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Trailside Sleeps

Scattered along the Sierra Nevada are resorts, inns, and, well, huts, catering to those other kinds of skiers, the ones who carry packs and travel into the snowy wilds on skinny skis. You can drive to some of these lodgings, ski to others. They vary from upscale to very, very basic. Here, Nordic skiers share their favorites.

Via Contributors
Ostrander Hut with snow falling, image
Photo caption
Ostrander Hut in Yosemite can be reached by skiing in about nine miles.

The Biggie: Royal Gorge
At the edge of Point Mariah, in the high Sierra, the ground drops away deep into the Royal Gorge. To get to its edge, I slid my way up and down almost 10 kilometers of snow-covered hills, on wide ski roads with tracks carved by Royal Gorge ski area machines. The gorge was majestic below, cutting almost 4,500 feet into the earth and full of snow-dusted trees and rocks, winding away into miles of mountains. I stood above it until the cold of inconsistent snow showers worked its way under my Gore-Tex and fleece, and I turned back into the maze of Royal Gorge track.

Tucked into the Sierra National Forest, off Highway 80 and Old Highway 40, Royal Gorge is one of the most popular commercial cross-country ski areas in the Sierra. It’s huge, with 328 kilometers of groomed trails that wind through tall evergreen trees, beside frozen lakes, along canyons big and small. And, aside from day trips, there are a few other ways visitors can take advantage of it. The most interactive is joining "the program" at Royal Gorge’s famed Wilderness Lodge—buried in the trees and snow, 2 miles from the parking lot. The program? Skiing, learning, dining, relaxing—it’s all included. Work hard, you will. Rough it, you won’t.

Visitors to the lodge arrive either by ski or horse-drawn sleigh under warm sheepskins. After a night’s rest in one of 35 cozy private rooms, guests wake to an early-morning stretching session (optional), then a lavish breakfast buffet. Thereafter, instructors break people into groups (beginners, advanced, skaters) to ski. It’s back to the lodge for lunch, then back on skis for guided tours. Tea is served in the afternoon, and a video clinic follows; then free time to ski, then hors d’oeuvres (you won’t go hungry—Royal Gorge prides itself on its epicurean reputation), dinner by candlelight and, weather permitting, a moonlight ski. Finally, hot tubs and saunas wait for weary muscles.

Royal Gorge also operates Rainbow Lodge, 10 miles west on I-80, at the other end of Royal Gorge’s long, strenuous Rainbow Interconnect ski trail. The historic lodge, located on the Emigrant Trail, was built from hand-hewn timbers and local granite in the late 1800s as a stop for the Overland stages. Skiers will appreciate the wonderfully European-style lodge, with its spacious common area and small, wood-walled rooms (some share baths).

But it’s the food that I’ve been craving ever since my stay there: grilled Pacific tuna with Cajun seared shrimp, artichoke bottoms, baked portobello mushrooms with asparagus and beurre blanc. I rolled into bed after eating far too much, only to wake to a generous selection of breakfast items (included in the price of lodging)—thick French toast, eggs Benedict, warm oats with fresh fruit and cream.

Wilderness Lodge programs begin December 11 this year. Prices (all inclusive) run from $119 to $159 per person, per night, two nights minimum. Rainbow Lodge rooms run $85 to $135 per night. Packages that include lessons and trail passes are available. Contact Royal Gorge at (530) 426-3871. —By Maria Streshinsky

Sorensen’s: Hobbit village with history
Arrive at Sorensen’s on a snowy night after a journey over the Sierra passes, and collapse into its welcoming arms. Snowflakes flicker through strings of twinkling lights; wine glasses clink in the candlelit café; smoke unfurls from the wood-fired sauna. Light the fire in your cute cabin, snuggle under the comfy quilts, and dream of tomorrow, skiing some of the prettiest terrain in the winter Sierra.

You’ll find Sorensen’s—and not much else man-made—at 7,000 feet in Hope Valley, a vastness of meadows along the West Fork of the Carson River.

Sorensen’s, opened in 1926 by a Danish immigrant, has been a speck on the AAA maps as long as I can remember, near the junction of state routes 88 and 89, about 15 miles south of Lake Tahoe.

Back in the ’70s I taught skiing here on weekends at the Viggo Nordic Ski School, a sort of granola-and-yoga outfit. In those days the cabins were somewhat decrepit, with failing plumbing and snow blowing through the chinks.

Enter, in the early ’80s, environmental activists John and Patty Brissenden, who bought Sorensen’s resort and started upscaling it. They refurbished a few old cabins, imported a couple of others, and built several new ones. For the café, they developed a notable Continental menu and wine list.

