It is a crisp winter morning in the Sierras, and the sun is beginning to peak through the trees as we wind our way up into the high country along State Highway 4 on our way to Bear Valley. A fresh layer of snow clings to the towering pines, cedars and firs, weighing down their tops, causing them to lean into one another as if whispering the secrets of this place. We are scarcely aware of our elevation gain until we come around a bend and the forest gives way to a breathtaking view across a river canyon, revealing the sparkling white crest of the Sierra Nevada. We are nearly there! In a few short miles we will be greeted by one stunning scene after another, as the highway emerges into a magical valley at 7000 feet, then points us toward the Mokelumne River canyon, second only in depth to King’s Canyon in the southern Sierra. And finally, around our last turn, the treasure we have come for lies before us – Bear Valley Mountain – some of the finest skiing California has to offer. With the drive time clocking in at around three hours from the south Bay, it is definitely our closest ski resort. So why does it feel so remote?
You could be forgiven for thinking this place is isolated and difficult to reach. In winter, it is literally at the end of the road in the middle of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. For the outdoor enthusiasts who know and love Bear Valley, this is the essence of why they have been bringing their family and friends here for years. This place is a quiet gem waiting to be discovered. It is not the bustling tourist center of Tahoe, though from Bear Valley’s summit you can easily see the Tahoe area peaks. Just subtract the crowds and the five hour ordeal on the interstate, and instead find yourself here, in the middle of the beautiful Stanislaus National Forest.
Ebbett’s Pass, as this stretch of Highway 4 is known, is a national scenic byway and was named in 2010 as among the top scenic drives in the US. It is a showcase for the best the Sierra has to offer, beginning in the rolling foothills around the 2000 foot level and later topping out at 8500 feet along the crest of the range. Major John Ebbetts, to whom the road owes its name, was a California explorer who first traversed the route in 1851. Later, business interests from the bustling mining town of Murphys turned Ebbetts’ route into a wagon trail, and a toll station in the area then known as Grizzly Bear Valley was established. Luckily, transportation has improved a bit since then, and in a short drive from the Bay, you can be on the snow. The ski resort came into being in 1967, as the sport was gaining in popularity on the west coast. However, with the much larger resort developments in Lake Tahoe gathering notoriety just to the north, Bear Valley instead became a haven for those seeking a quieter, lower key, family-style experience. Those values are still very much a part of life here.
What’s different now, and irresistible, is the buzz swirling around this mountain mecca. Various owners during the resort’s 43-year history have schemed and dreamed of expanding the skiing terrain to its fullest potential and creating year-round amenities that will accommodate both adrenaline junkies and leisure specialists. But the resort and village always remained in separate hands until 2005, when they were combined by a partnership of local landowner Chuck Toeniskoetter, Dundee Real Estate and two Bay Area investors, Radar Partners. Several of the new owners have life-long ties to Bear Valley and it’s their goal to build this place into a vibrant mountain community that retains the slow paced, welcoming charm that drew them here in the first place.
But let’s talk snow. The Sierras received an impressive load of snow throughout the fall, setting Bear Valley up for epic early season powder, and we are headed into the newly opened 400 acre bowl on the mountain’s eastern face. This gorgeous stash of intermediate and advanced terrain has been a popular secret among locals for many years, who use the wide open bowls and tree runs to ski into the village below. It has always been within the resort’s “soft boundary,” (an area open to skiing, though not patrolled or maintained) but this is the first year the area will be officially incorporated into the trail system. And it makes sense, after all, because it is here that a long awaited ski lift bringing guests from the village below will soon be built.
The soft boundary concept is a significant asset for Bear Valley, and one the resort is now trying to promote more widely. Anyone who knows the mountain knows Grizzly Bowl – referred to as “the lower mountain,” for its location underneath and out of sight from the more obvious intermediate slopes above – conceals some of the best black diamond terrain this side of the Rockies. However, for those with a good knowledge of avalanche avoidance and the willingness to do a little work (read: hiking through powder to get back to civilization), the mountain can nearly double in size and offer some spectacular backcountry skiing and riding experiences. Luckily, to make the out-of-bounds experience safer and more accessible, local guide service, Mountain Adventure Seminars, has set up shop inside the main lodge at the resort. With twenty years experience in guided climbing, backcountry travel and avalanche safety instruction, owner Aaron Johnson and his team offer everything from private tours of hidden powder, telemark clinics, as well as single and multiday avalanche training sessions.
When the snow melts and summer arrives, Bear Valley serves as an access point to camping, fishing, biking, hiking and mountaineering in the Stanislaus National Forest or for travel into two of California’s spectacular wilderness areas; the Mokelumne to the north, and Carson-Iceberg to the south. July brings the world famous Death Ride nearby, a 100 mile cycle race through five different passes. Or, if you are looking for something more cultural, come in August for the Bear Valley Music Festival, a two-week show of orchestras, soloists and legendary entertainers. Throughout the season, the BVSafe summer camp program offers an array of outdoor youth sports instruction, from soccer and tennis to archery and mountain biking. Athletes of all disciplines have discovered that when the August temperatures soar into triple digits in the valley and foothills below, the weather here at 7000 feet is ideal for long days training in the alpine sun.
A short drive back down the road from Bear Valley, the alpine landscape opens onto the rolling hills of Calaveras County wine country, fast becoming a renowned destination for top quality boutique wines. The county is bordered on the north and south by world class whitewater in the Mokelumne and Stanislaus rivers, and tucked away in the hills between, a year round hot spot for biking, climbing, caving and horseback riding. On the cultural side, you’ll find a patchwork of farms, state parks and small towns where you can browse antiques or contemporary art while sipping your locally roasted espresso. Agriculture has played a big role in the culture and economy of this region, and this year it will be a feature on the menu at Bear Valley as well. In a unique partnership with local food producers, the resort will be offering locally grown products whenever possible and turning its commitment to healthy foods up a notch with fresh vegetarian fare.
While these communities of the Ebbett’s Pass corridor have had their share of economic challenges over the years, they now find themselves in a unique position to offer many of us exactly the kind of experience we are looking for. The blend of year round healthy outdoor lifestyle, food and wine, and vibrant communities have created a new challenge – finding a way to stay longer.