Are there any other wedding venues in the world higher than the 11,000-foot Top Gondola Station at Mammoth Mountain?
There probably are, but they aren’t in California and there can’t be more than a handful of them.
Before we dig in, let’s get the name out of the way. I’m gonna call it the Top Gondola. Mammoth Mountain is calling it Eleven53 or Top of the Mountain now but it’s been called Top of the World and Top of the Sierra in the past, it’ll probably have a new name soon. This is my wedding venue guide and I’m going to call it the Top Gondola.
This stunning spot is exactly what its names imply—it’s the top gondola terminal on Mammoth Mountain Ski Area and the highest point on the resort.
The only access is via the gondola from Main Lodge and it has, in my opinion, the best view of any spot we can get to without a long, steep hike anywhere in the Eastern Sierra.
The Top Gondola is a multi-use venue. They do year-round ceremonies and receptions there.
I’ve done both, but I find myself there most often on a quick sunset trip up from receptions at Parallax and McCoy Station (which are located at the mid point on the gondola about 1000 feet below). Keep reading below to see why I love shooting there and think everybody doing their receptions at McCoy Station and Parallax should add in the option to catch sunset at the top.
My take on the Top Gondola as a ceremony site:
Let’s start with this as a ceremony spot.
If the weather is decent, most ceremonies happen just in front of the gondola building entrance where skiers and snowboarders usually strap in.
I’ve done more winter ceremonies there and I think that’s the right time to do it. There aren’t any trees at that elevation-it feels and looks like the moon. In the summer, when ceremonies happen at 5:00 p.m. and the sun is high in the sky, it’s a harsh environment to shoot. You can’t fully appreciate the insane 360-degree views until the sun starts to get a little lower in the sky and mountains in every direction start to show their true colors.
In the winter, when the sun isn’t as powerful and everything is covered in a lovely white coat, it’s a true snowy spectacle.
Summer ceremonies can still be awesome up there regardless of the sun. There’s something to be said for getting married on the literal top of a volcano and the views are always spectacular.
Mammoth Mountain does both seated and standing weddings there. I’ve never done one with chairs but the few I’ve seen looked amazing. It’s typically chilly and windy up there in the afternoon and most couples will want to make the ceremony a quick one. Chairs might complicate that process.
And as a reception site:
I did my first proper reception there in 2019 and it was great. The ceremony happened at Forest Chapel and then the party moved to the Top Gondola immediately afterwards.
The indoor reception space is funky but functional. It’s put together around the building’s interpretive museum with incredible views to the Mammoth Crest and beyond.
There’s not a lot of space and it’s still a museum, so guests carouse amongst educational displays describing the geology and history of the region. There’s a small alcove in the corner for a DJ or a band and there’s a nice, but small, space for a dance floor. There’s room for 50 people seated, and 70 if you keep the party on their feet.
It’s a unique reception experience to be sure, but I love it for the easy access to my favorite sunset photo spot, which I’ll dig into next.
And as a sunset photo spot:
I’ve said this several times before, but this is best access to the most dramatic spots to do sunset photos.
If the reception is at Parallax or McCoy Station and we can carve out 45 minutes to take the gondola up there, I guarantee it’ll be worth it. I’d say this even if we weren’t going to make photos—the vibe up there at sunset is just surreal.
You can shoot right next to the gondola terminal or walk out towards Chair 23 and The Minarets. My favorite way to do it though is to walk around the back of the building towards Dave’s Run and shoot with the Mammoth Lakes Basin in the background. It’s such a stunning backdrop that covers the color palette from the greens and blues of the water-catching basin to the iron-loaded red mountains hovering around 13,000 feet in the background.
Here are some of the reasons I think you should include the Top Gondola into your Mammoth Mountain wedding plan:
- Unless you suffer from acrophobia or are terrified by the prospect of being several hundred feet up in a little bubble on a cable, the ride to the top is spectacular. Many of my couples know the gondola from skiing and mountain biking, but being up there late in the day after everybody is gone is another experience.
- If you prioritize the epic mountain-top sunset shot—the kind you typically only see at adventure elopements or engagement sessions, this spot is for you. It’s unbeatable.
