With five sar missions in the last week, I left town (and cell service) for the weekend. Destination: Hartley Springs Campground. Located about 20 minutes north of Mammoth Lakes the decided (as best I’ve been able to tell) lack of a “spring” is the reason I wanted to go there. The intense 16/17 winter has left snow everywhere, even in July. Much of it will stick around until next summer. With that snow is melt, and with that melt is water. Combine warm summer air and you get mosquitoes: lots and lots of mosquitoes.
I can handle mosquitoes but purposefully putting myself into the midsts of clouds of them is insane. Yes, I know about permethrin and DEET. I use a tent. I have coils. But “managing” mosquitoes for a weekend is tolerable but best avoided altogether.
Not only is there no natural water in Hartley Springs Campground, but there’s also no plumbed water: you need to bring all your own. There’s also no trash cans, no bear boxes, and no real anything. Some porta-potties, picnic tables, and a fire ring is about as fancy as it gets. The upshot is that it’s free to stay there and maybe 10 minutes from June Lake (20 from Mammoth Lakes) if you forget anything or just want to buzz into town for a bit.
It was also packed: we got the last spot when we showed up on a Friday around 4pm. It’s a haven for dirt bikers and 4x4s as well, so expect lots of poorly muffled exhausts blaring around you. Not in a horribly obnoxious way, but definitely in a you’ll-know-you’re-around-dirt-bikes sort of way.
Verizon has a bit of coverage there, but no dice for AT&T. We had come through here a couple of months ago and there were little snow patches around so I safely bet that by now it should be bone dry and indeed not a single mosquito was found.
So especially in the non zany busy season if you’re looking for a free campground and can handle your own water and trash, give Hartley Springs a once-over. There’s a bit of dirt roading to do on the way in, perhaps a passenger car might have a tough go of it, but any AWD should be fine. I think I saw a couple 2wd passenger cars; I’d certainly give it a shot. If you do go up in a 2wd perhaps stick to a busier time period so that if you get stuck there’s a high likelihood that someone can help you out.
One thing I really dug about this trip was how free form the whole thing was. It reminded me a lot of sailing in the sense that with all that self sufficiency comes freedom. We planned on two nights near the Colorado River to meet up and start but after that it was an open road: think Thelma & Louise minus the ending.
Big Bend of the Colorado
Since I was coming from Mammoth and my buddy from San Diego, we met up near the starting point of the Mojave Road at the Big Bend of the Colorado, a Nevada state park with camping situated on the Colorado River.
It’s not a terrible campground, but it’s definitely a utility locale. It was expensive, bland, and you could hear engine brakes from the nearby highway. Oddly far from most businesses it was still unfortunately suburban at the same time. The bathrooms were clean and it’s super close to the start of the Mojave Road so there’s that.
We actually found a really cool place on our own but there was a huge pile of dead squirrels on it. Who brought the carnage? Beats me. I was fine with staying there and just parking a truck on top of the gore: out of sight, out of mind. My friend’s wife was a voice of reason however and we moved on. And lucky we did, because we found our way to Mid Hills Campground. With potable water, firepits, a picnic table, and a 5,000 foot elevation to keep things cool it was a great idea for the $12 nightly fee.
Mid Hills is also roughly smack-dab in the middle of the Mojave Road and easily accessible in one night from the Colorado River in a day provided you aren’t stopping to smell every non existent flower.
From Mid Hills, we shot back onto the Mojave Road and quickly realized that we were probably okay on gasoline. It should be noted that probably being okay whilst in the middle of bum-fuck-egypt means you’re not really okay.
So we made a pit stop in Baker, California. I hope I do not offend any of Baker’s 745 residents by saying that there wasn’t much going on. And although it took us out of the wilderness a bit, there are practical matters to attend to (like ice and fuel), and additionally if the original Mojave Road pioneers had a Taco Bell up in Baker you can bet your ass they would have hit it up.
Fast forward maybe 100 miles from Baker, back on the Mojave Road: a couple of river crossings, a dry lake bed you can do donuts in, and the rock travel monument thing. We made it! We’re done, at least to where most people stop as the road technically continues on for another 11 miles.
Afton Canyon Campground, California
For most people Afton Canyon represents the end (or the beginning, if headed west-to-east) of the line, and as such the Afton Canyon Campground is a perfect spot to hang your filthy sun hat. Tables with awnings, potable water, and non-horrible toilets make this place functionally cool but the nearly constant rumble of freight trains and amazing scenery make it more than that.