Scattered through a fine stand of aspens in the hollow of the rocky hillside are 30 cabins. Each one is different in decor and fittings, most with kitchens, and sleeping from two to six people. The cabins (some you’d call houses) are built of logs, or pecky cedar, or pine, or fir, or redwood. One is an imported replica of a 13th-century Norwegian village house. A quarter-mile down the road is the Hope Valley Cross Country Ski Center, which offers rentals, lessons, moonlight tours, and a small café.

Ah, yes, the skiing. Step into your skis at your cabin door and stride out to Hope Valley, and miles and miles of easy touring on level terrain, terrific if you’re a beginning or laid-back Nordic skier. The views astonish: blankets of brilliant snowfields sweeping back to the ragged black peaks of the Sierra crest, beneath a violet sky. Or you could follow the Snowshoe Thompson Trail up to Luther Pass. If you’re in for some high-altitude skiing in awesome open country near timberline, drive up to 8,573-foot Carson Pass (Sno-Park permit required) and ski out to Winnemucca Lake and the Mokolumne Wilderness. And there’s more. Lots.

In the evening, when the sky is burning with sunset, head east down the river canyon to Grover’s or Walley’s hot springs, soak those aching sinews, and listen to the wild geese gossiping.

Contact Sorensen’s, 14255 Highway 88, Hope Valley, CA 96120; (800) 423-9949 or (530) 694-2203. Winter rates from $80 to $400 per night per cabin, depending on the size of the cabin and whether it’s a weeknight, weekend, or holiday. No smoking allowed in any resort buildings. No phones, no TV, no radios, no VCRs, no fax. These are "housekeeping cabins," with minimal maid service. Strict cancellation policies; check these in advance. —By Lynn Ferrin

The long ski to Ostrander
The first time I skied into Ostrander Hut, in the late 1970s, I brought a foil packet of freeze-dried turkey tetrazzini for dinner. Rookie mistake. As I spooned sawdust-like glop into my Sierra Cup, the people at the far end of the table were finishing up their pâté de foie gras and tucking into coq au vin, pausing to clink glasses filled with a noble Bordeaux. They were still at it, toasting the snow gods with Remy Martin VSOP, when I trudged off, salivating, to my sleeping bag.

Backcountry bacchanals, I have come to appreciate, are a venerable Ostrander tradition—due, I suspect, to the fact that after skiing 9 miles into the heart of the magnificent Yosemite wilderness—the last four of them relentlessly uphill—people who reach the hut feel they’ve earned the right to a little weary decadence.

Built of oak and stone by Civilian Conservation Corps crews in 1940, it’s a rustic, bring-your-own shelter, with a warm, potbellied stove, bunk beds, and a running conversation that typically ranges from Nietzsche to Homer Simpson and back again.

For me, though, the most sublime moment of an Ostrander weekend comes on the way home, as I make my way down Horizon Ridge. Before me lies the vast sweep of the High Sierra, an endless expanse of granite and glistening snow. I pause to savor the panorama: the sensuously rounded backside of Half Dome, gothic Mt. Hoffman, the toothy spires of Cathedral Peak and the Cockscomb, the stately obelisk of Mt. Clark, brooding Mt. Conness—all etched like sparkling diamonds against a cerulean Sierra sky.

My ski tips are pointed down a long, open slope dusted in gossamer powder. Cinching my shoulder straps tight, I shove off with my poles and drop my leading knee into a telemark turn, genuflecting to the snow gods.

Ostrander Hut is about nine miles from the trailhead at Yosemite’s Badger Pass downhill ski area. I prefer to ski in via more gradual Horse Creek Trail and out along the scenic Horizon Ridge Trail. It’s not a trip for beginners; you need at least intermediate backcountry skills. You must carry your own food, stove, and sleeping bag. The 25 bunks are awarded on a lottery basis, and you must apply before November 13. Send a letter with the dates requested, number of people in your party, and a check for $20 per person per night made out to "Yosemite Association’’ to Ostrander Reservations, P.O. Box 545, Yosemite, CA 95389. Phone reservations are accepted after Nov. 30: (209) 372-0740. —By John Flinn

Location, location, location: rustic comfort at Glacier Point
Wow! Here it is, the Sierra’s most sublime view. Straight over there is a sideways Half Dome, its smooth pate wearing a thick white cap. Around it wind Tenaya and Merced canyons, where the glaciers of the Ice Age came grinding down to meet and carve Yosemite Valley. And all around are the familiar landmarks—Nevada Fall, Yosemite Falls, the Merced River curling through the meadows. Way off to the east are the silver spires of the Cathedral Range. And straight down, more than 3,000 feet and looking like fleas on a polar bear, ice-skaters circle the outdoor rink at Curry Village.

Each summer, a million people drive or hike up to Glacier Point (elevation 7,214 feet) to gawk. But in winter, when snows close the road, the view is the exclusive reward of those who can ski the 21-mile round trip from Badger Pass.