- Whether making a quick trip up from McCoy Station or during the soiree at the Top Gondola building, your guests will have the opportunity to experience this spot with us while we shoot. We don’t want them tagging along, but Mammoth Mountain typically opens up the gondola to guests and it’s something they won’t soon forget.
- If the sun sets at 7:30 p.m. down in town or at venues at the base of the mountains, it happens almost an hour later at the Top Gondola because we’re not far below the peaks to the west. We can literally shoot two sunsets, one down below and another up top. This gives us a chance to be more flexible with the schedule, which is a factor we’ll mention below.
- Finally this is an epic spot for night shots. There is some ambient light coming off the top terminal that we’ve got to go far enough away to avoid, but the only other light you can really see up there is coming from Fresno which is about 30 miles (but 5-7 hours driving!) away. I’ve even made some cool night shots up there without a new moon (the best time of month to shoot at night). The landscape just feels like you’re actually on the moon and the photos reflect that when it’s dark.
Things to think about before including the Top Gondola into your wedding plan:
- Your guests are either going to love the gondola ride to the top, or they’re gonna hate it. Skiers and bikers know the spot between the top of Chair 3 and the top of the gondola. It’s high. I don’t know how high but I’m gonna throw out 300 feet. But the views there are insane. I’ve seen less mountain-experienced guests lose their minds right there, and not in a good way. Make sure people are ready for it.
- The ride down at night is a trip. Like June Mountain, I love it. But the first time you do it is disorienting. This is especially true when coming down from the Top Gondola at 10:00 p.m. when the party ends.
- Bring shoes that can handle anything. There’s often snow up there through August. If it’s there, we’ll probably find a way to walk through it.
- I’m sure there’s a functional alcoholic somewhere who’s figured out the equation behind this, but it takes a lot less to get drunk at 11,000 feet. This is especially true if you or your guests have come from sea level just before the wedding day. I’d encourage moderation, at least until we get back down to McCoy Station if that’s the flow of the day.
- Altitude sickness (acute mountain sickness and pulmonary edema) happens up here all the time. This might not be the best bet if your grandparents will be attending or if the crowd trends older. Keep people hydrated and make sure people speak up if they start feeling headaches, dizziness, vomiting or drowsiness. It wouldn’t hurt to have some of the potentially vulnerable guests spend the week leading up to the wedding in Mammoth in the same way that Mt. Everest climbers spend weeks acclimatizing at various base camps before summiting.
- If you’re doing a reception at McCoy Station and we’re jamming to the top for sunset, you’ve got to plan in a little more time for this than you do with most other venues. It takes time to walk to the gondola, ascend to the top, and then walk around up there. I like to hit at least 2-3 spots before we go back down and it’s tough to do it in less than 45 minutes. An hour would be better but it’s tough to find that kind of time on the wedding day. It’s totally worth it though.
- On the topic of time, it takes a while to get there. If you’re doing the reception there after a ceremony at Forest Chapel, make sure to squeeze in an hour to get everybody from Twin Lakes to the top. The gondola ride is about 15-20 minutes and it can take people a little bit of time to get their bearings along the way. If you’re doing a ceremony at McCoy Station, no worries—it’s a ten minute ride up.
- I mentioned this before, but the reception space in the interpretive center isn’t…elegant. They make it look nice but the room was not designed to host parties like this and it feels a little disjointed. But the views there might be worth it. It’s better for smaller groups.
- Summer is pretty reliable but winter weddings up there are a crapshoot. In big winters, the top can close for a week at a time. The wind can be gnarly. They’ve recorded sustained winds of 150 m.p.h. and gusts of 175 m.p.h. After the storm clears they’ve also got lots of avalanche work to be done. All this is to say be ready for the contingency plan if you’re planning a winter wedding up there. Summer winds don’t typically come in that aggressive but lightening can delay the gondola. That wouldn’t change anything but it could cramp the timeline.
That’s all I’ve got to share for the Top Gondola on Mammoth Mountain. As a ceremony and reception spot, it’s a unique, spectacular and occasionally challenging space that is great for smaller, more adventurous groups.
It really shines as a sunset mission from McCoy Station and Parallax receptions. If you’re gonna have the party there, I recommend organizing a trip to the top with the Mammoth Weddings crew ahead of time. It costs a little extra but you’ll be glad you did it.
Keep scrolling down for a gallery of ceremonies, receptions and sunset sessions from the Top Gondola.