Take the wheel with High Sierra Jeep Adventures in June Lake

High  Sierra Jeep Adventures splashes through stream outside June Lake near Mammoth. (Photo courtesy of High Sierra)

High Sierra Jeep Adventures splashes through stream outside June Lake near Mammoth. (Photo courtesy of High Sierra)

By Richard Irwin, Staff Writer

They say necessity is the mother of invention.  So when a lack of snow trashed the economy of the little Sierra ski town of June Lake, civic leaders got together to discuss their plight.

“We were trying to think of more ways to attract tourists,” recalled Ian Fettis. “So I suggested we start a Jeep tour of the local mountains. We would employ local men to serve as the guides.”

The successful mechanical engineer from Costa Mesa knows a lot about starting a new life. The So Cal resident visited June Lake to go skiing and he never left.

“I just fell in love with the little town, so I moved here and built my own cabin,” Fettis explained. He even drives the town’s red fire truck.

“When we get a call, the mayor usually beats me to the fire hall, but he’s also the fire captain,” the amicable engineer reported. “We’re all volunteer firemen helping our community.”

Since it was Fettis’ grand idea, everyone thought he should start the new tourist enterprise. The bearded engineer spent the next two years getting all the permits High Sierra Jeep Adventures needed to carry tourists through the Eastern Sierras.

“We bought some Jeeps because they’re so rugged. Then we put $6,000 worth of custom equipment on them to handle the load,” Fettis explained.

Today, the adventure company takes tourists on four-hour tours of the surrounding mountains. And to add a special twist, they let YOU do the driving. That’s right, they’re happy to turn the wheel over to anyone with a driver’s license.

High  Sierra Jeep Adventures rolls through mountains outside June Lake near Mammoth. (Photo courtesy of High Sierra)

High Sierra Jeep Adventures rolls through mountains outside June Lake near Mammoth. (Photo courtesy of High Sierra)


“Our guides teach them how to drive a four-wheel-drive vehicle and guide them along trails that they can handle,” Fettis explained. “We use automatic transmissions so they don’t even have to know how to drive a stick shift.”

Still, there have been complications with this you-drive-it policy. Fettis said one couple from New York became so freaked out about driving the twisty, bumpy trails that they refused to go any further.

“And another couple from San Francisco said they couldn’t handle the peace and quiet in the mountains,” he said. “They were used to the noise and crowds of the big city.”

Fettis encouraged the couple to relax and enjoy the solitude of the mountains. By the end of the week, the urbanites had begun to enjoy small town life and the beautiful scenery.

He enjoys sharing these stories as well as many fascinating facts during a four-hour tour.

“I don’t usually drive too many tours, but I wanted to get out today and enjoy the mountains,” the busy engineer said.

To allay our fear, Fettis decided to show us what the Jeeps could do in the steep terrain. Soon, we were crawling through the woods, slipping between trees on a windy, bumpy trail bracketed by Jeffrey Pines.

Our red Jeep gamely plowed through the crest of the hill, then dropped us down into another valley. The four-wheel-drive vehicle proved as surefooted as a mountain goat.

“Normally, we try and get a feel for what might suit our guests the best. And go with that,” Fettis said.

Guests can learn about the history of the Eastern Sierras, enjoy some scenic views and test their courage on some hair-raising trails.

Soon, it was time for one of us to volunteer to take the wheel. And a plucky Englishman from Tucson stepped up to the challenge.

“I learned to drive my friend’s four-wheel-drive in Panama and we spent a lot of time driving around Latin America,” the Arizona transplant said.

“This is so cool! Fabulous, fabulous views in the mountains as well as these really rough Jeep trails. And this guy gives me a Jeep and tells me to put in low four-wheel-drive and go anywhere you want to. It’s fabulous driving, I’m having a great time,” Rob said.

He felt that anyone who can drive a car well can handle a four-wheel-drive, though they might have a white knuckled grip on the wheel.