And now there’s an extra prize for the effort: shelter at the new Glacier Point Winter Lodge, provided you’re on an overnight guided ski tour run by the Yosemite Cross Country Ski School. Handsomely and sturdily built of granite and peeled logs and opened last year, the lodge was part of the recent $3.2 million restoration of Glacier Point.

In summer, the building is a snack bar and gift shop. Come winter, it’s transformed into a backcountry inn to lighten the heart of a weary snow-trudger. Inside are comfy couches reposing before the great granite hearth, an indoor restroom, and 20 double-decker bunk beds positioned among the empty retail counters. Hot drinks, dinner, and breakfast are prepared and served on the snack bar side.

Guides accompany skiers along groomed tracks on the unplowed road. It’s a classic ski tour that can take five to eight hours—longer for those who take the 2-mile side trip to the summit of Sentinal Dome, where the views are even more expansive. From the parking lot at Badger Pass, it’s a gentle run downhill to Bridalveil Creek, then up, then along a ridge with views of the ragged Clark Range to the east, and then down the steep switchbacks through the woods to Glacier Point.

It was, for me, a journey through memories and dicey weather. In the late ’60s I first learned to ski in the meadows along this road, and returned many times to race, to ski out to Dewey Point, and to ski-backpack to Ostrander Hut. On the trip out, we traveled beneath alternate blue skies and storm clouds; in the evening the eastern peaks were flamed with alpenglow. Next day we struggled back through a swirling, biting blizzard. In early afternoon we skied out from under the following edge of the storm and into sunshine, which bedazzled the snow-laden trees and our snow-buried cars.

Overnight guided ski trips to Glacier Point Winter Lodge operate December through early April, daily except Tuesdays and Thursdays. Participants must be able to ski 10.5 miles each way, along groomed tracks on the unplowed Glacier Point Road. Cost is $110, including guides, one night dormitory-style lodging, and meals. (Ask about two-night tours.) For more information, contact Yosemite Cross Country Ski School; (209) 372-8444. —By Lynn Ferrin

This old lodge, Montecito-Sequoia
Growing up in a family of 12, I never got to camp as a kid, which is why as an adult I love places like Montecito-Sequoia. This family-style lodge in Sequoia National Forest offers what multiple siblings crowded out—my day at camp—plus what they put into my childhood—people of all ages around the supper table with whom to share a story, wisecrack, song, dance, or game. This spacious old lodge in the Sierra, with vinyl couches, coffee tables strewn with magazines and Scrabble, is a second home for many guests. One told me she keeps coming "because it’s not fancy."

And because of the spell of owner Virginia Barnes, who might be the camp counselor I never knew. Sky-blue eyes ablaze, the septuagenarian commands attention in front of the fireplace. She energizes guests for a winter carnival or her Nordic Center, with lessons and rentals for all levels. She reminds seniors of their tubing lessons and pushes between-meal snacks, sandwich makings ever ready. Some parents want to ski? She asks the kitchen help to baby-sit.

Beyond the door, the mountains pick up where Virginia leaves off. Ah, the fragrance of winter pine. A forest of sequoia, ponderosa, and Jeffrey pine is a magnificent tableau of puzzle bark made downy with snow, backdropped by views of the Western Divide.

Winter’s a serene story, when many people don’t realize the year-round lodge, just 60 miles east of Fresno on maintained Route 180, is still accessible. My private room in Sugar Pine, one of the detached cabins, is buried to its eaves in powder. Clusters of icicles fringe its rooftop. Pine needles and squirrel-ravaged cones litter the 22 miles of groomed cross-country ski trails.

After a guided ski tour along a ridge toward Mt. Baldy, we are treated to champagne lunch with shrimp cocktail, piping minestrone, breads, and meats near the warming hut.

When the Sierra Club, San Diego, arrives at the lodge with topos and compasses, I’m acclimated to the 8,000-foot altitude. I ski a full day with half of the group into Sequoia National Park for lunch-with-view on a granite knob. The other half glides off with satellite positioning, transceivers, climbing skins. No thanks.

Après-ski—or snowshoe—mealtime is a gregarious event. Virginia sits with guests or helpers—young adults from France, South Africa, Russia, and Southern California. The home-style food—from fresh king salmon to old-fashioned Yankee pot roast—is delicious and plentiful.

As for indoor activities (was camp this good?): Wednesday I dance swing with seniors to Glenn Miller, spun by the in-house D.J. Come Friday, with "kids" my age, it’s rock, hip-hop, Little Richard, the Village People. I sit out the Macarena.

