I am about to introduce you to a place that is not Shangri-La. But for a day’s drive from Los Angeles, it comes pretty close in my book. I’m divulging this despite fears that I might be ruining a good thing. Still, I figure, the integrity of the Montecito-Sequoia Nordic Ski Resort will likely survive my expose.
Montecito-Sequoia Nordic Ski Resort is a highfalutin name for a piece of Leave-it-to-Beaver friendliness nestled in one of California’s most powerfully beautiful settings. It is a cross-country ski lodge in the winter, a family dude ranch in the summer, a resort for both seasons residing at 7,500 pristine feet.
Each day you feast your eyes on majestic forests of pine and fir--thousands of trees, some slender and elegant, others broad and stately. And within minutes you can be in magnificent groves of Sequoias, some of which have been standing for 2,000 years. The unbroken vistas are equal to the forested ones.
Some days you can observe entire weather systems come and go from a ski trail along a ridge. The freshness of the air brings the lungs to life.
And then there is the silence. Ski up a mountain trail. Gain 400, 500, 700 feet in elevation. Stop. Listen. There is no sound except the coursing of blood through veins.
About 65 miles east of Fresno and five hours’ drive time from greater Los Angeles, the resort has to be one of Southern California’s most inviting, albeit little-known, cross-country ski sites.
Montecito-Sequoia is also one of the most unpretentious resort destinations around--an oasis of geared-down sensibilities. You tote your own bags and gear from your car. You serve yourself meals buffet-style. You bus your own dishes. You definitely do not dress for dinner. Suggested attire: a vintage pair of Levis, some old boots and a bulky sweater. But there is a staff whose only concern seems to be that you have a wonderful time.
Perhaps the best part, Montecito-Sequoia is a wonderland for kids--a safe, clean, exhilarating environment that so enchanted our 7-year-old daughter Kalin that she wept when told it was time to leave.
Like other parts of California, it has suffered from the drought. Our family headed up to Montecito-Sequoia just after the New Year. The snow was patchy when we arrived, but it came down that night and then fell heavily over the next couple of days, leaving conditions that were generally super.
I’m told that it’s now patchy again, but owner Virginia Barnes says she has good reason to believe there’ll be lots of white stuff in time for the big President’s Day holiday (Feb. 18). She says the Farmer’s Almanac is predicting good snow for February and March.
We went there for the typical reasons--it was time to get out of the city, to change the routine, to take our first true family vacation. My wife Kim and I wanted something affordable, accessible, child-friendly, different and fun. I’d been cross-country skiing before--in fact, to this very lodge--but that was nearly a decade ago, before I had a family. I can’t even remember how I found out about the place.
These days, there are different vacation questions to ask: What about child care? Will there be other kids for Kalin and 3-year-old Alex to play with? Will the kids like the food? Can we adults possibly have a good time? Apprehensive about the prospects, I delayed calling for a reservation until the last moment. It was one of the best calls I’ve ever made.
We got to the lodge after an admittedly tedious trip up the spine of the Central Valley. The route, in brief, is north on Interstate 5 to near Bakersfield, where you pick up California 99. At Fresno, turn east on State 180 and an hour or so later you’re climbing toward the entrance to King’s Canyon National Park. Past the entrance about 1 1/2 miles, bear to the right at the Y.
Don’t look for a sign to help guide you along the way--there’s not a single indication that you’re on track until you reach the resort’s private road about eight miles down General’s Highway. To further confuse you, the lodge lies in Sequoia National Forest, but is technically outside the park.
When you arrive and have overcome the initial thrill of finding the place, you notice how at ease you immediately feel. There’s simply no reason for bustle or stress here.
The heart of the resort, the main lodge building, is comfortable but hardly luxurious. Just inside the barn-door entrance is an informal check-in area, beyond which is a cavernous room filled with round tables and chairs for dining and, further back, the huge hearthside, with logs always ablaze.
Barnes, whose family has leased the property from the National Park Service since 1950, says she “wanted it to be like the Ahwahnee in Yosemite, with big, huge fireplaces raised up so people could see fire and head for it.”
Well, it may not be the Ahwahnee exactly, but Barnes got her fireplaces: two 18-foot-wide stone caves and, skootched up as close as the heat will allow, huge dark-red leather couches and oversized chairs that form the undisputed centerpiece of her folksy main building.
If the lodge is comfortable for adults, for kids it is heaven. They wander through the place carrying mugs of hot chocolate to warm their hands. They play games with each other and the staff. They gather with adults around the fireplaces, sharing space with wet ski clothes drying out and regaling each other with tales of the wondrous and less wondrous feats of the day. Those singles who have come to get away from pressure and cities must be relaxed because they seem not to mind the kids’ ebullience.