“If you have some experience, you can drop it in low and have a nice, relaxed four-wheel-drive experience,” he continued.

Along the way, we enjoyed some great views of the Devil’s Punch Bowl and other caldera. We made several stops to talk about the region, including a short drive along the aqueduct that provides water to a thirsty Los Angeles.

High  Sierra Jeep Adventures splashes through stream outside June Lake near Mammoth. (Photo courtesy of High Sierra)

High Sierra Jeep Adventures splashes through stream outside June Lake near Mammoth. (Photo courtesy of High Sierra)

Finally, it came my turn to drive and I jumped behind the wheel. It was fun following our guide as we rolled through the mountainside. With steep slopes and no guard rails, I kept our speed down as my confidence rose.

Time flew by and we headed back to June Lake. Everyone said they had enjoyed our afternoon in the mountains.

A four-wheel-drive tour costs $150 for the first person and $50 for each additional person for up to three. For more information, call 949-294-6588 or see their website at www.highsierrajeepadventures.com.




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Soar like an eagle with SkyTime Air Tours over the Eastern Sierras in Mammoth

Aerial view of a lake in Mammoth. (Photo courtesy of Skytime Air Tour)

Aerial view of a lake in Mammoth. (Photo courtesy of Skytime Air Tour)

By Richard Irwin, Staff Writer

If you want to get a fresh perspective of Mammoth, try the new helicopter tour. I’m using to seeing the Sierras from ground level or even 11,000 feet on top of Mammoth Mountain.

But a flight with SkyTime Air Tours out of the Mammoth Airport gave me a whole other view of the beautiful Sierra mountains. I began to appreciate the ruggedness of this vast mountain range.

We were excited to get an aerial view of Mammoth Lakes. And veteran pilot Steve Roski proved an able aviator as well as an interesting tour guide.

“I grew up in Hawaii and flew helicopter tours in the islands for many years,” the amicable aviator explained. “But I got bored and decided to try some place new. That’s when I got the job with SkyTime Tours. Now I see something different every day and live in another beautiful place.”

After signing the required four pages of legal waivers, Roski led us out onto the airport tarmac, where he described the Robinson R66 helicopter we would be flying in.

Family poses with SkyTime Air Tours in Mammoth. (Photo courtesy of SkyTime Air Tours)

Family poses with SkyTime Air Tours in Mammoth. (Photo courtesy of SkyTime Air Tours)

“This helicopter is one of the few that can fly at this elevation. It’s powerful Rolls Royce turbine is especially built for this aircraft and can deliver up to 1,000 horsepower, while the helicopter only weighs 1,000 pounds,” the pilot said. “It is also specially built for tours with large windows for all the passengers.”

Strapping in, we voted to give Los Angeles photographer Ellen Clarke the front seat. She thought she could get the best photos sitting in the glass nose.

My friend Emele from Hawaii joined me in the two back seats. Snapping on our seatbelts, we donned heavy Boss headphones that would cancel out the roar of the mighty turbine right behind us.

We could also talk to the pilot and listen to his fascinating commentary about the Alpine environment. This must be how Eagles feel as they soar through the mountains.

Passing over the thermal power plant, we were soon slipping through the canyons. Glittering lakes dotted the landscape below.

Off in the distance, we saw Mono Lake. It is one of the oldest lakes in North America, forming more than 760,000 years ago.

“Every lake is a different color, depending on the minerals that have seeped into the water,” Roski noted. “Most are different shades of aquamarine, but there’s one lake we call Purple Lake because of its bright purple color.”

Looking down, we found June Lake below, with it’s ski runs cutting through the Pondera pines. This basin had been carved out by glaciers, and was the home of Paiute Indians.  down.

Horsetail Falls spilled over a impressive cliff. It sits just below the 11,000 Carson Peak.

Soon we were climbing toward Minaret Summit. It’s craggy peaks formed a jagged skyline which you’ve actually seen many times before.