Contact Contact Montecito-Sequoia Lodge, 2225 Grant Road, Suite 1, Los Altos, CA 94024; (800) 227-9900 (reservations); (800) 843-8677 (the lodge). Sample rates: $240 per person double occupancy includes two weekend nights with all meals, trail passes, and other amenities. At Grant Grove in Kings Canyon National Park, meet a prearranged escort for the 11 miles to the lodge. —By Camille Cusumano

More trailside sleeps
Here’s a list of other Sierra lodgings with ready access to cross-country skiing—from cozy inns and resorts with down comforters to remote cabins that require you to pack a warm sleeping bag and all your food. Call for details on rates, passes, winter access, level of difficulty, and equipment/accessories you should bring.

Clair Tappaan Lodge, Box 36, Norden, CA 95724; (530) 426-3632. Lodging is in 16 cubicles outfitted with bunk beds, a male dorm (15 beds), a female dorm (23 beds), and 10 family rooms (five to 12 beds each). From Thanksgiving to Easter, cost per individual per night is $46, which includes all meals and use of all facilities. For children 12 and under, fee is $18; free for kids 4 and under. There are discounts for Sierra Club members and for stays of 5 and 7 nights.

Tioga Pass Winter Resort, P.O. Box 307, Lee Vining, CA 93541; (209) 372-4471. Guests must ski from 1 to 6 miles, depending on snowline, up beautiful Tioga Pass (Hwy. 120, which is closed in winter) to these charming, electrically heated log cabins in Inyo National Forest; homey lodge food. Ski spectacular back-country of Yosemite National Park, just 2 miles west of resort.

The Lodge at Bear Valley, P.O. Box 5440, Bear Valley, CA 95223; (209) 753-2327. Rustic elegance, with suites, cushy lounge with huge fireplace, gourmet restaurant, and just beyond the door, 65 km of groomed trails here on Ebbetts Pass (Hwy. 4). Rentals, lessons for all levels. Also on Hwy. 4, a few miles west, is Tamarack Pines Inn, P.O. Box 5039, Bear Valley, CA 95223; (209) 753-2080, a family-friendly B&B with skiing in the Stanislaus National Forest.

Tamarack Lodge Resort, P.O. Box 69, Mammoth Lakes, CA 93546; (800) 237-6879 or (760) 934-2442. A 1924 lodge with romance, comfort, and highly acclaimed cuisine at its Lakefront Restaurant; cozy cabins, also; 30 scenic miles of track and skate lanes in Inyo National Forest. Lessons, rentals.

High Country Inn, Hwy. 49 at Gold Lake Rd., HCR2, Box 7, Sierra City, CA 96125; (530) 862-1530 or (800) 862-1530. Inn is in Bassetts, 5 miles east of Sierra City. Enjoy winter scenery from comfortable guest rooms; gourmet breakfasts. Ski the Yuba Pass country.

Northstar-at-Tahoe, P.O. Box 129, Truckee, CA 96160-0129; (800) GO-NORTH. Some 65 km of groomed cross-country trails are adjacent to the downhill ski area of this major resort near Tahoe’s busy north shore. Lessons, rentals.

Donner Spitz Hutte, at Donner Pass; run by Alpine Skills International, P.O. Box 8, Norden, CA 95724; (530) 426-9108. European hut-style lodge; breakfast and dinner served. Lessons, rentals, and backcountry ski tours for skilled mountaineers and beginning Nordic skiers.

Camp Richardson Resort, P.O. Box 9028, South Lake Tahoe, CA 96158; (800) 544-1801; historic hotel or rustic cabins on the quieter shores of South Lake Tahoe; more than 30 km groomed trail. Rentals, lessons.

Rock Creek, Rte. 1, Box 12, Mammoth Lakes, CA 93546; (760) 935-4170. Guests ski a few miles (or are met by a snowmobile shuttle) to reach these very rustic, remote cabins, with hearty dining in a lodge tucked deep into a scenic Eastern Sierra canyon; high-country skiing in Inyo National Forest; rentals, lessons.

Kirkwood Cross Country, P.O. Box 1, Kirkwood, CA 95646; (209) 258-6000. Some 80 km of cross-country trails at this big alpine ski resort with full facilities; Cross Country Ski School is directed by World Masters Champion Debbi Waldear; lessons, rentals for all levels.

Robbs Hut, Eldorado National Forest, Information Center, 3070 Camino Hts. Dr., Camino, CA 95709; (530) 644-6048. This fire lookout restored to very rustic bunkhouse, northeast of Placerville, is a basic shelter for avid backcountry skiers—must reserve.

Loon Lake Chalet, also northeast of Placerville in the Eldorado National Forest Pacific Ranger District, is remote but less primitive than Robbs Hut, with hot water and electricity. Call or write above phone/address for important information on Loon Lake. For Loon Lake reservations call (800) 280-2267.

Photography courtesy of R. Drake/Wikimedia Commons

This article was first published in November 1998. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.