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Little Lodge on the Lake : One Young Family Discovers the Joys of a Sierra Vacation at Carson Pass Near Lake Tahoe

August 15, 1993|MARTHA FREEMAN | Freeman is a free-lance writer who lives in Sonora, Calif. and

KIT CARSON, Calif. — On the Fourth of July, I was relaxing with my family and two friends on the shore of Granite Lake, enjoying the transparent green water and warm Sierra sunshine.

We had hiked an easy mile to get there, stopping at the top of a waterfall to watch Squaw Creek explode in a white cascade, then following haphazard rock markers over a ridge and down among red fir and lodgepole pine to the lake itself.

The walk had left me lazy but not tired. The largeness of the view, and its elemental simplicity--water, stone and sky--reduced whatever worries I harbored to their right proportion. My daughters, Sylvie, 6, and Rosa, 3, were laughing as they waded in the shallow lake; they had hardly even griped about putting on sunscreen.

To top it off, we had cherries and homemade cookies in our day packs.

Beauty, laughter, treats. . . .

"You know," said my friend, a video producer from San Francisco, "we really have to get you guys to Kauai."

I was slow on the uptake. Only after a couple of days, as we walked along another trail in the Carson Pass area, did the remark's absurdity hit home.

Who the heck needs Kauai?


With its quaking aspens and fir trees, abundant water and dramatic views of granite and snow-draped mountains, Carson Pass (California 88) is the most beautiful of all the Sierra crossings.

Since prehistoric times, the region, about 50 miles south of Lake Tahoe at 8,000 feet elevation, has attracted visitors. The Washoe Indians, who lived most of the year in the Great Basin to the east, camped near Silver Lake in the summer months. Some of the trails that wind through the region today originally were their trading routes.

The pass was named, of course, for the notorious scout and American Indian fighter Kit Carson, who in 1844 guided John C. Fremont's expedition into California.

Not long after, the interlopers discovered the recreational charms of the region. "The History of Amador County," a book we found on the lodge desk, recorded the enthusiasm of one such in 1881: "Silver Lake is one of the most beautiful sheets of water in the world, and a sojourn on its banks in the summer is one of the most pleasantest enjoyments possible." After a week on those very banks--hiking, boating, wading and scouting for wildflowers--I quite agreed.

We had come to the area because there was a vacancy at the Kit Carson Lodge. I had learned about the lodge, which lies at the foot of Thunder Mountain on the eastern shore of the lake, last spring. Already enchanted by Carson Pass and ever questing for the perfect family vacation, I called to inquire about renting one of the 14 housekeeping cottages and learned none were available; in fact, I was told they were often reserved two years in advance.

Of course, this only heightened my interest, and I asked to be put on the waiting list. A month later there was a cancellation for a lakeside cottage, Black Bear, and I grabbed it--even though we had already made alternative vacation plans. Except for the lack of bunk beds, the Kit Carson Lodge resembles the summer camps of my childhood. The cottages are natural wood with large decks, green roofs and vast windows to take advantage of lake views. They are low slung, and tucked so well into the trees that the whole complex, which also includes a few motel rooms, a store, a coin-op laundry and restaurant, must be invisible from the air.

The furnishings are Spartan--turquoise Naugahyde day beds, a picnic table and a Danish-modern fireplace in our living room, laminate bureaus and beds in small bedrooms.

To compensate for the lack of chairs, we moved the deck furniture indoors after dark.

But hey, no complaints. There was nothing to dust, only linoleum to sweep. Even with kids, the place was a breeze to keep clean.

Because Black Bear cottage sleeps six, we invited the couple from San Francisco to join us over the weekend and my mom from Laguna Niguel to come for the rest of the week. We arrived on Friday right after check-in time, 4 p.m. Our friends had preceded us by five minutes and already had a motorboat reserved for fishing the next day.

Reasoning that packing, driving and unpacking constituted enough work for one vacation day, we elected to eat at the lodge's restaurant that evening. I had capellini under julienned vegetables and my husband, Russell, ordered sea bass with black bean sauce. The kids ordered what amounted to $6 plates of chicken nuggets. It wasn't bad, but the pretensions seemed incongruous. Why not spaghetti? Why not trout?

Since Rosa, the 3-year-old, was not about to sit still until dinner arrived, we took a walk down a short path to the lakeshore and out onto the boat dock. The sun had set, but the sheer wall of Thunder Mountain still glowed pink in its reflected light; the full moon was just rising over the mountains and illuminating the water.

Even Rosa was inspired to say, "I like it here. It's so beautiful."

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