“They used the Minaret as the background in flying monkey scene in the ‘Wizard of Oz,” Roski said.

Flying on, we approached a gigantic volcanic dome that I didn’t recognize. But soon, I realized it was the backside of Mammoth Mountain, a place I have skied dozens of times.

Jagged Mammoth Mountains jut up in the air. (Photo courtesy of SkyTime Air Tours)

Jagged Mammoth Mountains jut up in the air. (Photo courtesy of SkyTime Air Tours)

Without its thick mantel of snow, the 11,000 foot peak looked foreign to me. As we circled the gondola station on top, tiny mountain bikers shot off the summit. We watched as they zigzagged down the mountain.

The massive dome was formed in a series of eruptions 57,000 years ago. Even today, it still spews volcanic gases.The ski resort at the base looked like a toy train village.

“One year, a geologist warned that the volcano was going to errupt again and tourists were too afraid to come,” Roski said. “But as you can see, we’re still here.”

Moving on, we ran into Mineral Hill, the place where Mammoth’s gold rush had begun. Thousands rushed to seek their fortunes in the Eastern Sierras.

“They still mine gold there, but they keep it pretty hush hush,” Roski added.

Next up was Convict Lake, so named when a band of convicts robbed local banks and hid out here. You’ve seen the lake in movies such as “How The West Was Won” and “Star Trek: Insurrection.”

Dropping back into the valley, we slowly lost elevation.

“This helicopter loves to climb. It’s hard to get it to fly lower,” Roski said as the airport rolled into view.

Slowly, we sank back onto the tarmac. Ending our thrilling aerial adventure.

“It was great, the mountains were huge,” Emele said. “I’d highly recommend this tour to anyone.”

Clarke was also thrilled by the helicopter ride. The professional photographer couldn’t wait to download the photos she had taken.

The tours are customized for each customer and range from 15 to 90 minutes long. Prices begin at $88 per person in the four-man helicopter for 15 minutes. A 45-minute flight costs $225 per person for four.

For more information, call (321) AIR-TOUR / (321) 247-8687 in Mammoth Lakes. Check out their website at  www.skytime.com.




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Mammoth uses the bare necessities to deal with a bear problem


Mammoth Wildlife Manager poses near bear statue in Mammoth Village. Photo by Richard Irwin

Mammoth Wildlife Manager poses near bear statue in Mammoth Village. Photo by Richard Irwin

By Richard Irwin, Staff Writer

Steve Searles could barely contain his enthusiasm. Mammoth’s wildlife manager was talking about one of his favorite subjects — bears.

The tall, lanky warden had been hired to deal with the ursine problem, which frankly had become unbearable. Rampaging bears were gorging on dumpsters full of trash and running amok at the local Bank of America as well as the school.

“They told me to shoot eight bears to see if that solved the problem,” Searles recalled. “Then I was asked to shoot another eight if it helped.”

So the independent mountain man began to study his prey. When he discovered how smart the black bear is, Searles decided to try another way to deal with the dilemma.

“Black bears are the smartest animals. They’re smarter than pigs, dolphins and dogs,” Searles explained. “So I decided to teach the bears some manners.”

Instead of shooting the beleaguered bears with bullets, the amicable ranger decided to use bean bags, rubber bullets and other nonlethal rounds. Sure they would sting our four footed friends, but they wouldn’t “put them on the ground.”

Call it tough love, but Searles obviously loves his furry charges. In fact, he thinks mankind causes it’s own problems.

“We had stupid people feeding them sandwiches and not storing their garbage properly,” he remembered.

So Mammoth spent $1 million on bear-proof dumpsters. And Searles patrolled the mean streets, handing out instant justice like it was the Wild West.

Pretty soon, the black bears got the message. There was a new sheriff in town and he was a straight shooter. Bears crossing the line got a barrel of beanbags.

