadowed by its more spectacular neighbors. This is unfortunate because San Joaquin offers some truly exceptional intermediate backcountry skiing terrain.
You can approach it from either the Mammoth Lakes side or the June Lake side. Mammoth is less of a climb, June is less distance – take your choice.
From Mammoth, go to Minaret Summit and follow the obvious ridge as far as your legs and interest carry you. You don’t have to summit the mountain to find great skiing but if you have time why not do it right? It can be a slog depending on the snow, but it is generally easy low angle terrain. In many places you will even find bare ground along the ridge so you can move pretty quickly if you play your cards right. In winter, you will need to start your walk/ski at the Mammoth Mountain Main Lodge as the road is not plowed. The views of Ritter, Banner and the Minarets are almost constant so boredom is never a factor.
From June, take Rt 158 to the Fern Lake Trailhead. The trail is very steep and tiring, but if you have the legs for it you will get to the peak quicker than the Mammoth route. If doing things the hard way appeals to you, this is your route. If you go all the way to the summit, you are looking at over 4,000 vertical feet topping out at 11,600 feet so bring your big lungs for this one.
No matter which route you choose, you will be treated to endless moderately pitched lines with snow that typically softens into a really nice surface as long as there haven’t been any recent big dumps. After a big dump, the moderate pitches aren’t enough to keep the party going so wait until things settle for the best experience. Be sure to take time to appreciate the scenery which is outstanding. This is a favorite destination for telemarkers (me) as it is perfect terrain to get the most out of that type of equipment. Depending on where you start and finish, you can squeeze up to 4,000 vertical feet out of a run here.
A few years ago we did have a bit of a freaky experience on this route. We had left from the Mammoth side and were just exiting a patch of trees not far from Minaret Summit. It was a beautiful blue sky day but there was a steady breeze out of the west. We noticed something falling out of the sky and thought it might be ash from a controlled burn they were doing nearby, but the wind was from the wrong direction. Then we realized they were insects! Thousands of them were falling from the sky like a light snow. As we proceeded, they stopped falling but the images of a germ warfare experiment gone horribly awry were in the back of all of our minds. Someone told us that on rare occasions the insects are picked up in the central valley and carried by high winds over the mountains but I guess we’ll never really be sure.
Even though San Joaquin Mountain may not offer the most intense thrills in the Sierra Nevada, it is an enjoyable backcountry skiing destination. Easy access, great views and big vertical make it a worthy goal.