A Sierra gem that keeps you coming back
By Kristin Conard
Between Tahoe and Yosemite on California State Route 4 is Bear Valley, a small and scenic destination with a rich history and year-round fun.
Bear Valley is set in the midst of the central Sierra mountains, along the 61-mile Ebbetts Pass National Scenic Byway. This steep and winding road runs through the mountains along a trail that was once used by Miwok and Washoe Native Americans. California pioneer John Ebbetts used this passage in 1851 and thought it would be a good route for the transcontinental railroad. While that idea didn’t work out, it did become a well traveled wagon trail and the pass now bears Ebbetts’ name.
At 7,000 feet, this high alpine sector was first named Grizzly Bear Valley, and it was developed as a ski resort in the 1960s. Bruce Orvis Sr. envisioned a sports complex in a beautiful area his parents—ranchers William and Grace Orvis—used for cattle grazing. Orvis convinced the powers-that-be to construct a road from Highway 4 to Bear Valley, giving birth to his dream.
Mt. Reba Ski Bowl opened in 1967 and is now Bear Valley Mountain Ski Resort with 67 runs over 1,280 acres with nine lifts and two terrain parks. The Village’s Bear Valley Cross Country has developed a trail system with 35 trails over 3,000 acres avaialble for cross country skiers and snowshoers.
What’s exciting about Bear Valley right now is that it’s on the verge of large capital investments with Skyline International Development’s purchase of Bear Valley Mountain which was completed earlier this year. The plan is to expand the ski lifts and build 350 new guestrooms, and the work is being done in coordination with the Bear Valley Mountain Cooperative (bvmcoop.org), a group of passionate and committed locals dedicated to the resort and the Bear Valley Village and surrounding communities.
Bear Valley Mountain Ski Resort (bearvalley.com) has a 8,500 foot summit with a 1,900 foot vertical drop, providing a secluded feel with big, stunning views. The family-friendly resort has few lines, a laid-back vibe and gets an average of over 30 feet of annual snowfall.
Together with Bear Valley Mountain Resort, Mountain Adventure Seminars (MAS) (mtadventure.com) offers unique classes and trips for advanced skiers and snowboarders interested in the sidecountry terrain adjacent to the ski area. These adventures offer access to steep chutes, open bowls and descents of up to 1000 vertical feet.
For those who prefer nordic skiing, Bear Valley Cross Country’s (BVXC) (bearvalleyxc.com) extensive trail system has beautiful mountain views and offers something for every level of ability. For the kids, they also have a popular sledding and tubing hill located adjacent to the skiing. With a base elevation of 7,000 feet Bear Valley Cross Country guarantees first to open (usually mid November) and last to close (usually mid April) status among Sierra cross country centers. BVXC offers classes, rentals and tours throughout the season.
NOT JUST A WINTER DESTINATION
During the summer season, Bear Valley Cross Country converts to Bear Valley Adventure Company with bike, flatwater kayak and stand-up paddleboard rentals, sales, classes and tours. Their location also has a mini-mart, fishing gear, camping supplies and retail clothing and accessories for all of Bear Valley’s summer adventures.
Hiking, fishing and paddling: There’s over 150 miles of high elevation trails along the Highway 4 corridor where you can check out the Mokelumne and Carson-Iceberg wilderness areas. And at nearby Lake Alpine, there’s great fishing, particularly for rainbow trout, and with a 10 mph limit, it remains tranquil and quiet. It’s a 4-mile hike around the lake, and it’s a 1 1/3 mile and a 600-foot climb up to Inspiration Point, a summit overlooking the lake. The lake’s also great for paddleboarding and flatwater kayaking.
Biking: For those who prefer their adventure on two wheels, head out of town and take the 3.4 mile (one-way) Emigrant Trail up from Bear Valley to Lake Alpine, and the Cape Horn trail is a more technical out and back singletrack with small boulders and tree roots throughout. Check in with Bear Valley Adventure Center about other rides and trails.
Climbing: With lots of granite in Bear Valley, it can be a fun place to boulder and climb. On the other side of the hill behind the Bear Valley Community Center, you can get to the School House Boulders with some moderate slab problems. Box Canyon has single pitch climbs in the 5.5 to 5.9 range with a mix of crack and face climbing. Keep an eye out for a pullout .4 miles east of the Bear Valley and Highway 4 junction and look for the trail from there. MAS has information on area climbing, and it also runs private tours and lessons.
Tourist Attraction: A 35-minute drive from Bear Valley is the relatively small but impressive and historic Calaveras Big Trees State Park. It’s been a tourist attraction since the 1850s, and in the 1880s, a hole large enough to walk through was cut into the Pioneer Cabin Tree. To protect the North Grove, it was made into a state park in 1931 and in 1954, it was expanded to include the South Grove. It’s a 1.5 mile trail through the North Grove, and it’s a 5-mile hike through the South Grove, which has the parks two largest trees—Agassiz Tree and Palace Hotel Tree. You can also camp at the park or stay in one of the furnished post-war cabins near the North Grove.
UPCOMING ANNUAL EVENTS
JazzTrax Snowshoe Stomp — February 21, 2015
Fun 1K, 5K & 10K Snowshoe Races (Run or Walk) for children and adults. A beautiful, well-marked race course, awards, raffle prizes, lunch and live entertainment. (209) 753-2834 bearvalleyxc.com
The Freeheel Festival — March 27-29, 2015
A weekend of telemark, randonee, and splitboard workshops and guided tours. There will also be a winter adventure and an après ski dinner with live music, and prize giveaway. (209) 753-6556 mtadventure.com
Bear Valley Summer Day Camp — June – August 2015
Camp activities designed around our stunning environment. You name it, we do it. With nearby mountain lakes, boulders, rivers, trails, and trees—all is possible! Join us for 8 weeks, 8 hours, or anything in between. bearvalleydaycamp.com
Bear Valley Music Festival — July 24 to August 9, 2015
The premier musical event of the Central Sierra where thousands of people make their way into the mountains to listen to all kinds of music from opera to classical to jazz. (800) 458-1618 bearvalleymusicfestival.org
Ebbetts Pass Century — August 22, 2015
Enjoy the world class cycling surrounding Bear Valley. There are four scenic and supported rides to choose from. (209) 753-6556 mtadventure.com
LODGING IN AND AROUND BEAR VALLEY
Bear Valley Lodge: Rustic Lodge with central village location. bearvalley.com/lodge
Lake Alpine Resort: Campgrounds and cabin rentals, 3 miles east of Bear Valley. lakealpineresort.com
Tamarack Lodge: Lodging with various room offerings; some European-style, some with private bath; 2 miles west of Bear Valley. tamaracklodgeatbearvalley.com