Bear Valley

Ski the mountains and kayak the lakes: a low-key Tahoe alternative.

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To get an idea of what's unique about Bear Valley, Calif., consider one ofthe pillars of its community, Eric Jung. He is a real estate broker in this small Sierra Nevada resort town who publishes the local monthly newspaper and has served four terms as Bear Valley's representative on the Alpine County Board of Supervisors. He also dropped out of college, played in a psychedelic band, and once appeared in a local parade dressed in a homemade superhero costume.

Like Jung, Bear Valley has its own way of doing things. Whether you visit in winter, spring, summer, or fall, you'll find in the surrounding national forest a wealth of outdoor activities, including kayaking crystalline lakes, hurtling down mountains on a snowboard or a bike, casting for trout, and strolling wildflower-strewn meadows. But, what you won't find are boutiques, a pulsating night-life, and the casinos typical of other Sierra resorts. Most folks around here will tell you that's fine by them. They'll also point out that Bear Valley doesn't have the congestion of other resorts and that getting there in winter is easier since there aren't any mountain passes to cross.

Bear Valley (elevation 7,030 feet) sits midway between Lake Tahoe and Yosemite on Highway 4 in a shallow bowl of forest and meadow. This picturesque two-lane road climbs from rolling, oak-studded hills around Angels Camp, past the giant sequoias at Cala-veras Big Trees State Park, through Bear Valley, and over Ebbetts Pass to the eastern side of the Sierra ridge. From roughly November until Memorial Day, the highway, beginning just east of the turnoff for Bear Valley's downhill ski resort, remains unplowed and untraveled.

Modern Bear Valley is essentially the creation of a cattle rancher named Bruce Orvis Jr. In 1955, after having summered his herd in the area for a number of years, Orvis obtained a tract of land from the U.S. Forest Service and developed it as a summer vacation spot. He soon began to plan a year-round resort with downhill skiing. In 1967, he opened Bear Valley Village, a collection of low-rise houses and condos. The center of the walkable village was a wood-shingled lodge featuring a few shops and a four-story timbered lobby—named the Cathedral Lounge—which, with its granite boulder hearth, really does feel like a church of the forest. The downhill ski area was three miles up the road, on Forest Service land.

With the exception of a new village library, some remodeling at the lodge, and expanded downhill and cross-country ski operations, things haven't changed much since then. "The village looks the same as when I got here in 1975," says Paul Petersen, owner of Bear Valley Cross Country and a nationally recognized innovator in cross-country technique and equipment. Petersen points out that one reason the town of Bear Valley hasn't changed much is lack of space—its roughly 800 acres of private property are still surrounded by the Stanislaus National Forest. The other reason, of course, is that the 206 full-time residents like things the way they are.

And who can blame them? In March and April, you'll still find plenty of snow for boarding or downhill skiing at Bear Valley Mountain Resort, which has a selection of intermediate and expert slopes, as well as two terrain parks and a half-pipe. The family-friendly resort also has a reputation for short lift lines and low prices—$38 for an all-day adult lift ticket, with two-for-one specials on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. (Lift tickets run $50 or more at many Lake Tahoe resorts.)

You can also cross-country ski, sled, or snowshoe the groomed trails at Bear Valley Cross Country, one of the West's largest Nordic ski areas, or go farther afield on U.S. Forest Service trails, including a groomed stretch from Highway 4 across the Stanislaus River to pristine Spicer Meadow Reservoir. There are also snowmobiling routes in the area to enjoy.

By midspring, when, in the words of John Muir, the Sierra winds "are speaking the language of flowers," the melt usually begins in earnest. And by the end of May, it's time to break out the hiking boots, mountain bikes, canoes, kayaks, and fishing and camping gear.

Pleasant day hikes and bike rides include the trail linking Bear Valley with Lake Alpine, a scenic deep-blue oval girdled by fragrant pines and craggy peaks. Pedal or walk the several miles up to the lake for a dip in the shimmering waters, lunch, a bit of trout fishing, or a boat ride. For those who prefer more rugged activities, the nearby Mokelumne and Carson-Iceberg wilderness areas offer endless miles of solitary back-packing and camping in an elemental Sierra setting of granite, timber, and sky.

Summer also brings the annual Bear Valley Music Festival, which began in 1969 with a chamber group in the Cathedral Lounge. The event now offers a full complement of classical, jazz, and pop concerts, as well as opera, in a 1,200-person tent.

Whether you buy a seat in the tent or simply plunk yourself down on a free slab of granite nearby, the festival is strictly a come-as-you-are event. As you listen to the tunes and smell the scent of sun-washed pines, you'll see people in anything from T-shirts and shorts and floppy hats to more formal concert attire. Look carefully and, who knows, you may even spot a superhero costume.

Planning Your Trip

All phone numbers are area code 209, unless noted. To plan your trip, pick up AAA's Bay and Mountain Section map. The Alpine County Chamber of Commerce has valuable information about the area: P.O. Box 265, Markleeville; (530) 694-2475;www.alpinecounty.com. For information about the Stanislaus National Forest, contact the Calaveras Ranger District, P.O. Box 500, Hathaway Pines; 795-1381; www.r5.fs.fed.us/stanislaus/calaveras.

WHERE TO STAY

Bear Valley Lodge, P.O. Box 5440, Bear Valley; 753-2325; www.bearvalleylodge.com. Fifty-one rooms from $65.

Bear Valley Real Estate, Box 5250, Bear Valley; 753-2334 or (877) 897-8828; www.bearvalleyrealestate.com. Rental houses and condos from $140 per night

Tamarack Pines Inn, 18326 Hwy. 4, Tamarack Pines; 753-2080; www.tamarackpinesinn.com. Family-friendlyB&B two miles from the village; five rooms, all with bath, from $60.

WHERE TO EAT

Creekside Restaurant, 753-2327. Fine dining at Bear Valley Lodge offering updated classics such as baby back ribs with chipotle sauce.

Dorrington Hotel, 3431 Hwy. 4, Dorrington; 795-1140. Family style Italian in an 1860 hotel close to Calaveras Big Trees State Park.

Headwaters Coffee House, 753-2454. Muffins, sandwiches, and other breakfast/lunch offerings in the lodge complex

Lake Alpine Lodge, 753-6358. Casual dining overlooking the lake from Memorial Day to Columbus Day.

Miguel's, 753-2031. Mexican specialties in the village.

WHAT TO DO

Bear Valley Cross Country/Bear Valley Adventure Company, 753-2834;www.bearvalleyxc.com. Snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, mountain biking, kayaking, rock climbing, hiking, and fishing.

Bear Valley Mountain Resort, 753-2301; www.bearvalley.com. Snowboarding and downhill skiing; 11 lifts, 1,900-foot vertical drop.

Bear Valley Snowmobile, 753-2323; www.bvsnowmobile.com. Rentals by the hour, as well as half or full day, plus trail information.

Calaveras Big Trees State Park, 795-2334,
http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=551
. Camping, fishing, hiking, biking, cross-country skiing, interpretive programs, and more.

Mountain Adventure Seminars, 753-6556; www.mtadventure.com. Rock climbing, mountaineering, and snow sports instruction.

EVENTS

Bear Valley Music Festival, July 28-August 12, 753-2574; www.bearvalleymusic.org.

Bjornloppet, March 10-11, 753-2834. Twenty-eighth annual two-day cross-country ski race and festival.

The Death Ride, July 14, (530) 694-2475. Cyclists conquer Ebbetts and four other mountain passes.

Photography by Chris Hall and illustration by Dave Stevenson

This article was first published in March 2001. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

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