Soon, the chastised ursines were heading for the hills at the sound of his voice. And residents stopped rewarding the bears’ bad behavior.

In fact, everyone became so comfortable with the well-mannered bears, they no longer even notice them.

“If kids see a bear near their bus stops, it’s no big deal. They know the bears won’t hurt them,” Searles said.

And the bad news bears no longer hang out around the Bank of America or the local school. But Searles said the bears stroll through the upscale Mammoth Village every night.

“They know they can’t walk down the sidewalk during the day, but late at night they have the run of the place,” Searles said.

Still, tourists are terrified whenever they come across bears in Mammoth.

“They don’t know that black bears are 90 percent herbivores. They live on grass, roots and tubers,” Searles said.

He recalled one terrified couple from Long Beach, who had gone out to a local lake for some great fishing.

“The wife laid out a lavish picnic while her husband fished down the lakeshore,” Searles remembered. “When a black bear came walking down the beach, she keeled over because she thought she should play dead.”

The concerned bear stopped in its tracks, then began eating the lovely meal the considerate woman had laid out. When her husband saw what was happening he snuck into the woods.

“Don’t move! Play dead!” he begged his wife.

When Searles arrived, he yelled at the bear, which promptly scampered off into the brush. The furious woman began berating her husband for not rushing to her defence.

“You don’t have to stare a black bear down or play dead. Just tell him to get out of there,” Searles said.

The unusual idea worked almost over night. The bears learned what they could get away with and how bad manners were punished.

The well-trained bears kept other wild bears from entering the city limits. Soon peace reined again, and the iconic animals found a home in Mammoth.

“Other cities will send helicopters and SWAT teams whenever a bear is spotted in Los Angeles,” Searles noted. “The animals are just coming down from the mountains to look for food in this severe drought.”

Instead, police should use just the bare necessities to teach the bears some manners. Just like Searles did in Mammoth.


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Great hotel adds to a great vacation at the Westin Monache Resort in Mammoth

Gas fireplace warms studio suite at Westin Monache Resort in Mammoth. (Photo by Richard Irwin)

Gas fireplace warms studio suite at Westin Monache Resort in Mammoth. (Photo by Richard Irwin)

By Richard Irwin, Staff Writer   

A nice hotel room can make or break a vacation. Sure you can crimp on a cheap room, but if you’re staying more than a couple nights, you may actually save money by going with a more expensive room.

After all, you’re on a vacation, one of the rare times you can wind down and relax. A shabby room will make you wish you stayed home.

So I was very pleasantly surprised with my room at the Westin Monache Hotel in Mammoth. It’s a hybrid between the regular rooms you would find at the Mammoth Inn and the really nice condos for rent in the Mammoth Village.

We opted for a studio suite because it featured a kitchenette. With 400 to 500 square feet of space, it’s perfect for one or two people. If you want even more space, consider a one-bedroom suite with 550 to more than 800 square feet of space.

Kitchenette saves time and money at Westin Monache in Mammoth. (Photo by Richard Irwin)

Kitchenette saves time and money at Westin Monache in Mammoth. (Photo by Richard Irwin)

The Westin Monache is having its biggest sale of the sale. If you book by June 27, you’ll get the best rates off the season, with up to 15 percent off your stay through Oct. 15.

Our studio suite runs from $149 a night or 12,000 Starwood Starpoints. The one bedroom costs only $25 more at $174 a night. A huge two-bedroom suite begins at $269 for a 1,000 square feet of space and fully-equipped kitchen.

We love rooms with kitchenettes for the cost and convenience. Jumping out bed, we can throw together a quick, healthy breakfast. I packed  juice, cereal, yogurt, bread, jelly and oatmeal in a small cooler for a quick breakfast. There’s always coffee and tea in the rooms, in this case Starbucks coffee.

Of course, you can always order breakfast from room service. But you’ll pay more than $15 for an American breakfast with two eggs, potatoes, meat, toast, juice and beverage. Or $15 for a three-egg omelet.

