By CARY ORDWAY
The center of the skiing universe in California could be in the Lake Tahoe area or perhaps the big-time ski resort at Mammoth Mountain, but skiers and snowboarders looking for slopes a little more on the quiet side will find more than they imagined at Bear Valley.
While not on a par with Squaw Valley or Heavenly or other major California ski resorts, the Bear Valley ski area is still a prime candidate for a weekend or even an extended skiing vacation. As we discovered during an early February trip, Bear Valley offers a surprisingly complete ski vacation experience — no frills, to be sure, but still rewarding and well worth the trip deep into the Sierra Nevada range.
If designer clothing stores, zillion-dollar condos, and Hollywood-style glitz are part of your criteria for a ski vacation, Bear Valley might not be the best choice. If wide-open ski runs, no lift lines and plenty of groomed snow are more important to you, then by all means give Bear Valley a try.
Coming originally from the Pacific Northwest, we could not help but compare Bear Valley to one of our favorite ski areas in Washington State — a place called Mission Ridge in a town named Wenatchee. Since the population in that area is small compared to the cities that feed Stevens Pass, Snoqualmie and Crystal Mountain, Mission Ridge is able to maintain plenty of wide open space on its ski runs, even on weekends.
To reach Bear Valley, you have to drive two-lane roads through the foothills and mountains for close to 100 miles.
But when you get to Bear Valley, most skiers and snowboarders will find it's worth it. Our mid-week skiing was some of the best we've experienced — plenty of groomed intermediate terrain serviced by a variety of lifts that never seemed to have lines. It was ski down the run, get right on the chair and do it all again and again until just a few hours into our day we were growing exhausted. We probably skied in four hours what it would take us a full day to do at a resort with moderate lift lines.
There are no gondolas or high-speed quad chairlifts at Bear Valley, although there are 10 lifts altogether, mostly doubles and triples. About 1280 acres are available for skiing and snowboarding; some 100 acres are in an area where they can make snow — although at 7,750 feet, it's likely Mother Nature will supply all the snow you need.
We mentioned the intermediate skiing because that's our favorite — but rest assured Bear Valley has many black diamond or expert ski runs for those looking for more of a challenge. The day lodge is situated mid-mountain with lifts going both up the mountain to 8495 feet, and coming to the lodge from the lower part of the mountain. Most of the expert runs are located on the lower mountain.
The area's day lodge also was wide open and easy to navigate. Instead of masses of people waiting in line to get their food and find a place to sit, we stepped right up and got our cooked-to-order Philly cheesesteak sandwiches in just a few minutes. And there was no shortage of menu options — lots of different types of food from sandwiches to Asian cuisine, from soups and salads to major meals.
But the Bear Valley experience is much more than a daytrip — or at least it should be given the time it takes to get to the ski area. For our trip we booked lodging at the Bear Valley Lodge, one of just a few hotel-type facilities near the mountain. Located about three miles from the mountain, the Bear Valley Lodge seems to be the hub of activity in the area and proved to be a good choice for accommodations. While showing some of its age — it was built in the ‘60s — the lodge proved to be a comfortable, convenient base of operations. A ski shuttle bus will take you to the mountain, and you can even ski all the way back to the lodge.
When we say comfortable, we are not comparing the lodge to the high-end condos you find at most major ski resorts. The rooms at Bear Valley Lodge are more like a motel unit with two double beds a bath area and a TV/entertainment area that included HBO. But small touches — such as the bay window looking out onto the snowy landscape or the pine furniture — helped to make this feel much cozier than a motel room.
The four floors of rooms at the Bear Valley Lodge look out onto the Cathedral Lounge, a large open space in the middle of the lodge that offers guests a place to sit and read and enjoy the fire in the massive stone fireplace. Photos are mounted along the walls depicting the history of the lodge and Bear Valley ski area. Celebrities such as Spider Savich, Claudine Longet, Merv Griffin and several others are shown skiing or otherwise enjoying Bear Valley.
Adjacent to the lounge are several shops including an old-fashioned general store — with a deli to get quick sandwiches and soups — and a surprisingly complete ski shop with all of the latest ski equipment, clothing and accessories. But keep in mind this is not the type of resort where you can spend hours shopping when you're not on the slopes; your down time here most likely will be spent in front of the fire reading a good book.
During our brief stay we dined in the lodge's Grizzly Lounge — mainly because the other lodge restaurant, the Creekside Dining Room, was closed Mondays and Tuesdays. The lounge food was good and included a few menu items from the Creekside. We did learn that the Creekside has recently employed a well-educated and accomplished chef that has proven both creative and popular with guests — so we were disappointed we didn't get a chance to sample the Creekside cuisine.
We also enjoyed a meal down at BaseCamp, a lodge that is just a short walk from the Bear Valley Lodge and the only other hotel-style lodging this close to the ski area. The meal at BaseCamp was well prepared and we especially enjoyed learning more about Bear Valley from our English waitress who chose to move here from England because of Bear Valley's excellent intermediate skiing. The BaseCamp, incidentally, offers the lowest cost rooms in the area with "bathroom down the hall."
There are also condo and cabin rentals available in the Bear Valley area, as well as the Tamarack Lodge further west on Highway 4. Prices in general will be less at BaseCamp, moderate at the Bear Valley Lodge and Tamarack, and more when you rent an entire vacation home.
While in the area, there are several small towns and attractions that are worth a stop if you have the time. To reach Bear Valley in winter, you'll be traveling through the historical town of Angel's Camp and then a similar but smaller Gold Rush town called Murphys.
But our suggestion would be to allow plenty of time for skiing. You'll want to ski or board Bear Valley just as long as the weather — and your legs — will hold out.