The problem of course is that it’s eight million degrees there so unless you enjoy dying slowly of hyperthermia I think you’ll make your time here brief. Perhaps in the winter it’s a very different story: I checked the forecast for tomorrow (June 27) and it’s 109f.
As a final note, remember that the desert is weird. The alpine forests tend to have a mountaineer-ish vibe, and beaches have a chilled out vibe. Deserts just have a weird vibe. I’ve lived on the Sea of Cortez (including the summer), Vegas, Phoenix, and Southern California: I’m familiar with deserts. There’s a certain kind of person who arrives at these hells-on-earth and sees them as a paradise. I can appreciate the desert for what it is but that’s a far cry from wanting to exist there long term.
Keep your wits about you. Someone killed all those squirrels and left their piled up corpses in the middle of an otherwise nice camping area. Could it have happened up here in Mammoth or down in San Diego? Maybe, but it didn’t. It happened on the Mojave Road and that shouldn’t surprise anyone.
I sometimes refer to Mammoth as “outdoor Disneyland”. Minus surfing, the Eastern Sierras has nearly iconic status for anything set in the wilderness. Racing down snow covered mountains, climbing up ice shoots, fishing in gurgling creeks, and mountain biking through beautiful forests: you could do it all in the same day if you had enough time.
So today for lunch we headed over to one of the nation’s best skate parks here in town, then hit the dirt roads cutting through Sherwin Creek Campground and made a left towards Laurel Lakes.
Fortunately for me and the kiddos, we we had a nice drama free time. In fact, I only drove up halfway yesterday by myself and traversed the rest on foot to get a sense of what was going on. Satisfied it was within my and my truck’s ability range, I thought it would make a great lunch stop.
An advantage to going places that are a pain in the ass to get too is that there’s less folks there and the people who do make it happen tend to be more experienced and thus more responsible. There was barely any trash and minus some tree-trunk carvings from local kids it was in perfect condition.
I’m not sure of the camping restrictions up there, but there are some tastefully laid out fire rings. If you get up there, please be responsible and treat the place with the respect it deserves.
This is also the road you can take to Bloody Mountain, although we stopped before the final switchback sets: there is still too much snow.
If you have a couple of hours to kill, a high clearance 4×4, off road tires, and a locking dif or two, head on up. Alternatively you could mountain bike or hike the one-way ~4 miles: there’s little traffic on this route and it’s pretty easy to see folks coming ahead.
As a final note, the first thing I set up these days for any kind of backcountry stop is a trash bag. Not only do you have a quick spot to toss your own things, but having a big bag around makes you more likely to pick up existing trash that someone else didn’t address.
I’ll be adding little snippets about my experiences on the Mojave Road which you can find via my handy #MojaveRoad tag.
Shortly after I fell in love with my 1994 Land Cruiser, I read up on “overlanding”. Subcultures have their own vocabulary, partially to convey meaning and partially for identification. Sometimes hilarity ensues such as this gem:
I spent two years cruising in Mexico.
When sailors toss this gem around, it means one thing. To a gay man in a nightclub, it means something entirely different.
So in four-wheel-drive circles (or ‘wheelin), “overlanding” basically means really long drives across varying terrain whilst being self sufficient and probably sleeping in a tent of some type.
The Mojave Road is roughly 160 miles long (counting detours and shenanigans). I stumbled across it when looking for “overland routes” on Google one day, and realized that it:
Did not seem insanely technical. You need to know how to drive off road, but you don’t need to be happy making 5 miles a day via winching and swimming (ala Camel Trophy).
Was relatively close by. Starting in Laughlin, NV I left Mammoth Lakes and was having a beer at our campground right after sunset.
So I called up one of my likely-as-poor-a-decision-maker-as-myself buddies and asked if he wanted to do it with me. Less than 10 seconds later came the affirmative, so we made plans in early spring of 2017 to tackle it later that May.
It was a pretty cool six days and five nights out of my and my kids’ lives doing this trip and rather than try to summarize it all here I think I’ll break it into pieces. Click on my cool #MojaveRoad hashtag (once I’ve written more than this one).
For now it’s good to be home, it’s good to knock out some laundry, and it’s good to not have rivers/trains/winds howling in the air all night long. I’m back to the peace of tranquility of bears and snowstorms here in Mammoth Lakes, CA.
Sure, it looks like a crazy science experiment gone wrong. But this thing kicks ass at drying lots of gear so the next day you’ve got warm and dry gear to put on.
