Snowshoes = Freedom

Coming Back from Minaret Vista

Strapping on a pair of snowshoes opens up a range of options for your outdoor recreation. Too much deep snow for hiking or running? Have relatives visiting who don’t ski? A little short on cash for a lift ticket? Snowshoes to the rescue! There’s no reason to be housebound if you want to get out and enjoy the snow.

Snowshoeing is easy to learn because it’s very similar to walking. After a few minutes of learning how to tramp around in snowshoes, you’ll be ready to go. You can strap them directly onto shoes or boots, so you don’t need a lot of extra equipment. Relative to other winter sports, snowshoeing is inexpensive with daily rentals running about $20 a day and a purchase price as low as $130. Local outlets where you can rent snowshoes or find out more about the sport include Footloose Sports, Pedego Mammoth Lakes, and Tamarack Lodge.

Native Americans and early settlers used snowshoes as way to navigate through deep snow in order to hunt and move from place to place. Like the oversized feet of a snowshoe hare, snowshoes provide a broad base so that your feet don’t fall through the snow. Trying to walk through deep snow with the resulting “post-holing,” is inefficient and quickly exhausting.

Early snowshoes were wooden with leather bindings. Today, snowshoes are made from lightweight plastic and metal and streamlined for maneuverability and speed. There are even racing snowshoes for those of you who want to fly up to the top of mountains or enter competitive events.

If you include some climbing in your outing or maintain an aggressive pace, snowshoeing can turn into a real workout, burning as many as 700 calories an hour. There’s nothing like a vigorous snowshoe hike to get the creative juices flowing, stimulate problem-solving or generate simple good will toward your fellow human.

You can also adopt a slower pace, stopping to catch your breath or take in the amazing scenery, whether you’re deep in the quiet woods with only the sound of snow falling from the trees or out in a snow field enjoying the sun and a wide vista.

An advantage of snowshoes is that almost all terrain is open to you. If the snow is sparse, you can remove the snowshoes and continue as a hiker; if the snow becomes plentiful, you are prepared with equipment that will allow you to float along the top; if the coverage is slippery, snowshoes are equipped with metal jagged edges on the underside that allow you to grip the surface.

Snowshoes are only attached at the toe, allowing your heel to come up off the shoe. Be careful when stepping over an obstacle that your snowshoe doesn’t swing away from your foot leaving you vulnerable to a fall. Fortunately, modern snowshoes are easily removed and re-attached, so if you have to take them off to step over a fallen tree or navigate a creek, you’ll be back on your way in a jiffy.

Here are some other tips to make your outing most enjoyable:

    • Snowshoes are wider than normal shoes, so adopting a slightly wider stance will ensure that you don’t step on your other snowshoe which can result in a fall;
    • Snowshoeing can feel awkward at first, so using poles will increase your comfort level;
    • Vigorous snowshoeing will make you break a sweat, particularly if you are climbing to a summit where it can then be cold and windy. Dressing in layers will allow you to adapt to varying conditions;
    • Snowshoeing takes you out in the cold, sun and wind, so the usual precautions apply: bring your Camelbak or water bottle, wear a hat and apply sunscreen and lip balm;
    • If you’re venturing into deep snow, a pair of gaiters will keep snow out of your boots;
    • When you’ve gotten comfortable on your snowshoes, feel free to bring your baby or toddler along for company, strapped to your chest or back.

A route to check out is the Miracle Mile, a 300-foot climb from Main Lodge up Highway 203 to Minaret Vista. With the free shuttle service, you can get to Main Lodge from nearly anywhere in town. Put on your snowshoes next to the gondola building, skirt the kids’ ski schools and tramp up the bottom section of Road Runner, bearing right to follow Highway 203. You have to share the first section with skiers, snowboarders and the ski patrol on snowmobiles, but there’s plenty of room for them to pass you safely. Once you are out of the ski area, the world is your oyster, a lovely alley of snow-covered pines and above, the stunning blue of the Sierra sky, egging you on to keep climbing, past the guard house at the entrance down to Reds Meadow, and up to where you simply must turn around and admire the spectacular view of Mammoth Mountain where the skiers coming down the back of Chair 3 look like happy ants, scurrying down the snow. Up you go until you arrive at the summit with the payoff vista extravaganza of the Banner/Ritter range with the Minarets stealing the scene like brooding rock stars. On a more mundane note, there is no water at the top, but there are restrooms that are maintained throughout the winter (if the snow has not blocked the doors). You have several options for your descent: you can come back the way you came, or take a trail through the woods that roughly parallels the highway, or take Mountain View Trail, a much longer route that offers interesting terrain changes and views. You can be adventurous on snowshoes because it’s hard to get lost—you can always follow your footprints back the way you came, unless it’s snowing really hard.

Another option is to climb up Old Mammoth Road, perhaps in hiking boots, depending on whether or not the road is clear, and put on your snowshoes where the gates are closed in winter near the historic cabins. From there, the road is car free and provides a strenuous climb past Red Mountain, the remnants of the old mining settlements, and several historic markers up to Lake Mary Road where you can then cruise down to town either through the woods on the bike trail or along the roadway.

There are also miles of trails to enthrall you in the environs of Tamarack Lodge. Snowshoes can be rented there, or if you already own a pair, you can strike out on your own. Snowshoers are not allowed to tread in the groomed cross-country tracks, but you can tramp alongside them for free.

If you would like to commune with your fellow snowshoers, the Sierra Club has snowshoe outings, the Welcome Center offers some guided nature hikes on snowshoes, Tamarack Lodge has some special Full Moon snowshoe events, and for a challenge, you can sign up for the strenuous five-kilometer EZAKIMAK, a race up Mammoth Mountain which includes a 2,000 foot elevation gain, a “party at the top” and a lovely ride down in the gondola where you can gaze at your favorite ski run shining in the moonlight.

A final note about snowshoeing is that it is an especially green sport as it is not gravity-enabled. You don’t need a ski lift to take you up to higher elevation; you can just climb. If you want some downhill skiing, you can snowshoe up to elevation, carrying your skis, exchange your equipment and ski down. Snowshoeing doesn’t require batteries or electricity, just human calories burned to get you to where you want (or need) to be.


©2015 Jennifer K. Crittenden

This story was originally published in the Mammoth Times.