raising children in mammoth lakes

I received a message recently that posed a rather simple question I’ve not addressed in the years that I’ve been updating mammothguy.com.

How it has been to raise your children in Mammoth? It’s one of my biggest questions when considering moving to Mammoth Lakes.

one of my 7 readers

In short, it’s been terrific. One of the largest reasons we moved to Mammoth was that we felt we’d be able to provide a family life more consistent with our values. Living here certainly comes with its own bag of challenges. There are a lot of great places to raise kids, and the values we prioritize and the challenges we’re willing to manage may not line up with yours.

Abe Lincoln lived in abject poverty in a dirt floor cabin alone with his sister for months in the frontier wilderness: amazing people can come from a pretty diverse set of backgrounds. What follows is my particular set of experiences and whether Mammoth is the right place to raise a family I suppose my kids can answer when they read this decades from now.

For starters, this is us. We are quite literally one of the poster families for Mammoth Lakes Tourism, which I find absolutely hilarious.

School

For schools, Mammoth Lakes looks like this:

  • Mammoth Elementary School (TK-5)
  • Mammoth Middle School (6-8)
  • Mammoth High School (9-12)
  • Sierra High School (9-12, for kids with issues keeping them from attending MHS)
  • Cerro Coso Community College (Freshmen, Sophomore)

We have experience with the elementary and middle school, and have friends who attend and teach at the high school and community college.

I imagine Mammoth schools share a lot of the pros and cons with other small school districts. Small class sizes and small schools in general allow for tighter relationships and a more insular experience. The academic options though are quite limited once you get into middle school and certainly into high school. If you have a child that is being held back, or rushed too fast, by teaching-to-the-middle you’ll need to take the onus to find additional educational opportunities.

Earlier in the winter, the snow banks were higher than the bus.

We homeschooled our kids for a year because of the pandemic, and as such we saw some areas where they could fit right back in with their peers and others where they are now more than a year ahead. Because of the pandemic we’ve gotten a lot more familiar with hybrid school models so the idea of taking an additional, or in-place-of, online math course during the school year is not so weird.

This is further boosted by the ILC program that MHS offers. Mammoth has a rather high percentage of professional and quasi-professional athletes, some of which are in high school. So MHS regularly deals with students who are balancing their academic activities with a true Olympic training schedule.

When it gets to high school, there’s a decided lack of high end and AP offerings which can impact college admissions if left unaddressed. There are students being accepted to Berkley, Stanford, UCSD and other competitive schools so it’s not like your children are destined for burger flipping, but I would re-iterate that if you have academic goals that get into calculus (as an example) you may want to ensure you’re structuring that.

Related but I can’t write up everything now, there are programs and schools in our area that are pretty unique. Mammoth Lakes is in California, but not too far away is Nevada, and if you find yourself a resident there or qualify otherwise, there is the Nevada prepaid tuition program. UNR also has the Western Undergraduate Exchange program, fast-tracking in-state tuition for folks who live in Mammoth (and others). And of course there is Deep Springs College. Free, competitive, terrific, and unique.

Athletics

Perhaps more than anything else, you should not move to Mammoth if you are not even slightly into athletics and your children will basically be friendless if they don’t participate in sports. I’m lumping everything in here: snowsports, climbing, swimming, soccer, paddleboarding, softball, etc. Even indoor stuff like pickelball, I’m using the broad paintbrush of athletics.

Mammoth is an athletic and adventure-y town. Nearly everyone you meet will be a hiker, a skier, a boarder, a climber, a trail runner, and plenty of fringe stuff like snow-fat-bikes and para-gliding. If you do these things or have any interest in them you will make friends. If you don’t, no one will hang out with you because for the most part the only activities in town are:

  • Stay home and watch TV / drink / smoke pot.
  • Go to a bar and drink.
  • Athletics.

There is no mall, there really is no shopping. The only museum takes 10 minutes to see. There are two art galleries, you’ll have those wrapped up in 20 minutes. There’s a bowling alley and a movie theater. Truly, within a week you can visit and experience every human-made attraction that Mammoth Lakes has to offer. After that, outside you go.