I started with a prototype made of cardboard. I’d really recommend that to anyone as you probably have plenty of it laying around and with some tape you can make a design and see how well it will work. In a pinch, you can even get by with a cardboard model for quite some time.
There are two core concepts with a snowsports dryer:
Have everything spaced out so they can dry. This is pretty easy to achieve as you can just hang things up, no big deal.
Blow warm and dry air inside of things like gloves, mitts, and boots. This is the tricky part and why you can’t just leave wet gloves out on a table and expect them to be dry anytime soon.
The fan sucks air into the airtight box, and then you’re faced with the challenge of getting it to your boots/gloves/whatevers. I decided to go a little hardcore and use 1/2″ hose barbs, screwed onto fittings between a piece of particle board. That the whole box was done with 3/4″ ply and particle board was no accident. The hoses are tough and pull on the box. The fan needs to be mounted firmly. You can expect the box to get kicked, bumped, and treated with neglect. I opted to make it beefy.
What’s cool about using barbs like this is that you can get creative with the types of hoses you use after the fact without really doing anything to the dryer itself. I even installed some T fittings on the ends.
Before I put the top on (with all the fittings) I used some foam crack filler to seal up the interior as much as possible. The whole thing is screwed together in the hopes that it can handle a lot of abuse. The fan is rated at 67,000 hours, which at 100/days of service per year running for 5 hours at a clip I should be able to snowboard 134 seasons before I need to replace the fan.
For the hose I found 25′ of 1/2″ conduit for $10. It’s pretty stout stuff and maintains its curve fairly well which is a blessing if you want it and a curse if you don’t. I slashed the bottoms that fit over the barbs so they can come off easier, and put little holes near the ends in the sidewalls that go into the boots/gloves.
I can dry 10 items at a time, and the whole thing breaks down relatively easily. I place it (safely) near the pellet stove so there’s plenty of warm air about and no need to add a separate heating element. It’s sort of obvious: after a day of snowsports you want to be warm and dry too so the heater will most definitely be on.
If I had to do another, my shopping list would look like this:
10 pipe fittings, cost around $15.
3/4 ply or particle board, maybe $5-$20.
Done cheaply you’ll be in for around $50 and have something that absolutely clowns on the piece of garbage plastic jobbers out there, nevermind you’ll have 5x the capacity and a much longer product life. The only downside is that you’ll have an octopus of death dryer in your living room.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with having money in your pocket and enjoying your life. But I think it’s worth reminding ourselves of just where snow sports do and do not exist in the American socio-economic system. To date, I can count the amount of black skiers and snowboarders I’ve met on two hands and still be able to fasten my bindings. Not only is skiing and snowboarding a sport for wealthy folks, but it also is a white sport and I’m not just talking about snow.
And before you spaz out and tell me about your friend Jose or Leroy that you ride/ski with, let’s let the data speak for itself, compiled by SIA/Physical Activity Council in 2013:
So without further ado, here’s the strategy I employ for paying my mortgage and snowboarding at the same time.
1) Don’t do it unless you’re going to do it a lot. Let’s just be blunt: there are a ton of up front costs that you will eat, even if done cheap. If this isn’t a sport you can really see yourself doing, pick something else. If you want to sample it on the cheap, go to a lower-priced resort in the springtime when you hopefully don’t need serious cold weather clothes.
2) Buy your skis, boards, boots, bindings, poles, and other gadgets on Craigslist. You can easily shell out $2,000 for skis/boarding gear and another $1,000 for clothes if you purchase new. For $200 I got a decent 7 year old board in okay condition and bindings that were good enough. Find the guy or gal that bought their stuff new, used it a few times, and fell out of the sport. Also, don’t be that guy or gal yourself.
3) Check the rental vs. buying math. Figure $35 to rent a board, boots, and bindings (similar rig for skiers). I got my board/boots/bindings for roughly $320, so really it can pay to rent for a while unless you know you’re in the sport to stay. Also, get boots first which are harder to size, more personal, and will chop some cash off the rental prices. One benefit to renting that people talk about is that you get a chance to experience different equipment. Truthfully I think that’s horse manure because most folks renting are just starting out and you’re not on some badass Capita Mercury for your rental board, nor should be on one.
4) Buy your clothes at the local big-box sporting goods store. I scored some sweet snow bibs on sale for $30. Do I want the $250 Dakine ones? Hell yeah I do. Are they better? Sure! Do I have $220 left in my wallet to put food in my fridge? Damn straight.
