After five hours of driving, night had finally caught up with us. Through the forest we caught glimpses of the lake and the flames of campfires, and by the time our high beams fell on our turnoff, we were ready to collapse. We unpacked the car and walked down to the dock. Huntington Lake, this unexpected gem in the middle of the High Sierra, lay before us, dark and still beneath the stars.
It had been a spur-of-the-moment getaway, and we had been running late all day. We'd packed the car and left Los Angeles in a blur: Interstate 5 to Highway 99. We turned right at Fresno and hit the mountains head-on. It was the middle of August last year, and we were feeling the dog days of summer.
As we drove north, fighting the monotony of the Central Valley, my wife, Margie, and I listed the things we might do during the week ahead--swimming and sailing, hiking and fishing. But that night in our cabin, a bottle of Merlot and a deck of cards between us, we knew this vacation would be a success if we did absolutely nothing.
This is what a summer vacation in the mountains is all about. Be it the clarity of the air, the cool nights or the warm days, the atmosphere casts a spell that can derail the best-laid plans. I was no stranger to the seduction. Blame childhood vacations, summer camp and a few backpacking trips for my susceptibility. My favorite destination was Huntington Lake, a blue pinprick in the Sierra National Forest 70 miles east of Fresno, just south of Yosemite National Park.
Huntington may not have the star power of Lake Tahoe, the prettiness of nearby Bass Lake or the convenience of Big Bear Lake. Four miles long by half a mile wide, it is a little scruffy, and it doesn't get as many visitors as some lakes. But for us, this is the appeal. There are no big resorts here, no fast-food restaurants or fancy eateries, no deafening powerboats and Ski-Doos. This is a no-frills kind of escape, reminiscent of a bygone era. At 7,000 feet, surrounded by dark green forests, granite domes and peaks, it is just short of heaven.
When the sun rose the day after our arrival, the sweet indolence of a morning without an alarm took over. I filled the percolator with water (no automatic drip machines here), lighted the propane stove and stepped outside to remind myself what this world looked like in sunshine.
We were staying on the quiet southwest corner of the lake at Lakeview Cottages, a collection of 11 small, comfortable cabins, desirable for their location at the end of the road. Surrounded by tall red firs, the cabins were built almost 100 years ago and have been progressively upgraded. All have porches facing the lake.
The cabins, open from Memorial Day to Sept. 30, weather permitting, are owned by Southern Californian Walter Krudrow, but their daily operation during the summer months is handled by Jayne and Denny Mann. They not only organize activities, ranging from a pancake breakfast to a scavenger hunt for kids, but also maintain the all-important waiting list.
Because Huntington Lake is a popular destination with limited lodgings--only four resorts are open during the summer--it is a good idea to reserve well ahead. Lakeview Cottages takes bookings two years in advance. When Margie and I heard this, we despaired of ever getting a cabin. But the Manns are efficient and call immediately with news of a cancellation. When the phone rang three days after our initial call, we thought we were lucky, but we were told such luck is not uncommon.
Ours was a spotless one-bedroom, one-bath cabin. It had white batten-board walls and linoleum floors. The cabins have plenty of hot water, showers, refrigerators and enough pots, pans, plates and utensils for a family of four. We'd brought a week's worth of groceries, stopping in Visalia. Jayne had recommended that we bring table lamps for reading at night; the cabins are starkly lighted by single ceiling bulbs.
Although the lake has some rustic places to eat, we chose to fix our own meals. The local coffee shops serve hearty breakfasts and cook up burgers, fish 'n' chips and the like for lunch. Some have patios facing the lake. Near Lakeshore, the official hub of lake activity, a few places serve dinner, mostly mountain-style fare (pan-fried trout, chops, New York steak).
After breakfast--and nothing compares with frying bacon and brewing your coffee in the mountains--we went on a walk. A trail wraps around the lake through a wilderness of red firs and lodgepole pines, ferns and bracken. Overhead the breeze soughed through the needles. To our left, the lake rose from the shore like a landscape painted by Cezanne.
For the first few days we were no more ambitious than this. Away from phones, computers and interruptions, we watched the shadows of trees clock from west to east, smelled sap warming in the sun and listened to the silence, a luxurious emptiness broken only by the distant slap of a screen door, children counting in a game of hide-and-seek or the splash of someone diving into the lake.
