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Weekend at Bear Valley

Weekend at Bear Valley

Features
By Gretchen Treadwell
posted: 12/15/2001

Remember skiing in the Seventies? Yellow-flowered windbreakers, nylon gaiters and bright orange K2 Cheeseburger skis? Chairlift rides were long enough to actually meet people, and tickets hung on wickets, with no beeps or bar codes.

I didn't realize how much I missed the old days until I escaped from the bumper-to-bumper chaos of a Friday evening on a San Francisco freeway and peacefully made my way east to Bear Valley Mountain Resort, a four-hour, traffic-free drive from the Bay Area. Tucked in the Sierra Nevada range, away from Tahoe (and just about everything else), Bear Valley captures the essence of skiing, which too often is lost these days.

"Not much has changed here," admits longtime local Eric Jung, who moved here in 1969, one year after the resort opened. Jung, then a self-professed hippie in a psychedelic rock band, says he was drawn to the 150-person village of Bear Valley for both the skiing and the small-town atmosphere, which, aside from housing costs, has remained virtually the same.

The lack of congestion en route to the resort was merely one of many Seventies skiing flashbacks I encountered throughout the weekend. On Saturday morning, I stood by a snowbank in Bear Valley village, awaiting free transportation to the resort three miles up the road. As the rickety "Blue Bird" school bus approached, I followed an automatic reflex to place my skis in an outside carrier, only to find no racks attached. Stepping on the bus, my tips awkwardly scraped the metal roof as I made my way through the aisle to one of the back seats. My clumsiness went unnoticed, however, as I was kindly greeted by the bus driver and locals alike. Conversation on the five-minute ride came easy. I laughed when a local told me his favorite run was a chute dubbed "Uptight." I hadn't even seen the area yet, but I was fairly certain that the name didn't fit the resort.

Stepping off the shuttle, my trail map revealed that the solitary structure before me was actually the "Mid-Mountain" lodge. The nucleus of the resort, then, is situated halfway up the mountain at 7,700 feet, where all services still operate from the original building constructed when the mountain opened. I sat on a low, wooden ledge outside to tighten my boots and noticed, at that level, more legs decked out in blue jeans, sweat pants and gaiters than ski pants. Above the waist, navy fleece and plaid flannel replaced sporty spring fashions. I suddenly felt flashy and a little self-conscious in my bright-yellow Oakleys. This was an unassuming crowd, however, and its comfort level proved contagious. I quickly got over my fashion insecurities and headed for the slopes.

With 1,280 acres of terrain, Bear Valley is small by some standards, but there are steeps here and plenty of trees. The layout is unique in that most of the expert terrain is clustered below the lodge on the lower part of the mountain in Snow Valley and Grizzly Bowl. Because the parking lot and lodge are actually in the middle of the resort, powder hounds don't even have to ride a lift to find first tracks and face shots. There are also 500 acres of "Soft Boundary Terrain," surrounding the area, that offer a challenge for skilled, adventurous skiers, but are not groomed or patrolled by the resort.

While Bear Valley hasn't changed much since the Seventies, its grooming has, now covering about 35 percent of trails daily. On the backside, a halfpipe and terrain park mix with a variety of long intermediate runs that offer sweeping views of the Stanislaus National Forest. Beginners are logically placed on the wide-open runs above the lodge. From here they can gaze up and be enticed onward by one of the longer lifts accessing additional intermediate cruisers that fall down the front ridge.

Bar codes haven't made their way to Bear Valley yet, but neither have liftlines. Skiers load the same double chairlifts they did in the Seventies, but shuffling through the maze remains easy, even on a Saturday. I streted back for a scenic ride up the Hibernation double chair, added in 1976 and extending 4,600 feet on the backside. The 15-minute ride allowed enough time to actually acquire valuable information from a fellow passenger. The conversation revealed the lower bowls as a sure thing for starters on a powder day, with more midday treasures often found on the frontside on expert runs such as Monte Wolfe. The trees scattered between the intermediate runs to the skier's right of the Koala double chair are also promising for powder, even a week after a storm. This spot is also accessible from the other side by skiing Tuck's Traverse, an intermediate cruiser running along the top ridge of the resort at 8,495 feet.

With an average annual snowfall of more than 360 inches, snow here is of typical Sierra variety (i.e. wet). The mid-state location, however, places the resort conveniently in both northern and southern storm belts. Big dumps of more than 5 feet are common during winter and spring, but be prepared for rising temperatures during the day resulting in a progressively heavier workout. On sunny spring days, make sure to end the day skiing the soft "ego" bumps in Snow Valley.

Keeping families happy at Bear Valley is a higher priority than installing the fastest gondola, a policy reflected by the prices. Adult lift tickets are $40, while the $46 Interchangeable Parent Lift Ticket enables mom and dad to alternate time with the kids. Additional savings are offered after a first Sunday visit, with a $5 discount available on each subsequent Sunday. And don't shy away from the cafeteria for lunch. A new food service and seating area was added during an expansion and remodeling project in 1991, but a family of four can still eat lunch here for less than $30-burger, brownie and Coke included.

For meals off the mountain, the two lodges in Bear Valley village-BaseCamp and Bear Valley Lodge-serve lunch and dinner. It's possible to ski down to the village during the day on the "Lunch Run," but this must be timed accordingly, for you'll need to catch the bus back to the resort; it leaves the village on the hour from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Waiting out this interval in the morning, I found my latte fix at the Headwaters Cafe located inside the Bear Valley Lodge complex, where you can also get an excellent omelet.