Skis and boards are everywhere in the winter. Outside the elementary school.
Mammoth Elementary has their ski and snowboard PE programs during the winter, up at main lodge, once or twice a week depending on the particular program.
The JLA Banked Slalom race. Kids who grow up here become phenomenal athletes in their sport, even if they never pursue it past childhood.
My 10 year old scaling a 5.9 slab. We went swimming in the lake afterwards.
Mammoth has one of the best skate parks in the country and the summer skateboard programs are very popular.

Another thing about athletics is that living in Mammoth can be a huge pain in the ass. When a blizzard dumps ten feet of snow over two or three days you will see this event through one of two lenses:

  • This is awesome! I’m grabbing my backcountry rig once the snowpack stabilizes and lapping tele bowl until my legs fall off. I’ll shovel/blow so I can get a move on.
  • Cool, I have to shovel/blow all of this shit and then I’m going back inside. I hate this place.

You don’t need to be that good at any of these sports either. I’m not great at any sports I do up here, but I have fun. I get challenged, I stay active, and I can do things with my friends. My buddies took me climbing for the first time, my neighbor took me splitboarding into the Lakes Basin years ago for my first go at that. There are plenty of people who would love to ease you into a sport and show you the ropes, sometimes literally.

With kids it’s the same. For climbing there are tons of 5.4-5.9 routes that can be top roped. There are camps for kids, clubs for kids, and other parents who’d love to meet up. And this may honestly be one of my favorite things to do. Just grab the family, drive 10 minutes, and spend a few hours at the local crag and go swimming in a beautiful alpine lake. It’s easy to do and if you ever lose sight of how special it is, just notice the folks that drove for an entire day to be where you are.

A Physically Small Town

I have no pictures of this, but it’s an important point to mention. Living in San Diego, we had friends but we were frequently separated by 30-60 minutes of drive time with no traffic. And since everyone spent so much time driving it was a real pain to see each other.

Mammoth is only a few square miles, you can literally walk across it in a couple of hours. Driving anywhere takes minutes. Because there’s only one of most things (post office, hospital, etc) you frequently run into your friends and neighbors. Kids can spend a lot more time with their friends and with the free town bus and/or a bicycle, driving isn’t as critical (except mid winter).

A Blue Town in a Red County in a Blue State

Mammoth Lakes is a unique spot in a country suffering from high politicization and the urban rural divide. The voting patterns of Mono County outside of its lone incorporated town are decidedly red, but Mammoth is staunchly blue and has trended that way further over recent elections. It’s at a crossroads in that most of the people with enough money to buy a home here come from a (typically well-heeled) urban environment and brought their democratic voter registration with them. And with that good funding you can be largely insulated from some of the challenges facing rural America, but not all of them.

A tiny police force, a shall-issue CCW platform, areas with no cell coverage, and sometimes being truly and fully cut off from emergency services during severe weather are realities that most urban dwellers don’t have to contend with.

In all likelihood you will deal with a 500 pound black bear trying to break into your car or home. Sure, call the cops, but while they’re getting dressed and in their cars (if it’s in the non-patrol time), there are you are. Hint: bear spray works great if it’s getting that serious.

And while I’ve got my eyes on a new electric vehicle, it will be an electric pickup because there’s too many rural-living things that require a vehicle that can haul stuff.

Plink them targets!
The real heroes use bows.
Up near red cone.

This isn’t to say that your children need to participate in the local 4-H (aka barn mafia) or that you need to sprout a MAGA hat. And if you’re on the rural or redder side of the divide, know that ecological interests and social spending is typically championed here in Mammoth at the polls. I merely bring this up to highlight that you cannot insulate yourself from these issues like you can in an a larger urban setting.

It’s actually an aspect of living here I really enjoy. You can live in a bubble, only with friends who vote and think like you do, but that life sounds tragically shallow and only further expands a divide that is deleterious to our nation.

