Getting to Bear Valley Ski Area, on the westslope of the Sierras, is a journey in itself. Along Highway 4, you cut across the heart of Central Valley, with its rows of almond orchards, strawberry fields and hunched-over migrant workers. The feedlots, where the cows are packed so tightly together that they've become smeared in their own excrement, make you wish you were a vegetarian. Then the road climbs into the rolling foothills of blonde grasses and oak trees, into old 49er towns like Angel's Camp and Murphys, which has one of California's oldest saloons.
Strange that this is the start of a ski trip.
The road continues upward, past a place called Big Trees. Which is what you see—great big majestic trees that lean over the road like the walls of a canyon. From there, Highway 4 continues its long journey to an abrupt end at Bear Valley—an old school ski area known for its family friendly atmosphere, great terrain that doesn't get skied that often, and for being near the crest of the High Sierra.
But few people have heard about it, and fewer still know where it is.
As the crow flies, Bear Valley is only 20 miles north of Yosemite National Park and six miles south of Kirkwood, but from the ski area, it takes three hours to drive to either place. Up and down and round she goes—that's how you get around up here.
With 1,600 acres, "soft boundaries" for accessible backcountry skiing, 1,900 feet of vertical, and 360 inches of annual snowfall, Bear Valley is worth the drive. But it's certainly, um, different.
Characterized by locals as "upside down," the upper mountain has all the beginner and intermediate terrain, while the aggressive skiing is on the lower half. You park (for free) at mid-mountain next to an old day lodge. There you will probably find a long line of beginners and families waiting to rent skis. Brown baggers aren't stuffed into a dingy basement, and you might find a mom at the cafeteria plugging in her Crockpot. You also might find General Manager Jim Gentling at the ticket window, or the rental zone, or even fixing a door. At night, Gentling helps at the restaurants and bars, while longtime ski patroller Bill Gillespie may pull double duty as a bartender. It's all part of the community atmosphere. As one skier recently stated, "Bear Valley is a pocket of goodness."
The resort feels like it is from another time. Five of the eight lifts are old Riblet doubles, probably still the originals from when Bear Valley first opened in the mid-1960s. And while we should protect and patronage those resorts that remind us of how skiing used to be, there are times when a fresh coat of paint would go a long way. Bear Valley's infrastructure and lodging are creaky, and dining options are few, meaning those who stay overnight don't have a lot of choices. The resort has long planned to upgrade its facilities and redevelop the village. The Forest Service recently approved the plan, which most locals say would give a much-needed boost to a ski area that is, sadly, barely hanging on. The financial meltdown of 2008 has lingered here, and last winter's dearth of snowfall put a severe hurt on the area's bottom line.
But with great terrain, and down-home culture that promotes hanging out with family and friends, the ski area already has a character that so many try to imitate. As plans move forward to refresh the area, Bear Valley marches on as the cool little funky ski zone at the end of a road in the middle of the Sierra.
Bear Valley Mountain
Lift Ticket: $62
Season Pass: $399 (early season)
Annual Snowfall: 360 inches
Vertical Feet: 1,900
Don't Miss: The Grizzly Chair has the best lift-served terrain, but for an untracked experience check out Mountain Adventure Seminars. They offer guided tours and avalanche courses. Mtadventure.com