After skiing, stop at BaseCamp for a cocktail and a bite in the pub-the beer-battered calamari is particularly tasty. BaseCamp is also the home to Mountain Adventure Seminars, an outstanding resource for mountain touring and backcountry instruction, including avalanche education and ice climbing. Most of the overnight guest rooms at BaseCamp resemble Seventies-style bunkroom dormitories, but there are private rooms available with shared bathrooms down the hall. Several cozy nooks and common rooms can be found downstairs, equipped with board games and playing cards.

The Bear Valley Lodge, just down Bear Valley Road (there is only one "main road" in the village) and within eyeshot of BaseCamp, is the town's epicenter. The lodge is attached to the "Lodge complex" which houses Bear Valley Real Estate, a general store, a sport shop and a gift shop. The lodge offers private rooms (and bathrooms) with telephones and cable TV. The rooms are situated on four levels behind open log-post balconies surrounding the Cathedral Lounge, which provides a grand welcome with its granite fireplace and immense, colorful wall hangings. The lounge also connects to the Creekside Dining Room and Grizzly Bar.

Because BaseCamp and the Bear Valley Lodge are the only hotels in the village, many weekend skiers opt for accommodations 30 to 45 minutes west on Highway 4 in Arnold, Murphys and Angels Camp. Even if you stay in Bear Valley, these communities are a good choice for dinner, as the restaurants in the village often stop serving by 9 p.m. On the way home on Sunday, I ate an excellent burger at the Blue Coyote Cafe in Arnold, topped with gouda cheese and a crispy bun (if you ski for two days this is OK).

If you're seeking solitude, don't miss out on even sleepier places such as Dorrington, 20 minutes from the resort. It has a small store, saloon (a.k.a. the "Lube Room") and the romantic Dorrington Hotel. Whether or not you stay here, it's worth the drive to feast on the hotel's fine Northern Italian menu in an elegant candlelit dining room.

Don't let romantic images of a cozy bed-and-breakfast shy you away from bringing kids to Bear Valley, for most lodges gladly welcome them. The Tamarack Pines Inn and the Tamarack Lodge, located two miles from the ski area, are particularly family friendly, with two resident toddlers on the premises.

"We tell people to expect to have kids around," says Tamarack Pines owner Vicky Johnson. There is no cable TV at the inn, but kids can watch children's videos in their rooms or, better yet, sled at the edge of the cross-country trails that lead right to the lodge. The trails are connected to the 3,000-acre Bear Valley Cross-Country Center, which is the second largest nordic center in California. Next door to the inn, the all-in-the-family format crosses over to the Tamarack Lodge, managed by Johnson's parents. But the sense of family at Bear Valley extends beyond bloodlines. With so few people in town, Bear Valley locals can't help but constitute one big family. "With 30 feet of snow in one season, it requires a lot of cooperation to survive up here," Jung says. "Most people don't want to put up with the environment. The result is a small-town atmosphere with a lot of hard-working, high-quality folks." Jung, since retired from his rock band, is now a broker associate at Bear Valley Real Estate, one of three real estate agencies in the vicinity.

Condo and cabin rentals are available, but the cabin rentals are not for the faint of heart. The roads in Bear Valley are "packed." In other words, they are not plowed. This means guests who opt for a cabin are hauled in on snowmobiles upon arrival, hauled out when they leave and left to their own devices in between. We all should be so fortunate.d a crispy bun (if you ski for two days this is OK).

If you're seeking solitude, don't miss out on even sleepier places such as Dorrington, 20 minutes from the resort. It has a small store, saloon (a.k.a. the "Lube Room") and the romantic Dorrington Hotel. Whether or not you stay here, it's worth the drive to feast on the hotel's fine Northern Italian menu in an elegant candlelit dining room.

Don't let romantic images of a cozy bed-and-breakfast shy you away from bringing kids to Bear Valley, for most lodges gladly welcome them. The Tamarack Pines Inn and the Tamarack Lodge, located two miles from the ski area, are particularly family friendly, with two resident toddlers on the premises.

"We tell people to expect to have kids around," says Tamarack Pines owner Vicky Johnson. There is no cable TV at the inn, but kids can watch children's videos in their rooms or, better yet, sled at the edge of the cross-country trails that lead right to the lodge. The trails are connected to the 3,000-acre Bear Valley Cross-Country Center, which is the second largest nordic center in California. Next door to the inn, the all-in-the-family format crosses over to the Tamarack Lodge, managed by Johnson's parents. But the sense of family at Bear Valley extends beyond bloodlines. With so few people in town, Bear Valley locals can't help but constitute one big family. "With 30 feet of snow in one season, it requires a lot of cooperation to survive up here," Jung says. "Most people don't want to put up with the environment. The result is a small-town atmosphere with a lot of hard-working, high-quality folks." Jung, since retired from his rock band, is now a broker associate at Bear Valley Real Estate, one of three real estate agencies in the vicinity.

Condo and cabin rentals are available, but the cabin rentals are not for the faint of heart. The roads in Bear Valley are "packed." In other words, they are not plowed. This means guests who opt for a cabin are hauled in on snowmobiles upon arrival, hauled out when they leave and left to their own devices in between. We all should be so fortunate.

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