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Run of the week: Sherwin Creek Road; an unexpected March delight right out your back door

March 19, 2011

Despite having a tiny campground right on it, despite being only a mile from Mammoth, little Sherwin Creek Road just to the southeast of town has a wild and lovely feel that makes it a great cross-country ski destination for an afternoon, or even for a day-long adventure.

The gravel road is covered in snow right now, making it a perfect place for skiing Mammoth’s spring snow.

With Sherwin Creek tumbling under it, with deep forest, open meadow, birdsong and pine trees, with springs and sun and sweeping views all colliding with one another, the ski packs more variety into four miles than most routes would in an entire day.

In just a few, short, easy miles, you can ski through deep forest, round the bend into wide-open sunlit meadows, bypass aspens and bear-haunted gorges (I’ve seen many out there in spring and summer) and old, sienna and burnt umber wood cabins nestled against the white snow.

And, for inexplicable reasons, it’s also a relatively unused route, given its proximity to Mammoth, almost guaranteeing quiet and solitude.
This ski is made even better because it could also be a one-way, four-mile ski to another shuttle car parked on U.S. 395, should you so choose.

So go on. Get out there.

THE SKI
The ski leaves Mammoth on the flat out near the propane tanks where the winter trailhead for the Sherwins is now.

Leave the vast majority of the bustle and noise behind at the trailhead but be prepared for some snowmobile activity on this route, since the road is open to all users.

Head southeast on the flat, on the old Sherwin Creek Road, still visible through the snow, if you watch carefully.

Glide over the spring corn snow, heading slightly downhill, aiming for a patch of Jeffrey pines about a half mile from the trailhead.

As you close in on the pines, the road steepens and drops down into a small ravine. Stop and listen for the sound of juncos and chickadees, ravens and jays. The birds have just reappeared after their winter absence, nesting and mating season is just around the corner, and the woods are no longer locked in the deep winter silence.

Descend the hill, heading for the deep trees and the still faint sound of the creek ahead of you.

At about one mile, the Jeffrey pines begin to overshadow the road. In another hundred feet or so, aspens and water birch appear, a sure sign in the Sierra of water.

Little Sherwin Creek drains the Sherwin crest towering above Mammoth, crashing down from stark, steep, unnamed granite peaks above Valentine Lake, then on down to Sherwin Lakes, followed by a fast cascade down the mountain to the quietude of Mammoth Creek.

Before it gets to Mammoth Creek, just a mile east of town, the little creek crosses under a dirt road that parallels Mammoth Creek for about four miles, connecting Old Mammoth Road to U.S. 395.

Cross little Sherwin Creek at about 1.3 miles and keep heading southeast, through the sweet open Jeffrey pine forest.

The road winds and meanders a bit, passing by aspen groves protecting Sherwin Creek Campground to your left.

The silence here, on a calm and windless day, is perfect. The views thought the sparse forest to the south show the big bulk of Bloody and Laurel mountains far above you.

The sky is the blue only March brings. The breeze is the cool and perfect breeze that only March brings. And the smells, of vanilla Jeffrey pine and newborn sage and errant juniper and snow melting on granite, are the smells that only March brings.

Keep skiing through the trees for another mile or so, passing the sign to Valentine Lake and the private camp for children near the trailhead to Valentine. You are now about two miles from the trailhead back near the propane tanks.

Ahead of you, the forest slowly begins to thin and open on the right, or south, where the base of Laurel Mountain dominates.

Keep an eye out on the right for the beginning of an extensive sage and meadow flat, hugging the base of Laurel Mountain.

In the spring and summer, the display here of balsam root and lupine is second to none.

SUN-DRENCHED MEADOWS
But today, keep skiing, until the forest gives way abruptly to sun-drenched open country, with the White Mountains all the way across Long Valley looking suddenly close enough to touch.

Keep skiing, heading always south and east, through this open country. To your right, Laurel’s head is out of sight and lower ridges dominate the skyline, cresting up to meet the sky.

To your left and directly behind you, the view stretches back to Mammoth Mountain and the very tips of the Minaret range.

Keep skiing, heading for the long run of white road and meadow leading to the highway, still far out of sight and sound.

At about three miles, a small cabin surrounded by aspens catches your eye at the base of Laurel. Set against the banks of a small stream cascading down the mountain, the cabin belongs to some lucky being, a small piece of heaven surrounded by paradise.

Keep skiing east as the little creek parallels, then crosses under, the road, keeping you company as you glide.

When the creek crosses the road again, you have reached the open country just east and north of Laurel ponds and about a half mile from the highway.

This is a good place to turn around and return to the trailhead as you will soon hear and see the highway. Or, if you left another car down the road where the Sherwin Creek road hits the highway, pick up your shuttle car.

GETTING THERE
Take Old Mammoth Road south, toward the Stove and Mammoth Creek. As soon as you cross the creek, take a sharp left on Sherwin Creek Road.

Follow it about one third of a mile to the parking area near the propane storage tanks.

Head away from the snowmobilers and south, following the dim traces of the road east and south.
Start skiing.

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