Owning and shooting a gun doesn’t make you a capitol insurrectionist, and saying “black lives matter” out loud doesn’t mean you want to throw a molotov into a Portland area Starbucks.

Families with a lot of Money

This is purely my opinion, but at least one person asked for it, so here it comes. This is linked to the well-heeled nature of folks who can afford to buy a home in a town where (currently) there are no single family homes listed for under $1,000,000.

When I was 14 years old, I first bucked hay one summer and then got a job in a bicycle shop. Part of my paycheck went to my family to help pay the bills. This is very out of step with my contemporaries in Mammoth, where the idea of needing money from your children to stay in the black would be tied with embarrassing or absurd: certainly it would be a shame that would be kept quiet.

There is a decided lack of work ethic in the children here, I find. And it’s for the very practical reason that they have no real reason to work. School is school and athletics are athletics, but both of those are curated and managed to a large degree. “Work” is different, and it builds things like grit and confidence. It’s the ability to know, balls to bones, that you can do something even if you don’t know how at the moment. Because you had to figure things out on your own. It’s working when you’re tired, when it’s dark, when it’s snowing, and when it’s all of the above. I think you can get close with things like trail running and rock climbing, but there’s just something unique about actual necessary and productive work.

When Kayla Tindes Flores graduated Mammoth High School, she said that the pejorative term used by other schools was that kids in Mammoth were either “Mexicans or millionaires”. In San Diego, there certainly are predominantly white and Latino neighborhoods, but there’s a lot of mixing about. In Mammoth, not so much. It’s shameful to say it out loud, but even more shameful to ignore it, that Latinos make up the bulk of the service industry and white people (who statistically make more money) tend to dominate snow and mountain sports in the USA and Europe.

I can only comment on my experiences, but if you’re looking to move here and buy a home you are probably a millionaire. And whether you are or you’re not, your kids will hang out with lots of families of other millionaires. True, many folks who moved here years ago snuck in before the real estate market reached into the upper stratosphere (including this author) so it’s not entirely a Vail or Aspen but it’s headed that way. The latest plans from Alterra to dump billions (yes, that’s with a “b”) into Mammoth will likely cement the transition.

The town is only so large, and while there are real attempts at affordable housing it’s a drop in the ocean. Moreover the concept is that service workers can simply take a bus up from Bishop. That people say this in the open, with no shame, makes me want to vomit, but real estate is a market economy and as I said, Mammoth has a fixed supply whilst the demand increases.

Yep, I Dig The Place

Don’t take my criticisms of Mammoth or Mono County in anyway to say that I wouldn’t move here and do it all over again in a heartbeat. If I could go back, I might tell myself it’s okay to be a mediocre athlete and to stop comparing myself against people who really are world class. I would have explored the Sierra a bit more, and started getting into foreign-to-me sports earlier (ice climbing, ice skating, rock climbing).

I would make sure the kids go into sports a big earlier as well, but at the same time only got competitive if they showed real interest in that.

I definitely am glad we have a south facing driveway.

I noted in the beginning that any place you live comes with a bag of opportunities and challenges, and that’s definitely the case for where you want to raise your family. It’s not hard to spot the terrific aspects of Mammoth: low crime, a small and tight knit community, active civic engagement. And there very well are other challenges and realities I know nothing about. If you’re a family person here in Mammoth, feel free to agree or disagree in the comments. It would do nothing but paint a fuller picture.

2 comments

  1. So interesting! I’ve been following you and your wife for years and remember when you moved there – crazy to think that there is nothing available to people who want to live there that can’t afford a house under 1 million. I think this is happening more and more. The city I live in just outside Boston MA has a similar issue, we bought our house 20 years ago for around 450k, and now can easily get 1.1m for it. Many people who grew up here can’t afford to buy a place of their own. Thanks for sharing! and you must have more than 7 readers! 🙂

    Like

  2. Awesome write up! I’m hoping to retire from the military in a the new few years and the wife and I are trying to figure out how to retire in the mammoth area and the kids thing was a big question of ours in the event that we get lucky and have a little one:)

    Like

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