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Bear Valley

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

Bear Valley California in winter with snow, image
Photo caption
The Bear Valley area offers snowmobiling, and downhill and cross-country skiing.

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.

Photography courtesy of Shayan Sanyal/Wikipedia

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