5) Buy your boots new from a store you can take them back to if they don’t fit. Sorry, but you’ll need to drop ~$150 minimum for snowboard boots (no idea on ski boots). Like most shoe purchases, if you get something that doesn’t fit it’s going to be a nightmare and ruin everything. Find them at the big-box stores.
6) Don’t ever buy any food from the lodge, ever, ever. It’s nice to have a warm cup of coffee and some eggs in the morning. Paying $25 for it though is ridiculous. Most lodges have a microwave and it will be your best friend. The food in my backpack generally looks like this:
Some paper towels to nuke the sandwiches and to clean up your filthy self.
A couple of Monster energy drinks. I’m here to shred, I’ll drink after the last chair. Speaking of chairs, drink your drinks on the chairs to save time.
A Cliff bar or whatever is cheap and on sale. These are sort of crap food but if you’re a little hungry it can make the difference between staying on the hill or packing it in early. Warning: cold ones are like eating rocks.
7) Get a season pass if you ski a lot, or look for discount passes.
A Mammoth/June/Summit/Bear pass is roughly $800. This sounds insane except remember that for Mammoth the lift tickets are anywhere from $103-$134 per day. Average to $118/day and the season pass pays for itself on day 7. For those of us lucky enough to ride all the time, if you ride roughly 1/3 of the days the park is open you’re spending $10/day, saving roughly 92%.
Costco is known to carry a 4-for-$300 deal for Mammoth, bringing each ticket to $75. While not insanely cheap, it’s still much better than full price.
8) Don’t go to expensive resorts if you’re learning. June Mountain, 20 minutes north of Mammoth, is awesome: long runs, almost always empty, beautiful scenery, and ~60% the cost of Mammoth. The last I checked, lessons were roughly 1/2 the cost of Mammoth. If you’re taking lessons, you’re going to be on a narrow slice of the mountain anyway. Why pay big bucks for a ticket to a mountain that you’ll only see the beginner slopes on? Plus, some spots (like June Mountain) have kids riding for free.
9) Don’t rent from the resort. If you need to rent, you will almost absolutely find cheaper deals and a better selection in town. Look around on Yelp and call around. Also, they probably open earlier and stay open later. You won’t need to cut into your slope time by waiting around in the gross-stinky rental area.
10) Stash your backpack in the trees. If all you have is sunscreen, some food, and an IPA for later sitting in your backpack, go off trail a bit and stash it in the trees. Lockers at Mammoth are $5 per use. So if you go in and out of your locker three times, which is of course why you have a locker, you can rack up $15 right there. Put your wallet/phone/keys on your person and keep your stuff in a bag in the forest. No one wants your crappy old Jansport bag.
11) Stay somewhere cheap. I spent a week with my daughter buzzing June and Mammoth before we moved up here, and I found a $50/night AirBnB in Lake Crowley. It was a little… rustic, but it worked and we had a great time. We brought groceries with us, cooked in the kitchen, and popped the PS4 onto the TV to hang out in the evenings.
About the worst thing you can do is roll into a nice resort armed with nothing but a credit card. The more you need to do in a resort town and the faster you need it done the more you will pay through the nose.
As much as I feel for the businesses that cater to an increasingly affluent white crowd, the business owners and employees of those businesses save their pennies as well. When the owner of the “local board shop” goes on vacation you can bet that he or she is shopping in advance and trying to stretch their dollar. I hope that this article helps other non-ultra-rich snow spots enthusiasts get more enjoyment from an activity which seems to be getting more and more out of reach.
With both of my kids, my youngest being 3, I try to keep them acclimated to their gear. There are a lot of spooky things going on when you get on a ski slope:
Who-the-hell-knows-what kind of winter conditions. Horizontal snow knocking down visibility is a real problem.
Gloves that make everything hard.
A slippery surface.
Parents who know they’ve spent good money to be there that day, understandably a little short on nerves and wanting things to go well.
Scary chair lifts.
“Cool guys” ripping through the lift lines because they’re too-in-the-zone to slow down.
Anything you can do to familiarize your kids in advance will help. We’re using a Burton Ringlet and just pulling around in the grass. Is it the same as being on snow? Hell no. But do the balance skills, gear feeling, and stance feeling transfer over? You betcha.
Trying the stuff on in the living room is a good start. The worst of all is just grabbing gear from the rental shop and going for it. The more you can do to acclimate your kids to their sport the more you’ll be able to focus on the whole “riding” thing when you’re actually on the slippery white stuff with chairlifts buzzing about.