Dining on an 11,053-foot peak — lunch at Top of the Sierra Cafe on Mammoth Mountain

Top of the Sierra Cafe

When Jeff and I took the kids and dog back to Mammoth again this summer for vacation, we decided to take the scenic gondola ride up to the top of Mammoth Mountain — a spectacular experience in itself (and dog-friendly).  But, when we learned that there’s a restaurant up top (also dog-friendly), we planned the excursion around lunchtime (food is only served until 2:30pm) last week on a beautiful clear blue Friday afternoon.

Tickets for the gondola ride can be purchased at the Mammoth Mountain Adventure Center located in the ski area, where — right over the ticket counter — is a sign advertising the Lookout Lunch menu.  The adventure agent informed us that this menu was for a special lunch that could be added on to the price of our gondola tickets (for an extra $6 per person) so that we didn’t have to hassle with paying at the restaurant.  Since the kids, Jeff, and I all found something we wanted to eat on that Lookout Lunch menu, we went with this option and received meal vouchers to turn in to the cashier in the cafe.

Gondola ride and lunch on top of Mammoth Mountain

Catch the Gondola at the Mammoth Mountain Adventure Center located at the base of the ski area. Foot travelers and mountain bikers can ride.

The Lookout Lunch package

What’s on the Lookout Lunch menu this season? Adults can choose from a variety of sandwiches (tri tip, pulled pork, turkey melt, grilled chicken, ham and cheese, veggie, or a BLTA), from one of four sides (macaroni salad, potato salad, baked beans, or pineapple coleslaw) or soup or salad, and bottled water or a 16-ounce fountain drink.  The sign at the Adventure Center also lists a Kids menu that includes items like a grilled cheese sandwich, bean and cheese burrito, hot dog, or mac and cheese with a bag of chips and drink.

Although gondola ticket prices are set for six different age ranges — including an an Adult ticket (19-65 years), Youth ticket (13-18 years), Child ticket (7-12 years), and Kid ticket (6 and under) — the Lookout Lunch menu posted at the Adventure Center only distinguishes between an Adult menu and a Kid menu.

Gondola ride and lunch on top of Mammoth Mountain

A steady flow of hungry diners streamed through the cafe the entire time.

A brief rant against the Lookout Lunch advertising

Why am I making such a point about the gondola ticket price ranges and the Lookout Lunch menu?

Because, as we found out, when we got in line to order our food at the cafe, anyone with a ticket priced for 18 years or younger is required to select from the Kid menu — the  juvenile items like a grilled cheese sandwich or hot dog.  Yeah, I know a bunch of "kids" who love those items.  But, our 13 and 16 year-olds were traveling on a Youth ticket, and there is no way they would ever choose to eat those types of little kid menu items; we all assumed that they would be eligible for the Adults menu.  And I know very few 18 year-olds who would choose that Kids menu either.

I am sorry, but this is really confusing and deceptive advertising on the part of the Mammoth Mountain Ski Area.  The menu posted right above the Adventure Center ticket counter should indicate what ticket levels are eligible for which of the two menu levels — especially since our adventure agent didn’t say anything about it either when we bought two Youth tickets for our teenagers.

Fortunately, while we were standing in line at the cafe, Jeff went up to the cashier to ask about the discrepancy we noticed between the menu posted at the Adventure Center and the menus posted at the cafe.  The very friendly helpful cashier confirmed our suspicions, but did notify us that we could pay a $4 per Youth ticket upgrade so the kids could order from the Adult menu.  An extra $8 is no big deal, we paid it.  My point is that Mammoth Mountain Ski Area needs to make this clear down below where patrons purchase their tickets.  I am guessing our teens aren’t the only ones who will encounter this same lame situation.

Okay, I am done ranting. Because the rest of the experience was very enjoyable.

Gondola ride and lunch on top of Mammoth Mountain

All of the tables offer spectacular views. This photo is deceiving because the dining area had been jam packed when we arrived.

Gondola ride and lunch on top of Mammoth Mountain

Hubby is looking northwest towards Devil's Postpile and Yosemite National Park.

The food and dining experience

The cafe is located on the same level where visitors exit the gondola at the summit (well, actually, slightly below the official summit point) of Mammoth Mountain. After stepping out of the gondola area, diners will walk into the lodge and swing a left turn into a dining area lined with large glass windows that offer extensive views of the high Sierras. A vertical staircase cuts through the middle of the dining area; additional dining is located one level down, and the cafe is located on the bottom level (next to the incredible interpretive center).

Seating availability goes in spurts. When we arrived, almost every single table was occupied. But, by the time we grabbed our food, there were a bunch of open tables. To ensure we got a spot with a great view (every table has a great view), we left our daughter Kellie and our dog Holly at the first empty table we came across, while Jeff, our son Hunter and I went to order our food.

The cafe is a small cafeteria-counter-like room with digital menus posted above the food counters. In addition ot the Lookout Lunch menu items, diners can also order (and pay there) for a items like wraps, salads, soup, pizza, cereal, cookies, individual portion-sized baked goods, and an assortment of snacks. Everyone gets stuck in single line (which was painfully slow), grabs a tray, places their order, waits for their order, and then proceeds to the cashier.

Gondola ride and lunch on top of Mammoth Mountain

Despite all four of us originally intending ot go with the tri tip sandwich, we all opted for the pulled pork based on the cashier's recommendation. They allowed our son to get chips for his Lookout Lunch side.

Gondola ride and lunch on top of Mammoth Mountain

The pulled pork was surprisingly good. I went with the pineapple coleslaw.

The menu and food itself is pretty average. But, then, visitors don’t (or at least shouldn’t) venture up to the cafe with food as the main motivation. The real draw is the incredible views and the experience of dining on top of majestic Mammoth Mountain. Eating should be a secondary interest.

All four of us walked into the cafe intending to order the tri tip sandwich (despite being tri tip snobs). However, when Jeff chatted with the super friendly helpful cashier about our Youth ticket/Kid menu dilemma, Jeff asked the cashier what he thought of the pulled pork. The cashier immediately informed Hubby that he personally ate the pulled pork sandwich every single day he worked at the cafe last year — he liked it that much. The cashier’s strong recommendation was good enough for us. All four of went with pulled pork sandwiches. And you know what? It was pretty good. Not Bigmista’s BBQ or Cowboy Way BBQ kind of good (c’mon, that’s a really high bar that most people can’t clear), but it was far better than we had anticipated. And the portion sizes were quite large.

Gondola ride and lunch on top of Mammoth Mountain

The "main intersection" of trails on top of Mammoth Mountain.

After dining, go burn off some of those calories by wandering around the summit of Mammoth Mountain. You definitely want to take in as much of the incredible 360 degree views as possible. And it’s a lot of fun to watch the crazy mountain bikers shoot down the trails.

If you’re visiting the mountain soon, expect to still find snow up top.

And if you don’t want to pay the price of a round-trip gondola ride, or simply think the cushy ride isn’t hard core enough for you, you can always make the 3,100-foot elevation gain climb by foot up to the summit via the 5-mile long Mammoth Mountain Trail — and then hike back down again.

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