During the day, kids’ time is filled with energized but not necessarily organized snow activities such as skating, skiing, snowman-building, snowball fights outdoors, eating, drinking, snacking, playing games (the lodge has an extensive selection of board and card games), table tennis or just plain horseplay. Life is so packed-full that there is little need for close parental supervision--though, like many parents, we normally keep a close eye on our kids.
Lodge devotees say the summer season is even more kid-friendly. There’s truth to Barnes’s description (she’s a former professor of education at San Jose State) of Montecito-Sequoia as “a kind of rustic Club Med atmosphere for the whole family.”
Another word about the general feeling of the place: It is disarmingly, almost disturbingly safe. Coming from the city, reflexes about safety and security die hard. But by the end of the second day, we were leaving skis and gear unattended on the lodge porch, clothes and boots overnight in front of the huge fireplaces, and just forgot about locking our door, whether we were in the room or out.
Meals are enthusiastically anticipated and attended. It’s all largely healthy, hearty fare, and there’s as much of it as an appetite can take after three or four hours of skiing. Dinner entrees during our visit ranged from macaroni and cheese and sloppy Joes to shrimp and pasta, salisbury steak, fish, veal and chicken. Breakfasts were traditional: eggs, sausage, French toast, fresh fruit, cereals and yogurt. Although it wasn’t L’Orangerie, in four days I never heard a complaint about the food, and the pickiest of kids always wound up with something they liked.
(I should add that there is a bar, but an odd one, with an attitude that fits Montecito-Sequoia. I wandered down one night about 8:30, hankering after a cognac, and found no one tending. It took me 10 minutes to find someone who could serve me, and another five minutes to help the “bartender” find some cognac. He would have poured me a brim-full glass of the stuff had I not stopped him.)
In short, it is the most unpretentious hostelry I’ve ever visited that labels itself a resort. That’s not to say it’s funky. Our room was clean and filled with beds, bunkbeds and bulky dressers--and boasted spectacular views of forest and mountains. Bedding (including individual electric blankets) and towels are of course fresh on your arrival. But there is no maid service, so keeping the room in order is up to you. And the room comes without gadgets. To watch TV, listen to the radio or use the phone, you’ll have to walk downstairs to the main lodge rooms. And you’ll have trouble finding a newspaper.
If the Montecito-Sequoia forgoes some standard resort niceties, it is more than balanced in our opinion by the extraordinary attitude of the staff. During our stay it was hard to find what they would not do for you. One ski instructor volunteered unsolicited to baby-sit Alex so that we could head off on a ski tour. As darkness descended, another gave me an impromptu--and free--30-minute private ski lesson in the porch light near the lodge steps. Another employee spent a couple of hours playing games with our children while we kibbitzed with fellow skiers. Ski shop employees--again, unasked--waxed my skis so I’d have “an easier time of it on the snow.”
The instructors, by the way, can usually get beginners up and running with just a morning session. There are more advanced lessons available, and beginning tours if you’re a little fearful of heading out alone. Equipment rental is available, at reasonable rates.
As for the skiing itself, this is why visitors come and come again. Montecito-Sequoia maintains about 21 miles of finely groomed trails, meaning the crew has set out early in the morning to place tracks, or grooves, for your skis to fit into. The trails range from beginner through intermediate and difficult, with some paths climbing more than 1,000 feet up the ridges to pristine bowls, where advanced nordic skiers then telemark--crisscross back and forth--down the steep terrain. There’s plenty to keep you busy at every skill level, and glorious sights are reachable even on the beginner trails, which are generally well marked.
Montecito-Sequoia is unquestionably an affair of the heart. After Barnes’ family bought the lease on the 42-acre site, it took them 15 years just to clear the land, which had all the leftovers of a logging operation. And after constructing more than a score of buildings for a summer camp, Barnes saw it all collapse in the winter of 1969, when one of the heaviest snows in recent memory destroyed 19 structures.
Barnes refused to give up on the property, rebuilding bigger, better and stronger, and in 1976 opened year-round. Since then, she says, the lodge’s big, barn-style doors have been open virtually every day, winter and summer. I’d be surprised if they aren’t open right now.
GUIDEBOOK: Cross-Country Skiing
Rates/reservations: Rooms in the main lodge start at $90 per person per day for adults, $50 for children ages 7 to 11, $20 for children 3-6. All meals are included; alcoholic beverages are extra. Rustic cabins adjacent to the lodge are about 15% less. For reservations, call (800) 227-9900.
Skiing: Group lessons run $14 for a 1 1/2-hour session. Private lessons are $22 for 90 minutes. Instructional tours are $18 for a half-day. Many of the resort’s packages come with lessions and tours included. There is a decent rental and pro shop, where an entire outfitting for cross-country costs about $25 for three days; children’s gear is about half-price. Ice skates and snowshoes are available for less than $10 a day. Color-coded maps of trails are available.