Socially Distanced Family Fun on California’s Less-Traveled Roads

Mammoth Lakes makes a perfect escape from L.A. for a few days.

Socially Distanced Family Fun on California’s Less-Traveled Roads

The Mammoth Lakes basin comprises several lakes and offers acres of space.

Photo by schumak / Shutterstock

We’d loaded the car with masks, a handful for each person. We had a full tank of sanitizer. We’d read the local tourist board’s guidelines (and AFAR’s manifesto) on traveling responsibly. We’d all been tested again fairly recently. But more than 300 miles away from Los Angeles, which we’d left the day before, we were greeted with a message, written in dust on the back of a jeep in a Mammoth Lakes coffee shop parking lot: “Locals only. LA go home.”

These words immediately triggered all those thoughts familiar to anyone who’s left their daily routine for a break this summer, that constant back-and-forth and listing of pros and cons that essentially boils down to: Should I be here?

This trip was our COVID-curtailed version of a big summer holiday. Months back, we’d envisioned Mammoth as a stop off on the way to Tahoe, but decided to cut down the hours on the road and spend the whole time there. We’d focus on what, in California terms, is our own backyard—a mere five hours of driving from home (instead of the eight it would take to reach Tahoe).

I’ve long been keen to drive the north-south route east of the Sierra Nevadas, a kind of inland and less traffic-clogged alternative to the world famous State Route 1 along the coast. Our part of the journey followed the I-5 out of L.A. briefly before diverting to the 14, a two-lane road that quickly shakes itself free of suburban sprawl and cuts through swathes of flat nothingness broken up by fields of solar panels. It turns right at the town of Mojave and later joins the 395, which ultimately leads all the way to Canada.

We’d planned to take a few breaks and take our time, but we ended up cruising almost all the way before stopping. After several long rides with our five-year-old boy and infant twins, we’ve become adept at doing as much as possible in the car, and stop offs just seemed like unnecessary potential transmission points.

Feeding babies on the move in our five-seater GMC Terrain is a little tricky, though, so we borrowed a Cadillac XT6 and it made things a lot more pleasant. With room for six people, and electric seat adjustment buttons that five-year-old Oliver loved, the car offers multiple configurations to pack in luggage, food supplies, and kids. We loaded up, sunk into the leather seats, dialed up some road trip music via the on-screen apps, and somehow the miles slipped by quickly.

So we ended up missing a lot of the stop offs en route, like popular hiking and ATV spot Jawbone Canyon and the ghost town nearby. It was a shame to speed through Red Rock Canyon State Park’s striking slabs of colorful rock, but the dashboard thermometer was showing the high 90s and that temperature didn’t seem conducive to crawling.

Red Rock Canyon State Park is the most dramatic part of the drive.

Red Rock Canyon State Park is the most dramatic part of the drive.

Photo by Iuiia K / Shutterstock

By Lone Pine, though, we were all ready to get out. The road slows down to 25 mph as it passes this home to some 2,000 people (as it does in neighboring towns Big Pine and Bishop further north) and you’re about 80 percent of the way to Mammoth. There’s a shady glade with a stream that’s great for childish frolicking (Oliver joined me in it too), restrooms, a playground (closed for now), a couple fast food options, and an ice cream shop. We stuck to homemade sandwiches in our family bubble.

We were keen to get to the finish line but made a mental note to check out the Museum of Western Film History, which celebrates the region’s role as a canvas for Hollywood westerns, next time. (Lone Pine is also the launch pad for hikes up the highest point in the contiguous United States, Mount Whitney, at 14,505 feet. Several outfitters in town cater to the energetic crowd with trips and equipment.)

Finding distanced fun in Mammoth Lakes

We finally arrived at Snowcreek Resort, a 449-acre development in Snowcreek Meadow comprising second homes, vacation rentals, a golf course, and—in COVIDless times—a spa. It was a great place to stay socially distanced: no need to visit reception or deal with any humans at check-in; a keycode for entry; miles of nearby hiking and biking trails that wound their way into Mammoth itself.

The resort has a number of COVID-related protocols in place, with the rental office currently closed, in-unit maintenance on hold, thorough cleaning processes, and a 24-hour vacancy period between occupiers. Across Mammoth Lakes, masks were mandatory in every restaurant and business and encouraged in parks and on trails. Playgrounds were closed.

During our trip, we tried to slake our thirst for new places and experiences with respect for the health of our hosts. We took the gondola to the ski resort summit, wearing masks all the way up. We swam in the chilly waters of Horseshoe Lake, where we lashed together giant logs for makeshift rafts. We took a pontoon boat onto Lake Mary. The photos from that excursion look idyllic, my wife waving while Oliver takes the helm and our twins huddle in oversized life jackets. In reality, I spent most of it shouting at Oli while trying to avoid multitudes of anglers and paddle boarders, and he threatened to throw the anchor overboard at inopportune moments.

We hiked to the impressive Devils Postpile National Monument, a 60-foot geological wonder that’s, according to the NPS, “one of the world’s finest examples of columnar basalt.” Normally, there’s a shuttle here during busy summer months, to keep cars from ruining the local environment. During COVID, though, you can drive right up to the nearby parking lot if you get there by about 9.30 a.m. It made things a lot easier with our brood.

Our kids allowed us the requisite 60 seconds to actually stop and look at it before we were back on the trail. It was busy, but almost everyone had masks on. Hiking in the heat, at elevation, with a baby strapped to each of us and our airwaves covered was kind of strenuous, so we didn’t make it the full 2.5 miles to Rainbow Falls. Accepting limitations and enjoying what you can achieve is something we’ve learnt as parents of small kids, and COVID just accentuates that. So we went back to the trailhead where Oliver submitted his paperwork to get certified as a junior ranger instead.

Like many family holidays, the memorable moments were the simple ones, often in isolation in our condo. I’d have loved to have rented a bike and gone flying down the miles of mountain trails or taken a kayak out alone. But then I’d have missed the “game” of Monopoly with Oliver inexplicably dressed in a combination of our adult clothes or watching the twins pull out bad paperbacks from the bookcase and lie like turtles on their backs “reading” them.

When we got hungry, I foraged for takeout and we ate exclusively out of polystyrene: spicy chicken pizzas washed down with 32-ounce cans of Wild Sierra Session Saison from Mammoth Brewing Company; delicious breakfast hash from the Warming Hut; cheeses, chocolate, and other nibbles from Bleu Market; excellent coffee from Stellar Brew and Black Velvet. I didn’t miss the hassle of eating out with kids in tow. The restaurants were busy, too. Most outdoor tables were full, as were many of the campgrounds and rental homes. Mammoth was in full swing.

After five days, our L.A. contingent did eventually go home. We bundled into the XT6 and made it all the way back with just a 10-minute gas station pit stop. We hadn’t seen any other messages like the one on the jeep. In fact, we were thanked several times for our business. The trip was a tonic for all of us and, somehow, the restrictions imposed by the pandemic only made this unusual summer holiday all the more memorable.

Mammoth Lakes Tourism has more advice on responsible recreation in the area.

>> Next: What All Travelers Should Be Doing During Coronavirus

Tim Chester is a deputy editor at AFAR, focusing primarily on destination inspiration and sustainable travel. He lives near L.A. and likes spending time in the waves, on the mountains, or on wheels.
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