June Mountain: A True Alternative

June Lake, CA – Less than a thirty-minute drive from gigantic Mammoth Mountain lies June Mountain. June is a small resort that falls squarely in the category of “hidden gems.” June’s terrain is ideal for families who want to ski together, especially if the group includes some boarders. Groups with a number of beginner and intermediate snow sliders will love it. If you prefer uncrowded slopes and a lack of liftlines you’ll adore June, especially when neighboring Mammoth is jam-packed despite the common ownership between the two resorts.

The desert through which route 395 passes en route from southern California is bleak and magnificent.  After Lancaster is the town of Mohave (as in the desert) and it is wide-open and flat from there to Bishop, 30 miles from Mammoth Lakes.  The road runs up the eastern side of the Sierras and has a reputation for accessing a huge amount of the world’s best backcountry skiing.  You’ll nearly veer off the road as you stare at the couloirs, bowls, and vast fields of white so close that they look like you could reach out of the car window and touch them.  Especially north of Bishop, your jaw will drop.  At one point the road is less than 30 miles from Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48 states, and a bit more than 30 miles from Death Valley, the lowest and hottest point.  It doesn’t look like it, but mountain summits that begin rising at the side of the road are over 10,000 feet higher than the valley floor on which you are driving.  It is the greatest vertical relief over just a few miles in the lower 48, and is surpassed by few places anywhere.

When you pull into the parking lot at June at least one member of your group is going to beg to leave. Don’t listen to them. The resort’s single most extreme, rocky, double-diamond run, named The Face directly faces the parking lot. After a chairlift ride soaring above The Face your group will be rewarded with terrain suitable for everyone, not just experts. June’s massive Superpipe and multiple jib parks are sure to please the boarders in your group.

June Meadows Chalet (photo: Wade Nelson)
June Meadows Chalet (photo: Wade Nelson)

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Powder Chute below the June Mountain Summit. (photo: June Mountain)
Powder Chute below the June Mountain Summit.
(photo: June Mountain)

June Mountain Summit (photo: June Mountain)
June Mountain Summit (photo: June Mountain)

The breathtaking lift ride from the parking lot / ticket office takes you directly to the June Meadows Chalet, complete with a cafeteria, bar, big stone fireplace and walls lined with pictures and trophies dating back to the 1930s. Intimate tables along the frontside of the Chalet offer a commanding view of Mono Lake and the surrounding mountains. The chalet provides an ideal base camp for the day’s skiing or boarding. Groups often stake out a picnic table as members come and go from the mountain. On sunny, spring-like days, you couldn’t ask for anywhere nicer to relax and catch rays. Two lifts rise from the chalet, J6, and J2. J6 is a high speed quad servicing Rainbow Summit. Rainbow Summit accesses exclusively beginner and intermediate terrain.

J2 a double, takes you from the chalet to J7, a high-speed quad servicing June Mountain Summit. June Mountain Summit accesses mostly advanced and expert terrain, with a single run, the Matterhorn for intermediate descents. Advanced and expert skiers will simply do laps under J7 all day, on Schatzi, Davo’s Drop, Pro Bowl, Sunset, and in the trees in-between these runs.

I asked a ski patroller eating breakfast in the June Meadows Chalet why there was a rope across the entrance to The Face that I had just ridden over.  “Let me ask the area director,” he replied, and turned to the guy next to him. June is like that.  The director answered that there just wasn’t enough cover yet, although some folks had poached it.  He thought I’d find better powder by going up higher, and recommended chairs J4 and J7.

I found J4 first.  It serves blue cruisers with swaths of trees between them.  As I rode the lift on a Sunday, I looked around and saw 30 empty chairs behind me and another 30 in front.  I looked at the swath of trees to my right.  A light breeze stirred and the conifers dropped a fairy dust of powder.  I stared hard and suddenly the hallways of glistening white began to appear.  I looked around again at the empty chairs and tried not to wet my pants in anticipation.