When we felt adventurous, we took beach chairs to a deserted cove, read in the sun and swam in the icy clear water. Later we explored the woods near our cabin, field guide in hand, identifying wolf lichen, manzanita, larkspur and penstemon, and in the evening, we barbecued steak or hamburgers and got to know another family who has been coming to Lakeview Cottages for years. Their ski boat was tied to the dock, and this year they had brought a sailboard with them. They welcomed us around their fires and passed along a few favorite activities: They recommended a drive into the back country over 9,175-foot Kaiser Pass and into the Vermilion Valley, where there are two other dammed lakes that feed into Huntington. Or we could take a dip at Mono Hot Springs, also in the Vermilion Valley.
We decided not to take that drive; smoke from a forest fire had drifted into this part of the Sierra, obscuring the views. Instead we explored the lake. Just around the corner from the cottages is a wonderful picnic spot: Dowville, as it's called, looks east across the long expanse of water toward China Peak and Kaiser Pass.
We drove by several picturesque campsites, some at the edge of the lake. Tall pines shaded tents and campers. Swimsuits and towels hung from impromptu clotheslines, and smoke rose from a few campfires. The sites book fast, especially on weekends, when Fresno residents escape the sweltering summer heat down below.
We stopped in the Forest Service's Eastwood Visitor Center, where a bulletin board was covered with photographs of the damage bears have inflicted on trash cans, ice chests and large late-model automobiles. It is an effective reminder that the California black bear is alive and well in the region. The ranger attributed the incursions to overpopulation and natural foraging. The bears, we were told, are shy and usually take to the hills when confronted with a clanging skillet and spoon.
We also spent an hour at the Billy Creek Guard Station Museum, learning about the lake and the fabled flight of a B-24 Liberator. The story of the 1943 crash of this World War II bomber is the stuff of campfire legends; its fuselage was found not far from the cove where we swam. Having developed hydraulic failure in a winter storm, the plane circled the mountains until its pilot found what he thought was a snow-covered meadow. It was instead the frozen lake.
Two crew members parachuted to safety; six others perished. In 1955, when the lake's water level was lowered for dam repairs, the tail of the plane rose above the water and a recovery was attempted. Because the lake is nearly freezing at the bottom, the bodies of the airmen in their leather flight suits were intact.
Later that afternoon we rented a 16-foot sailboat from the small marina just across the lake from our cabin. As the boat was being rigged for us, we poked around the general store, which was stocked with fishing gear: The lake is popular with anglers eager to hook rainbow trout, German brown trout or kokanee. The store also had a supply of candy, cheap paperbacks and--shades of the '50s--graham crackers, marshmallows and Hershey bars for s'mores.
It was a beautiful afternoon for a sail. Huntington has long been regarded as one of the finest sailing lakes in California. Not only are the afternoon winds brisk and challenging, but most power boaters avoid it. They find that the lake is too choppy.
Gliding across the water, we tacked downwind past one of the dams, the spillway and its gatehouse, past the dense forests on the southern shore and the posh cabins on the opposite side. The return trip was wet and cold.
One hundred years ago, our afternoon junket would have been impossible. Huntington Lake, once a cattle station in a long valley cut by a river called Big Creek, was the dream of John S. Eastwood.
An engineer with the Pacific Light & Power Co., Eastwood in 1902 started surveying the surrounding watershed of nearly 1,100 square miles and embarked on a technological feat that in its day was rivaled only by the Panama Canal.
Built over 50 years, Eastwood's project would include the construction of six dams and 43 miles of tunnels--driven through granite--that would drop water collected in the back country more than 6,000 feet and drive turbines and generators to create electricity for the fledgling metropolis of Los Angeles, 300 miles to the south. Henry Huntington, the railroad magnate and major bankroller for the lake, purchased his fair share of that electricity to drive the Pacific Electric Red Cars, the trolley line that once coursed across Los Angeles. Today the vitality of Eastwood's dream--and his arrogance--is undiminished. The dams, tunnels, penstocks and power grid are owned and maintained by Southern California Edison.
Eastwood's project didn't tame this part of the Sierra, though; these mountains are as wild as ever. Head over to the D&F; Pack Station, just west of Lakeshore, and go out on an hour, half-day or full-day horseback ride. You will find yourself on a narrow trail rising above the lake and soon disappearing in a world of crags, meadows and dizzying views. There are several hiking trails--the Eastwood Visitor Center has guidebooks and maps--that might inspire you to lace up your Vibram-soled boots. Within an hour or two you will have found yourself a private spot to picnic beside a stream or some quiet mountain glade.