Just do the math, if you can save $30 a day just on breakfast. Even more, if you bring some food for lunch.

Our kitchenette had state of the art appliances. including a little dishwasher under the counter. I’ve never seen such a small dishwasher, but anytime I can get out of washing the dishes, I’m happy.

The mini-fridge was pretty small, but it had an extra large frozen food section. I don’t always use it to make ice because it’s easier to get a bucket of ice down the hall.

A two-burner stove can easily handle basic cooking, while a large microwave oven sat right above. I was surprised by the kitchen cabinets, which offered a wealth of pots, pans and dishes. All neatly arranged for your use.

The studio suite was easily a couple steps above your average hotel room. The rugs and furniture were of a higher quality. Think a new home staged for an open house. I loved the little gas fireplace. It easily took the chill off the cool nights in the high Sierras. In fact, I could still see snow on the nearby mountain tops.

The fireplace works on a timer, so you can set it for a half-hour, hour or two-hours. That way, you can safely nod off with flickering flames lighting the room. But you have to ask a bellman to light the pilot light, which is turned off between stays to save energy.

Nice couch offers plenty of seating in room at Westin Monache Resort in Mammoth. (Photo by Richard Irwin)

Nice couch offers plenty of seating in room at Westin Monache Resort in Mammoth. (Photo by Richard Irwin)

I was immediately drawn by the huge window seat under a large picture window. I found myself snuggled up in the sunlight, listening to families splashing in the swimming pool five stories below.

This cozy nook became my refuge, giving me a great place to read one of my favorite books or newspapers. I felt like an eagle, resting in its nest up in the Ponderosa Pines.

Couldn’t watch the 32 inch LCD television from the window seat, but the couch or bed were fine for that. There’s also a nice easy chair by the fireplace.

The Heavenly bed was very comfortable. You can even request a Heavenly crib for the baby. There’s even a Heavenly dog bed if you want to bring Fido. There’s also a bewildering array of bedroom pillows, so you can spend some time finding the pillow that is just right for you.

As a resident of sunny Southern California, lighting is very important to me. I like my rooms bright and cheery. While my large picture window didn’t provide as much sunlight as I would have liked, other lighting made up the difference.

A trio of three-way lamps bracketed the bed and couch. A large chandelier lit the two-person table, while a spotlight illuminated a lovely desert print over the white fireplace. The kitchen offered cool florescent lights under the cabinets as well as two cans in the ceiling.

I appreciate when you can control the room lighting. Sometimes I want mood lighting so the fire stands out. Sometimes, I just want utilitarian lighting so I can see what I’m doing.

Elegant bathroom offers large tub and shower. (Photo by Richard Irwin)

Elegant bathroom offers large tub and shower. (Photo by Richard Irwin)

Soft lighting in the elegant bathroom kept the glare off the tiled walls to a minimum. A lovely wooden vanity with marble top offered open storage for towels and hairdryer in a little basket. The unusual bathtub was quite deep, but narrow. And water rushed out of the silver faucet as hot as you can stand it.  A rain forest shower head gently sprays water.

There’s nothing like bundling up in the fresh, thick cotton robes to sit by the fire.

There was bit of a struggle finding enough storage for all the clothes we brought because we weren’t sure hot cool it would be. But we finally got everything in the three large drawers and small sliding door closet

Checking in was quick and easy with the friendly staff in the small elegant lobby. And Los Angeles drivers have a choice of valet or self parking. Check in is at 3 p.m., with a check out time of noon the next day.

Located on Hillside Drive, you shouldn’t be surprised to find the Westin Monache sitting on a little hill. You can walk down the street or use the stairs to cross over to the bars and restaurants in Mammoth Village. Take you time until you get used to the altitude.

The Westin also has a 24-hour fitness facility, as well as a lovely outdoor heated swimming pool.


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