Fifty feet after unloading I was in the trees.  Bounce, stay light, don’t hang onto a turn, stay close to the fall line so as not to run out of speed.  The snow flowed sensuously over my thighs and waist, three turns, five, … connect the spaces, rise and sink, don’t rush, go with the flooow.  The liftie immediately figured out what I was up to and gave me a big grin every time I came back.  I explored only two of these tree swaths; there was no need to range further.

One neat thing about the blacks diamonds on June Mountain peak is that most of them are quite short, which encourages skiers and boarders just moving into the advanced/expert categories to give them a shot. You’re not going to get onto something you never get off of.

To get back to the chalet, skiers descending runs under J7/J4 need to pick up J3, a short lift out of a natural bowl in the mountain, to where they can ski the rest of the way back down. Snowboarders accessing the Superpipe will likely be riding J2 all day, unless they’re continually walking back up.

When there’s enough snow, experts will ski and ride The Face, Carson, Lower Carson, and Gull Ridge/Gull Canyon. These double-blacks, beneath J1, are strictly for experts.

June has one on-mountain restaurant, Stew Pot Slim’s, located at the bottom of J3. It’s a convenient place not just for meals, but to take a bathroom break. You can reassemble your group at certain times of the day there. You can watch snowboarders in one of the jib parks from Slim’s sun deck.

We had a six-year old never-ever in our group who wanted to learn to snowboard. June’s mostly Australian instructors were wonderful, and did a great job with Madeline. Rarely have I seen a youngster so eager to take another lesson. After three days of instruction Maddy was skidding down River Run with the rest of her family, even if it was on her heelside. My only complaint about June’s ski school would be that they don’t have a separate lift set up next to the bunny hill for instructing kids how to safely get on and off lifts. Since that’s one of the hardest parts of learning to snowboard, it’s a much-needed addition.

One thing our group really appreciated about June’s ski school was that lessons began a bit later in the day –10 a.m. and 11 a.m. It’s not much of a vacation when you have to get up at 6 a.m. in order to get youngsters fed, dressed, outfitted, and to the top of the mountain in time for 9 a.m. lessons. Another great thing about June Mountain is you can safely turn pre-teens loose. They’re not going to get lost on this mountain. You can pretty much wait at the bottom of J3, by Stew Pot Slim’s, and you’ll run into everyone sooner or later.

Off to the side of the Chalet a June Mountain employee was welding a brand new rail slide for one of June’s multiple jib parks. June has parks with rails everywhere from six inches off the ground to several feet. Anyone can take a shot at grinding June’s smaller rails, and work his way up. Snow skates are permitted in some of June’s jib parks, another fun thing to try. June uses a SuperPipe Dragon to reshape the pipe every evening. Several pro boarders reportedly hang out there, away from the crowds at Mammoth.

Almost all of the beginner and intermediate runs at June get groomed every night. When I visited snow was in short supply, but there were no bare spots or brown snow, just corduroy that took a couple of hours each morning to soften up. Deer Bowl, with just a bit of fresh, would be the perfect place for first-time bowl skiers and boarders.

At the end of the day most skiers download the J1 lift back to the parking lot. My buddy and I chose to head down Canyon Trail, which offers a switchback cat track to the bottom. Canyon Trail is definitely an advanced intermediate run, with several lips that you wouldn’t want to accidentally go over. Still, it’s a fun way to end the day, and get in one final run after the lifts close.

There’s a word for the community of June Lake. Small. A single two-lane road accesses the town. Perhaps a dozen sleepy motels and various rental cabins line the main street, along with a pizza place and a couple of other restaurants. A general store offers both groceries and hardware. I’m not saying you can’t find everything you need in June Lake, but we found it easier to simply do the 25-minute drive over to Mammoth to hit a real supermarket and other stores – and stop at the sledding hill half way between.

If you prefer enjoyable over extreme, if you’re looking for fresh tracks more than a few hours after a storm, or if you’re simply looking to get away from the crowds, June is a great place for you and your family.

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