In the minds of most California locals, winter hibernation is over after the start of the New Year. People either return to work from their out-of-town holiday excursions with family and children go back to their daily school routines. Gone are the local holiday town gatherings and parties that bring friends and family together for good tidings and cheer, and holiday decorations are dutifully packed away until its annual reveal the following November.
During this time, however, Mother Nature sometimes gifts us with heavy rains and cold temperatures, which usually means that a decent amount of snowfall can be found in the nearby mountains. Locals plan for this phenomenon by renting out cabins at the mountain resorts for the weekend, often securing reservations weeks in advance, at the prospect of ample snowfall to be had before it hardens from visitor overuse, or a drastic temperature change transform the soft snow into slippery ice, or, worse, causes the snow to melt away until the following winter. More spontaneous folks wake up at the crack of dawn the day after a rain fall in the hopes that the early drive towards the mountain terrain will bear the reward of fresh powder of soft snow.
As a child, my parents would often do the latter since Mt. Baldy, Mountain High and Snow Summit were just a stone’s throw away from our home. As I got older, venues of my local mountain adventures changed. North Sierra’s Mammoth Mountain became the destination for 25+ year old couples with disposable income and the fearless desires to ski down steep mountainsides during rough snowstorms. My husband and I found ourselves going in on a huge cabin full of nine other childless couples a handful of times many moons ago for skiing, snowboarding, drink and merriment. When we became parents to two small children, Big Bear Lakes became the place to go for snow play and cabin gatherings with other frugal families with children too young to venture out on their own.
The memories of the abundant snowfall at Mammoth Mountain during the first El Nino inspired me to forego our usual local mountain adventures this time around. This year, I wanted to venture out of our usual local Southern California mountain visits to show the kids what an experience it would be to visit a place with guaranteed awesome snowfall. I decided to do this, however, at the last minute, so finding decent lodging during a three-day holiday weekend at Mammoth Mountain proved to be a challenge.
I was grateful to have stumbled upon general information about its neighboring city, June Lake. June Lake is a small mountain community located approximately 20 minutes north of Mammoth Mountain. June Lake is 7,500 feet in elevation, 1,000 less than Mammoth’s 8,500 feet. So while many head to Mammoth for guaranteed fresh feet of snow for skiing/snowboarding adventures, families with small children not yet ready to partake in the winter sports head north to June Lake for snow play at a similarly scenic portion of Inyo National Forest, but away from the popular mountain “scene” of Mammoth.
Perfect. I envisioned a quieter snow visit for my husband, children and me to enjoy together anyway. I wanted to partake in unplugging from it all while lodging at a secluded cabin in the woods. The thought of snow sledding, engaging in a friendly snowball fight and exercising teamwork by building a snowman with the kids during the day, all without having to go to commercially designated snow play area, really sold my husband on my last minute idea to book this trip. As a side note for families who do have children who desire to go down June Mountain’s slopes (and hopefully a personal note for me to remember next winter when we venture off on our first family ski adventure), June Mountain — known as “California’s Family Mountain” — currently offers free skiing for children ages 12 and under. Read more about it here.
After our five-hour drive from our coastal Southern California home, three-hours of enjoying the scenic views of the Eastern Sierras during the Winter, and a quick stopover at the side of the road of Mammoth Lakes to install tire chains, my family and I arrived at June Lake early Saturday evening. The room at Whispering Pines, which we would consider home for the next three days, was nice and toasty when we walked in. We unpacked, prepared and enjoyed our family dinner at our room’s cozy kitchen, and soon settled into our beds and turned in for the night.
We woke up the following morning to this beauty. I did not realize how close we were to this breathtaking view of June Mountain’s 1,500 acres of uncrowded slopes.
Here’s the view from the outside of our lodging.
My online research of June Lakes repeatedly pointed me to this beautiful (and free!) snow play area between June Lake and Crestview/Mammoth Lakes off Highway 138, which is accessible while traveling five minutes southbound from June Lake’s June Loop turnoff. This unincorporated snow play area can be found on your GPS using these coordinates: 37°45’49.7″N 118°59’58.9″W However, the best way I can describe the physical markers of this awesome snow play area is that if you are traveling southbound, look for the second yellow sign that marks Highway 138’s second road split; The parking area will be on the immediate right of this sign. It you pass the snowplow maintenance barns, you’ve gone too far, so you must make a U-turn, head North, then make another U-turn, into the small parking area.
We did not just enjoy the scenic beauty of natural snow, everywhere… we physically enjoyed playing in the snow together. What did we do? What didn’t we do.
Sledding, snowball fights, snow angel making, snowman making and hiking… all these activities eventually led to our grumbling tummies, so we decided to return to June Lake’s business district to grab a bite to eat, followed by some window shopping. Locals suggested we dine at June Lake Brewing, ordering food at the nearby Ohana’s Hawaiian Soul Food truck first, beforehand. We loved how kids were welcome at this casual pub.
After purchasing my June Lake souvenir t-shirt, we decided to return to our lodging for a short rest.
After about an hour, we glanced outdoors and saw this beauty.
What else was out there? We didn’t know, but the kids were determined to squeeze in more snow play despite the evening sky descending upon us.
The next morning, reality set in. We do not live here so we must prepare our return to our normal lives in Santa Monica. After packing up our gear and saying farewell to our temporary home in the mountains, we decided to walk around the neighborhood one last time to enjoy the rustic views of June Lake before heading home.
Of course, once we were on Highway 138, we just had to squeeze in one last excursion of snow play. Our repeat of snow sledding, snowball fights, snowman and snow angel making lasted two fun hours.
Finally, we convinced ourselves to leave this magical place. As we approached the turnoff to Mammoth Mountain, we decided to remove our tire chains.
What a fantastic time we had this year at the off-the-beaten path winter destination of June Lake, California. The kids proclaimed that this vacation outing was the best one ever. After speaking with some of the June Lake storefront owners, we learned that June Lake is also an awesome place to visit during the summer months where ample hiking trails, camping and bike riding excursions can be found.
Hmm, maybe we will come back again later this year. For now, we’ll relish in our collective fond memories of our wonderful family winter adventure at June Lake/June Mountain.—-
Free Snow Play at June Lake
Inyo National Forest
between June Lake and Crestview/Mammoth Lakes off Highway 138
June Mountain Ski Resort
June Lake, CA 93529
June Lake Brewing
131 South Crawford Avenue
June Lake, CA 93529
Whispering Pines Motel
18 Nevada Street
June Lake, CA 93529
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