One favorite destination is Rancheria Falls, a mile hike up Rancheria Creek on a paved trail. For the more ambitious, there is the hike to Nellie Lake, a 10-mile round trip in the Kaiser wilderness.
We were content to spend our time on the water. That evening, after the wind had died down, we ventured out onto the lake again, this time in a rowboat rented from the Manns. There, in the middle of it all, we sat quietly, listened to the occasional splash of a fish jumping after flies and watched the sunset splash lavender on the peaks.
This trip was something of a homecoming for me. Before leaving, Margie and I had pulled out a Super 8 movie, since converted to video, of a vacation my family had once taken here. Looking at the frames, I couldn't help but feel estranged from the world they depicted. Perhaps that is why I most needed this vacation.
It was the early 1960s. There was my father with his buzz cut; my mom with an assortment of hats; my sister, Sally; my brother, Bob; me and Sheba, our black Lab, all piled into a green Ford station wagon, a homemade sailboat tied to the roof. We had set out to explore this golden state: Mt. Lassen one year, Mammoth the next, then Yosemite and, finally, Huntington.
Years later I had gone to summer camp here and learned how to horseback ride, water ski and sail. At night I lay on my back and watched satellites arc across the sky and, one evening, on a television rigged up in the dining hall, saw Neil Armstrong step into the Sea of Tranquillity. Who we were and what we dreamed back then seemed a nostalgic reverie, and I wondered if the children who toasted marshmallows for s'mores today would have that feeling 30 years from now.
Later that evening I stepped off the porch of our cabin--Margie was making our reservations for next year--and let my eyes adjust to the darkness. The moon was setting. Steam rose from a quenched campfire. As voices bid good night, I watched squares of light from the windows of other cabins go dark.
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Guidebook: Escape to Huntington Lake
Getting there: Huntington Lake is 286 miles--about a five-hour drive--from Los Angeles. Take Interstate 5 north to Highway 99, then 99 north to Fresno. Pick up Highway 41 north to Highway 168, which leads to the eastern shore of the lake and the U.S. Forest Service's Eastwood Visitor Center. It takes about two hours to drive from Fresno to the lake.
Where to stay: Lakeview Cottages, 58374 Huntington Lodge Road, Lakeshore, CA 93634; (559) 893-2330, June 1-Sept. 30; (562) 697-6556,
Oct. 1-June 1. Prices range from $340-$410 a week for a one-bedroom cabin; two-bedroom cabins are $545-$615. Daily rates are available. Fishing boats can be rented.
Lakeshore Resort, 61953 Huntington Lake Road, Lakeshore, CA 93634; (559) 893-3193, fax (559) 893-2193, www.lakeshoreresort.com. A full-service facility with 27 cabins, RV park, marina, general store, saloon and restaurant. Cabins, most with kitchens, are rustic; they range from $77-$150. Restaurant entrees range from $8.50-$17.95. Canoes, sailboats and catamarans can be rented.
Cedar Crest Resort, 61011 Cedar Crest Lane, Lakeshore, CA 93634; (559) 893-3233 or, during winter months, (619) 927-6115. Built in the 1920s, Cedar Crest has 14 cabins, most with decks and kitchens. Cabins range from $84-$125 a night; tent cabins are $30-$35. There are some RV hookups, a general store and a marina, with fishing boat rentals. Restaurant entrees range from $5.95-$22.95.
Huntington Lake Resort and Marina, 58910 Huntington Lake Road, Lakeshore, CA 93634; (559) 893-3226 or (559) 893- 6750. This resort, on the lake's western side, has seven cabins, most with kitchens. Cabins range from $75-$100 a night, $422.50- $650 a week.
Boats can be rented at the marina. The restaurant serves breakfast and lunch.
Campgrounds include Upper and Lower Billy Creek, Catavee, College, Deer Creek, Kinnikinnick and Rancheria. To make reservations, call the National Recreation Reservation System at (877) 444-6777 or log on at www.reserveusa.com.
What to do: A variety of boats may be rented from Rancheria Enterprises, 62311 Huntington Lake Road, Lakeshore, CA 93634; (559) 893-3234. Rancheria also has the only gas station and garage at the lake.
Horses can be rented at D&F; Pack Station, P.O. Box 156, Lakeshore, CA 93634, (559) 893-3220, which organizes guided trips.
For more information: Call the Pineridge/Kings River Ranger District at (559) 855-5360 or Eastwood Visitors Center at (559) 893-6611. Or visit www.sierragatewaymap.com.
Thomas Curwen is deputy editor of The Times' Book Review.