KING'S CANYON NATIONAL PARK, Calif. — 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."