Natural Scenery

Sierra corridor to recreation and adventure – Monterey Herald

The Sierra Nevada is a marvelous nature playground and precious natural asset. The majestic forest bastion punctuated by granite domes and peaks is a 400-mile long domain. At least seven of California’s 22 major Sierra passes are in Central California, and Highway 88 Scenic Byway over Carson Pass ranks as one of my favorite year-round recreational corridors.

It was a yearning for Eastern Sierra solitude that prompted my husband David and I to head to Mammoth Lakes late last summer. Highway 50 took us to Placerville where we cut on a back road to Highway 88. Our gamble paid off in tranquility and beauty along Emigrant Trail, a lightly traveled road in the heart of an amazingly healthy stand of evergreens.

Unable to snag a campsite, we lucked out with a dog-friendly studio condominium on the Kirkwood meadow. What our accommodations lacked in frills, it made up in proximity to wilderness trails and stunning lakes. We stumbled on Woods Lake’s idyllic picnic grounds overlooking a rock island against a mountainous backdrop. On the second day, we set out from the Carson Pass Visitor Center (8,652 feet) to the Pacific Crest Trail and crystalline Lake Winnemucca.

The smoky haze drifting from distant fires as we approached Mammoth was an unsettling reminder of the rugged realm’s fragility. Perhaps it was the sky’s gray veil combined with a crop of less ecologically respectful visitors, but the popular resort mountain town had lost its gleam. We left the stifling air and human swarms behind and drove up to the Lakes Basin. Blue sky, mesmerizing scenery and room to disperse lifted my spirits as I stood at the edge of pristine McCloud Lake dominated by the colossal Mammoth Crest.

We spent a restful night in a studio cabin at Tamarack Lodge before the long and winding journey home. David had recently read an article about a renewable energy alliance between Ormat Technologies and Central Coast Community Energy, so we couldn’t help being intrigued when we saw a sign for Ormat’s geothermal plant off of Highway 395. A young woman with a hard hat covering her blonde mane greeted us at the end of a gravel road. We introduced ourselves and asked to take a look around the futuristic energy station. I smiled when Abigail said, “I’ll have to check with the construction manager because I’m only an engineer.”

Tommy, the congenial construction manager educated us about the generating site that is set to deliver enough clean energy to power 10,000 homes on the Central Coast in 2022. That was enough for my mental switch to flip from fire, drought and pandemic pessimism to optimism all the way home.

It was just days later, that I heard the heartbreaking news about the Caldor fire raging across Highway 88 toward Tahoe through Emigrant Trail’s magnificent forested alley.

Fast forward to a recent unseasonably warm December morning, I turned to David and said, “Gem (our dog) turns 7 tomorrow, let’s go celebrate up on Carson Pass!” Who doesn’t treat their Siberian husky to a birthday weekend getaway?

Carson Pass was minutes ahead when I saw the Caldor fire’s scorched path on both sides of Highway 88. The smell of burnt wood floated in the air and the view opened to a devastated stadium of charred mountainsides. Emigrant Trail was closed and my worst fears were confirmed. I turned to the snow-covered peaks cradling Caples Lake’s steel blue for consolation as we continued to the Pass. We spent the last couple hours of sunlight basking in the vastness of the white wild kingdom hiking in the footsteps of Kit Carson and John C. Fremont while an exuberant Gem raced across the crusty snowfield.

Sorensen’s, one of the Sierra’s most beloved family-operated, year-round cabin resorts since the 1920s had recently undergone extensive renovations under new ownership as Wylder Hope Valley and Campground. What hadn’t changed was its dog-friendly policy and prime location for hiking, fishing, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing on the West Fork of the Carson River in the heart of Hope Valley pioneer history. We arrived at sunset and immediately noticed the wood cabins’ freshly restored shells complete with dual pane windows, new porches and spiffed-up conversation fire pits. A telescope was set up at the rear of the picnic lawn to celebrate the night sky.

The office was still in a tight nook next to Sorensen’s Café’s intimate dining room known for its original massive round, iron-belted wooden tables. I found the flyers announcing “Eastern California History Talks,” a reassuring sign that the new guard valued tradition and heritage.

The housekeeping cabin’s upgraded European kitchen appliances and rustic artisan stoneware impressed me. The complete spice rack was a surprising novel touch. Sleek natural wood interiors softened with down pillows, duvet, and gas fireplace oozed Scandinavian “hygge” (coziness). I didn’t expect cell service, but I was hoping for WiFi in the cabin. Brandon, the assistant general manager explained that the techno isolation was meant to encourage guests to connect with nature and relax as if they were enjoying time at their best friend’s cabin.

The dinner menu featured interesting seasonal twists, but I paid homage to the historic mountain culture with the classic “Sorensen Beef Burgundy Stew.” Dessert was a toss-up between blueberry pie and berry cobbler, so we had both.

David woke up with pie on his mind, so we hiked to the resort’s general store and scored a whole steaming hot apple pie “to go.” Pie mission accomplished we set off on a 3-mile hike up Indian Head Trail so birthday girl could romp in the snow while we inhaled the mountain views. Four glorious hours later, it was time for a Scandinavian sauna detoxification ritual before dinner. Back in the cabin, we ordered a feast of winter salad, roasted cauliflower and hemp soup, smoked trout rillette and shrimp linguini before gorging on our apple pie smothered in vanilla ice cream.

A weather system on the horizon sped up our morning departure. It wasn’t until we dropped into the foothills and my cell phone lit up that I was reminded why isolation in nature and disconnected cocoons like Wylder are valuable refuges for the psyche and the soul. I couldn’t wait to unplug again.

Linda B. Mullally and husband David share their passion for travel, outdoor recreation and dogs through articles, hiking books and photography at, and Facebook.

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