7. Mammoth, California

Mammoth is as vast and immense as its Pleistocene-era namesake. It would have taken the woolly creature an ice age or two to learn this behemoth mountain. Connecting the 3,500 rideable acres is a network of 30 lifts, comprised of nine quads (eight high-speed), eight triples, six doubles, one six-pack, two gondolas, and four surface lifts.

The view from the 11,000-foot, glass-enclosed housing station of the eight-passenger Panorama Gondola is spectacular. The 3,100-vertical-foot plunge from the summit offers a choice of descents that have one thing in common: all are so steep you can easily reach uphill while turning and touch the snow.

Whether plummeting into the sheer vertical of Climax, popping the cornice into Dave’s sweet wind-packed, slithering between the rocks in The Wipeout Chutes, or hucking into Hangman’s, you’ll quickly understand the concept of gravity. Surfing Scottie’s or Paranoids in fresh is like dropping into frozen Waimea. If you really want to push the envelope, snake through the rocks at the top of Phillipe’s and straight-shoot it to the bottom.

Mammoth’s huge fleet of Piston-Bullies prepare the creme de la corduroy every night. One of the carving capitals of the West, unique arcs and deep trenches are common sights from many chairs. St. Anton, Gremlin’s Gulch, and Stump Alley are just three of the great carving runs. But you need to get up early to find either fresh powder or clean corduroy, as Mammoth can be very crowded.

For long, mellow, and picturesque cruisers, drop off the backside of the Face Lift Express, hook left through the canyon and natural gullies of Dry Creek, or float the open glades of Ricochet.

Main Park is one of the best freestyle areas anywhere in North America¿air is plentiful off a barrage of spines, gaps, and tabletops. A new superpipe along with a regular halfpipe are part of the package. Mammoth has two other parks: South Park, located on Roller Coaster West in the Chair Four area, and the beginner pipe and park at Canyon Lodge. Josh Chauvet is the gourmet terrain chef. Added attractions are night riding on weekends and a funky semi-buried bus to hang in.

The weather at Mammoth can be as varied as the terrain. Statistically, the mountain is sunny 70 percent of the time, receives 350 inches of snow annually, and has one of the longest seasons in North America, often lasting until July 4.

When it snows, it dumps. Wet Pacific storms funnel in and don’t move until tons of crystalline matter are unloaded. It’s not uncommon for Mammoth to receive four to six feet within a 48-hour period.

The wind is also a major factor influencing Mammoth’s weather and snow conditions. Strong gusts rip across the exposed mountain, which offers little in the way of sheltered runs. One exception (if you don’t blow off the chair riding up) is the deep, protected tree shots on the front side of Lincoln Mountain.

The upside of the wind dilemma is that blowing snow must settle somewhere. Dave’s Run and Huevos Grande are regular recipients of light, dry, and creamy windbuffed conditions that have to be ridden to be appreciated.

This season, Mammoth invested another eleven-million dollars in capital improvements, mainly to enhance the new Juniper Springs base area. The old fixed-grip chairs were replaced with a high-speed detachable six-pack, Eagle Express, shaving six minutes off the old ride time. A new temporary base facility, Little Eagle, located between Juniper Springs Lodge and Eagle Express, will house a full-service bar and restaurant.

The classic Mammoth Mountain Inn was upgraded with a new outdoor pool and spa. Scheduled to open in April is Parallax, a spectacular year-round restaurant and bar encased behind the glass walls of Mammoth’s gondola station at the 11,053-foot summit.

Mammoth is so outstanding that it thrives without a major airport or distinct population center within five hours’ drive. Not really considered a destination resort for mmost of the country, Mammoth is essentially Southern California’s private stash. Out-of-state riders don’t know what they’re missing. Check out Mammoth¿the place goes off. ¿Steve Shand