Nearly 30 years after opening Sorensen’s, John and Patty Brissenden still cherish life in the alpine valley they fought to protect

By Robert Frolich

John and Patty Brissenden

If you’ve been frustrated by some of the larger resorts by crowds of trail users, impatiently waiting for some solitude and less hassle, wait no longer.

At Sorensen’s Resort in Hope Valley it’s all about the snow, the silence, the solitude and the swoosh of graceful movements through the woods.

Located on Highway 88 just east of Pickett’s Junction, 30 minutes east of Kirkwood ski resort, the settlement dates to 1926 and Danish immigrant Martin Sorensen. That’s when he opened a service station, store and dance floor at the site of a derelict fishing lodge.

Today, owners John and Patty Brissenden offer 35 cabins, a café and gift and book store, all surrounded by stands of aspen near the West Fork Carson River. There are several pet friendly cabins as well as those for disabled guests.

Although only a 20-minute drive from the glitz and lights of South Lake Tahoe, Sorensen’s rests in Alpine County, the least populated county in California.

Sorensen's cabin in the winter

Sorensen’s has its own hiking/ski trail on the property and the meadow across the road for cross-country skiing. In addition, nearby the Hope Valley Outdoor Center offers more than 100 kilometers of marked, packed trails on public land in Hope Valley.

Hope Valley, which lies at an elevation of 7,000 feet, was named in 1848 by a party of Mormons turning their backs on the California Gold Rush and heading back east over the mountains toward Utah. Ringed by 10,000-foot peaks, well watered and punctuated with towering stands of juniper and aspen, the beautiful wilderness had always been desirable land, which was why ranchers pasturing their cattle claimed it early.

Twenty-eight years ago, the Brissendens had few reservations when they opened Sorensen’s Resort.

“We saw it as a great opportunity,” says John. “It was in need of repair, but our philosophy was just a little paint and a little wallpaper. In 1982, we borrowed $1,500 to take out an option on the 165 acres. Little did we know what we were getting into.”

While fixing up the then 20 cabins, the former political and social activists from Santa Cruz soon found out. One of the first bookings was a party of 30 signed up for a June raft trip.

“The first night, our French chef had a spat with his wife, got drunk and drove his truck into the river. We’d hired a bluegrass band to entertain our guests, but they got stoned and became lost in the woods. A friend of the French chef was talked into marrying one of the guests and took off for a chapel in South Shore,” John laughs.

The Brissendens persevered and not only rebuilt Sorensen’s, but also helped rescue Hope Valley from future development. When the Sierra Pacific Power Company sought to thread the land with high-tension cables in the early 1980s, John, a former VISTA volunteer and who had worked for former Congressman Leon Panetta, and Patty, former Chief of Staff for then Assemblymember Sam Farr, organized.

In 1985, along with other local activists, they helped create the Friends of Hope Valley. The nonprofit helped to preserve 25,000 acres of open space in Hope Valley and eastern Alpine County through the Trust for Public Land.

“Local sentiment was that development should cluster in already developing areas while keeping the valley rural,” says John, a former Alpine County Supervisor.

In between their conservation efforts, the couple continued to establish Sorensen’s as a charming eco-friendly retreat.

If the fresh air and solitude are not enough to hold the modern world at bay, Sorensen’s accommodations have an even more pristine appeal. There are no TVs or phones in the cozy rooms. And cell phone signals have a hard time being accessed in Woodford’s Canyon. Complimentary snowshoes are provided first-come-first serve for lodging guests.

Sorensen’s dining room is a set designer’s vision of a bistro: intimate and pine-paneled, where everyone talks to everyone else and a friendly staff handles the service.

Lodging ranges from one-bedroom cedar cabins with wood burning stoves to a replica of a Norwegian farmhouse for six. Dormitory bunkhouses provide economic lodging for groups and come equipped with all the basics. The resort also offers conference facilities, a sauna and a bookshop.

Hope Valley Outdoors

Cross-Country skiing, backcountry adventure and snowshoeing are a big part of Hope Valley’s winter splendor, and the Hope Valley Outdoor Center makes a great launch point. The center, formerly east of Sorensen’s, is now run out of a yurt located a mile west at Pickett’s Junction, where highways 88 and 89 meet.

Situated in the Toiyabe National Forest and operated under a permit from the Forest Service, the center offers 60 mile of marked trails, including 20 miles that are groomed. And get this: It’s free.

“We still do not charge an actual trail fee but we do ask for donations so we can continue to groom,” says owner Joyce Coker.

Hope Valley Outdoors offer rentals, instruction and guided full-moon tours. And dogs are welcome.

“We lean more toward a backcountry type of skiing,” adds Coker. “It’s part of our uniqueness. Most of our trails are destination tours.”

One of the more popular day trips is an entry-level seven-mile trail to Burnside Lake below Hawkins Peak. The Snowshoe Thompson trail travels north to Grass Lake and is the site of the Snowshoe Thompson Mail Run Race every March. For more challenge take the Red Lake Trail up to the Forestdale Divide on Elephant’s Back. There’s also a flat seven-mile loop in Hope Valley Meadows along the Sled Dog Trail.

In addition to exploring the trails, Sorensen’s promotes more than 30 special programs throughout the year, many with environmental themes. Others include such wintertime traditions as pine-bough Christmas decorating, dogsled tours, ice fishing, and ski treks commemorating Snowshoe Thompson’s original mail delivery routes.

“We give awards to people who will arrive wound pretty tight, but leave extremely relaxed,” says John.

New programs this season are Plein Air Painting with Joan Hoffman, Dec. 6-9, and a winter survival workshop with the Tahoe Nordic Search and Rescue Team, Dec. 11.

“Close to 30 years later our Hope Valley home remains an immense amount of enjoyment,” says John. “Our strength comes from our guests. They continue to inspire us to preserve and protect this special area of the Sierra Nevada.”

Sorensen’s Resort

14255 Highway 88

Hope Valley, CA 96120

(800) 423-9949

Hope Valley Outdoors

(530) 694-2266