By STEVE HINDMAN
I'm gliding easily through Orvis Meadow, when I decide to climb away from the lake and head into the aspens before turning onto the Walden Meadow trail. Step turning with the trail as it curves down and around large granite boulders, I glide out into a secret meadow. The meadow is small, private, reflective - quite different from the broad meadow where Bear Valley's trailhead is located.
The first time I drove up out of the foothills and into the broad meadow that fronts the town of Bear Valley, I felt like a kid who had suddenly been hoisted onto my uncle's lap. Open to the west and to the far off expanses of the Pacific, the meadow is perched half way up the mountains that continue to rise beyond Bear Valley. The Tahoe Lake Basin lies to the north with Yosemite to the South. In the summer, Highway 4 continues through the meadow, cresting Ebbets Pass before dropping to the East Side of the Sierra. In winter, Highway 4 is closed a couple miles past the entrance to Bear Valley and the end of the road becomes a portal to perfect backcountry ski touring terrain.
The expansive calm of skiing in the broad trailhead meadow becomes a cloistered reverence as I kick and glide beside the snowed in stream that runs through this smaller clearing. Then I turn and swoop down a short black diamond connector to head back to the trailhead, and I'm quickly brought back to the more immediate realities of making turns and staying on the trail.
The town of Bear Valley is located just across the highway from the trailhead. No residential roads are plowed, so all winter visitors and residents park in the lots clustered near the town center. Overnight visitors can drive to the Bear Valley Lodge or The BaseCamp to unload their luggage before parking in designated areas. If you rent a condominium or chose to stay in the Nordic Hostel located above the Bear Valley Cross-Country rental and retail shop, you can park in front of your lodgings. $25 per person includes full kitchen privileges at the Hostel.
If you choose to rent a house, you'll need to park in the main town lot and either ski in to your lodging or rent a snowmobile from the local sled shop. Snowmobiles in Bear Valley do create the usual noise and air pollution headaches, but they also are responsible for a grooming service that packs all the roads in town, adding to the selection and variety of groomed trails that are available. If you like to ski with your dog, the groomed roads in town are a treat.
The trails across the highway from town playfully weave in and out of Jeffery and western white pines, and red firs, granite boulders, giant aspens and tamaracks. An average of 450 inches of snowfall each season has allowed Bear Valley's founder and owner, Paul Petersen, to develop a trail system that follows the natural contours of the land without having to build summer trails or to follow remnant logging or fire roads. Bombardier snow-cats now set seventeen and a half-foot wide double tracked trails over routes that would be impassable to such large equipment in the summer. As an added bonus, the natural groundcover and other vegetation is minimally disturbed by the trail system.
Unlike many western cross-country ski areas, a good quantity of true beginner trails start right at the trailhead. These gentle trails wind through meadows and forests, and roll up and down just enough to make skiing fun, but not scary.
Heading back out of the trailhead meadow, I turn and slowly climb again through the aspen forest. This time I continue toward Osborne Ridge on the Bjornloppet trail. Although only 3 km long, rolling along the trail on the side of the ridge feels like cruising through the Sierra backcountry, miles from civilization. I stop at the back of the trail and grab a drink from the water jug inside the hut, relax a moment at the picnic table, and then push on beyond the Bjornloppet loop towards Osborne ridge.
Climbing the switchbacks makes me want to seek out Paul for some uphill skiing tips, but I soon crest the climb. To the south, Stanislaus Peak stands beside the summer road to Ebbets Pass, and in the farther distance are the peaks of Yosemite National Park, 40 miles away as the gray jay flies. Looking back from where I came, the town of Bear Valley is spread out like a miniature village in a craft store. Snowbound homes spread above the town center along roads that terrace the hillside. The lifts of the Bear Valley Alpine Ski Area climb the other side of this hill, topping out on the ridge crest above town.
When big dumps make track skiing less fun, the hot ticket is to ride the shuttle bus that runs from town to the alpine area. Then you take the lift to the ridge top, ski back to town through the great glades and big trees that lie above it, and then jump back on the bus to do it again. The front side of the Alpine resort offers great skiing as well, but doing laps that link up the bus, the chair lift and the backside ski runs is an unique ski experience.
If you do ski down from the alpine area, the packed roads of town funnel you right past the covered walking village attached to the Bear Valley Lodge. This arrangement makes clearing those 450 inches of snow from the front door much easier, since there is only one front door. Inside, the Headwaters Coffee House is full of old time photos and offers the services of an internet café as well as breakfast and lunch. Bear Valley Pizza and the Creekside Restaurant in the Lodge also serve lunch. A gift shop, general store, sport shop, real estate office and post office are also found here.
Although I could not quite see the warming hut café from atop Osborne Ridge, I knew that people were gathering there on the sunny deck by now. Located about half of a kilometer from the trailhead, the warming hut is a great place to huddle up with yourself or your kids and a cup of coffee or hot chocolate- just what you expect at any warming hut. At Bear Valley, however, deck parties and Bar B Qs in the sun can be expected at the warming hut, and they happen anytime that the sun comes out in this southern latitude. Local microbrews on tap quickly replace the traditional mug of hot chocolate on such days.
