About a week before our trip to Montecito-Sequoia Lodge, my husband bought chains for the car, and I pulled out every item of warm clothing we had. I thought we were prepared for whatever might happen on a cross-country ski weekend at the edge of Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks.
A letter from the lodge came four days before our departure. Along with a liability waiver and the usual warning about the hazards of driving and playing in the snow was a request to furnish proof of health and accident insurance coverage. Accidents? What were we getting into?
I like cross-country partly because it's gentler than downhill skiing. I've never encountered cross-country skiers careening out of control nor suffered bodily harm other than sore muscles. The lodge's request hinted that a bigger danger lurked among the sequoias.
But I put on my game face, and by midafternoon on a Friday last February, Barry and I had driven north through fallow fields lining California 99 in the San Joaquin Valley and turned east at Visalia, climbing toward the Sierra's 10,000-foot peaks. Just short of Sequoia National Park's Giant Forest, we were advised to put on chains. The road, though snow-covered and icy in places, was clear enough that we didn't need them with our four-wheel drive. The scenery was Christmas-card perfect, the trees weighted with snow.
Montecito-Sequoia Winter Sports and Cross Country Ski Resort leases 42 acres in one of California's prettiest settings, off Generals Highway in Sequoia National Forest about five hours north of L.A. The 13 cabins and 36 rooms are wedged near the two national parks. The rustic resort is popular with families in summer and Nordic skiers in winter. Other seasonal activities include snow tubing, ice skating, snowmobiling and dog sledding.
Our Friday-to-Sunday package included lodging, trail passes, meals and snacks for $140 (plus tax) per person, per night. Alcoholic beverages, gear rentals and guided activities like snowshoeing were extra.
When we arrived at 6:30 p.m., it was densely dark, the lodge shrouded in snow. Following corridors dug in the white stuff, gingerly stepping on patches of ice and skirting menacing icicle daggers hanging from eaves, we stumbled toward a side door that put us in a large room full of conversation and warmth from a hearth that took up most of one wall. A near-life-size portrait of owner Virginia Barnes watched over the bustle. This room, we would learn, is the heart of the lodge, where guests and staff eat, mingle, snooze and warm up.
Hearty fare, basic lodging
Dinner is served from 5 to 7:30 p.m., so people were lining up at a buffet. Barry and I checked in and turned in our car keys so the staff could move the car for the snowplows if necessary. Then we headed for the chow line.
I don't much like buffets. I am not a big eater, and I usually find the fare warmed over, unhealthy and unrecognizable. This one surprised me: moist halibut with a lemon caper sauce, a choice of salads and sautéed string beans (not overly wrinkled) sprinkled with almonds. The seven meals we ate there turned out to be varied, good and filling.
We loaded up our plates, bought a bottle of Sterling Cabernet Sauvignon from the closet-like Pine Box bar and ate our meals on large leather couches by the hearth.
Fortified, we walked to our room. It was simple, with a dresser, two beds that showed wear and two floor lamps. Extra electric blankets -- without cords -- were on a shelf. A wall heater, although noisy, warmed the room in minutes. The bathroom was just as spare, with towels and two small bars of soap. There was no TV or telephone. But it didn't matter: This wasn't the kind of place where you spend a lot of time in your room.
Sunlight streaming through a window woke us Saturday just in time for breakfast, served from 8 to 9:30 a.m. The line snaked out the double doors leading to the kitchen. Inside was a buffet of eggs, pancakes, bacon, hot and cold cereals, fruit, yogurt -- plenty to carbo-load for a day of strenuous activity.
Barry went off to the resort's shop to rent skis and poles, and I practiced my kick-glide stride with my own gear. Back together, with maps of 50 miles of trails in our pockets, we shuffled up the hill on the gentle, intermediate-level Sunrise Trail, which quickly took us out of sight and sound of the lodge.
For two hours we followed tracks bordered by sequoias and lodgepole pines, alone but for mountains. Good thing: That meant no witnesses to the embarrassing spills I took, especially a face-first fall in a snowbank. (At the Travel section's press time Tuesday, the lodge had no snow.)
The kick-glide routine gave us an appetite for the lunch buffet of pizza, cold cuts, cheeses, spicy black bean soup and tuna. We did justice to the all-you-can-eat concept.
Barry and I had signed up for a guided snowshoe trip. Snowshoeing is no walk in the park, the gear requiring an odd shuffling step that I found difficult. I was feeling the effects of my active morning, and a dull headache from the altitude was kicking in. About a quarter of the way into our trek, my steps and spirit flagging, I decided I wasn't up to the exertion, so I turned back. Barry later said I missed one of the weekend's best adventures: a strenuous off-trail four-hour hike to the top of 8,209-foot Big Baldy in Kings Canyon and a view that took in the San Joaquin Valley and Mt. Whitney.
As I was heading to the room, I passed the outdoor hot tub, where three women were laughing and talking. The steam rising above their heads looked so enticing that I joined them. Sitting in the bubbles, I lifted my eyes to the peaks of the Great Western Divide, glowing pink in the setting sun, and thought them as divine a sight as could be.
While Barry was still blazing paths in the wilderness, I went skiing on the easy, mile-long Homavalo Trail around a frozen pond. That gave me just enough of a workout to warrant a nap -- and a snack of a half-dozen bite-size pieces of steaming spinach pie at the lodge.
Relaxing by the fireplace
Even outside of mealtimes, the lodge's large Arizona stone hearth was a magnet. The place felt like a friend's living room, and the atmosphere rubbed off on guests. Although most of us around the fire did not know one another, there was none of the usual awkwardness among strangers.
When I stopped in midafternoon Saturday to warm up, three men were snoozing, sprawled on the comfortable leather couches, using their jackets as blankets. Children worked on puzzles and played board games.
In the evenings, mothers spun bedtime stories to toddlers, and couples gazed reflectively at the flames. Sipping a cognac from a brandy glass filled to the brim by a staffer, I was lulled into a snooze by the fire. In a place as cozy and casual as this, I would have been content to forget about skiing and spend the weekend curled up with a book.
But we came here to ski, so ski we did on Sunday morning before our departure. We glided to a halt at a lookout that took in the snow-covered Sierra. We listened and looked, enjoying the stillness and the sun.