Throwback Mountain: Bear Valley, CA

I’ve skiied at Vail and Whistler, Heavenly and Squaw Valley, even Zermatt. But with its rustic charm and family friendly atmosphere, Bear Valley Mountain Resort in the Central Sierra, nestled between Yosemite and Lake Tahoe, is a throwback mountain. It reminds me of the ski areas I explored during my California youth blended with a distinctly European style.

Maybe it felt like the Alps because there were 15 feet of fluffy snow. Maybe it was because most of the instructors were European. Maybe it was the gorgeous view at the top of the mountain to the valley below. Or maybe it’s because Bear is still unpretentious, uncrowded and unpredictably refreshing compared to the mega Tahoe resorts that attract tens of thousands of skiers and boarders per day.

My daughter Sara and I had a terrific time skiing on Friday and vow to return next year because Bear is so affordable and so friendly. Best of all, during her lesson, I took 10 runs in an hour on a medium-length intermediate slope: that could never happen at a Tahoe resort during a crowded holiday week like this.

Bear Valley Ski Area can accommodate 2,200 cars and 8,000 skiers. It runs at capacity most weekends. Yet, there are virtually no lift lines because its 10 chairs are spread out across a huge valley in California’s least populated county — only two people per square mile. That ratio was even lower in 1854 when the valley was first settled by pioneers and was crawling with Grizzly Bears.

We stayed at the Bear Valley Lodge and Village Resort, one of the last great wooden lodges in California. The open wooden beams and four-story Cathedral Lounge with a huge granite fireplace are spectacular. Wi-Fi is offered free in the spacious lobby, so it’s a popular spot to check email, write a blog, or play a game. The rooms are spacious and comfortable, too.

There were five restaurants in the indoor Village Resort and we enjoyed fine cuisine at three of them:
Creekside Dining Room — This upscale bistro serves steaks, calamari, salads, daily specials, desserts, plus local and regional California wines. We couldn’t see the creek because of the 20 feet of snow that filled the covered bridge, but were assured it was there.
Grizzly Lounge & Bar — This bar opens at 5pm and serves light fare, including salads, calamari, fish tacos, spaghetti and chicken fingers. The night life kicks in about 10 pm with singing, which is why the hotel offers free earplugs in the rooms.
• Headwaters Coffee House & Internet Cafe — Open til 3:30 daily, I was amazed at the variety of foods, including breakfast, coffee, smoothies, pizza, salads, paninis, exotic sides (Thai Chicken Wraps and Mussels on the Half Shell), and more.
• Bear Valley Pizza Company — A big screen TV is the focal point of this rustic, sprawling room featuring a wide choice of tasty pizzas, salads, beer, wine, sodas, desserts, a pool table, and a fun family atmosphere.
• Bear Valley General Store — This grocery store offers canned goods, beer and wine, plus hot breakfasts each morning.

Next Sunday, April 23 will be the final day of the 2005/2006 Bear Valley Ski Season. But next Saturday, April 22, they’ll celebrate a great year by hosting a Reggae on the Mountain Music Concert, Pond Skimming, a Micro-Brew Festival and Jib Jam.

You can buy 2006/2007 Ski Passes now and can you them this coming week.

Finally, Bear Valley is more than snowboarding, alpine and cross-country skiing. As a year-round vacation destination, it offers whitewater rafting in the spring; hiking, fishing, biking, whitewater rafting, kayaking and climbing in the summer; and fantastic fall foliage that rivals the East Coast in the fall.

Info: Bear Valley Mountain Resort.
Snow Phone: 209-753-2301 ext#2.

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