Halfway between the trailhead and the town center is the Bear Valley Cross-Country rental and retail shop. In the retail shop, you'll find a full selection of equipment, accessories, and a nice selection of clothing. Don't worry about bringing your own gear if you are flying and want to travel light, since top quality rental equipment is available for the tracks or the backcountry, including SNS and NNN compatible systems, climbing skins, and even snowshoes. A Rossignol demo center, stocked with mid to top of the line skis, boots, and poles, is located across the highway, back at the trailhead. For $10 an hour, a certified instructor helps you to select the appropriate classic or skating gear and then sends you out on the trails with a quick tip to help you enjoy the gear.
Ski school director Buffy Sexton heads up a Nordic gang that loves to ski, ski race, ski tour in the backcountry, and help people have as much fun in the snow as they do. Paul Petersen, three term member of the Professional Ski Instructors of America Nordic Demo team, and author of The Essential Cross-Country Skier, offers free clinics each Sunday at noon for intermediate and advanced skiers who signup by 11 AM.
After a morning of skiing at 7000 feet, a smarter move after lunch on the deck might be to grab a quick meadow ski and then head back to town and simply relax. The Great Room in front of the four-story granite fireplace in the Lodge is just the place to kick back and live out of your fantasy of snowbound ease. Board games and arcades are available for the kids, the Grizzly Bar is close at hand, but the couches and the crackling fire are the main attractions. Massage service is also available. Dinner is available at the Creekside in the Lodge or at Bear Valley Pizza. One hundred yards down the road, The BaseCamp also offers a restaurant, pub and lodging. Be sure to ask them about the Mountain Adventure Seminars that they offer which include courses in backcountry travel and telemark skiing.
Don't stay up too late, however, since you'll want to be up early, skiing a freshly groomed trail just as the morning sun catches the hoarfrost and fills you with that dazzling joy that is cross-country skiing at Bear Valley.
Trail Passes - $19 a day, multi day passes and books of ten available, over 70 and under 8 ski free.
Events - moonlight ski and snowshoe tours, gourmet ski tour with 5 stations staffed by local restaurants, Wooden ski festival in December, Bjornloppet classic and freestyle races in March, Tom's race to end the season.
More info - Bear Valley Cross-Country and Adventure Company
P.O. Box 5120 o Bear Valley o CA o 95223
Phone: 209-753-2834 o Fax: 209-753-2669 o E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
|From the Bay Area - Take 580 east to 205 east to 120 east to 99 north to 4 east and continue to Bear Valley. |
From the Central Valley -Take 99 north to 4 east and continue to Bear Valley.
From Sacramento - Take 99 south to 12 east to 49 south to 4 east and continue to Bear Valley.
From Lake Tahoe / Reno (winter) Take 80 west, 50 west, or 88 west from the greater Lake Tahoe basin, to 99 south to 4 east and continue to Bear Valley.
CalTrans Road conditions -(800) 427-7623
OTHER THINGS TO DO
Calaveras Big Trees State Park, jus east of Arnold, CA on Highway 4. Giant Sequoias up to 17 feet in diameter. www.bigtrees.org
Snowshoe BrewPub, 2050 Highway 4, Arnold, CA 209-795-2272, or www.snowshoebrewing.com
Murphys Hotel, Murphys, CA - oldest continuously operating hotel in the country, started during the California Gold Rush, currently serving a growing tourist trade to local wineries. See contact information under lodging. Call 800-225-3764x25 or visit www.calaveraswines.org for more information about local wineries.
Ironstone Winery - One mile south of Murphys Hotel on Six Mile Road. Seven-story winery is a replica of a gold rush era stamp mill, and houses a 44 lb. crystalline gold piece found locally. www.ironstonevineyards.com
Angels Camp, CA. Hone to the Calaveras County jumping frog made famous by Mark Twain when he owned a cabin here. Official frog jump site: www.frogtown.org
Calaveras Country Visitors Bureau: www.visitcalaveras.org
Bear Valley Lodge and Village Resort
P.O. Box 5440 Bear Valley, CA 95223
BaseCamp at Bear Valley - Bunks and rooms, restaurant, pub
P.O. Box 5450 Bear Valley, CA 95223
Tamarack Pines Inn Bed & Breakfast
2 ˝ miles west of Bear Valley on Highway 4.
Tamarack Lodge near Bear Valley
P.O. Box 5039
Bear Valley, CA 95223 (209) 753-2090.
Murphys Historic Hotel & Lodge
457 Main Street Murphys, CA 95247
(209) 728-3444 (800) 532-7684
CABIN & CONDOMINIUM RENTALS
Bear Valley Real Estate
P.O. Box 5250 Bear Valley, CA 95223 (209) 753-2334
Calaveras County lodging line - 800-225-3764