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Weekend Escape: Lake Tahoe Area

Soaking Up the Sierra

Tiny Markleeville is the peaceful antidote to urban life

January 25, 1998|CHRISTOPHER HALL

MARKLEEVILLE, Calif. — "I wonder what they use to flip these things," said Mac, pointing his fork at our stacks of platter-size pancakes.

With their slightly chewy texture and warm, yeasty aroma, the enormous cakes were proving the perfect breakfast for a wintry Sunday in the High Sierra. Through the lace-trimmed curtains of the Alpine Restaurant in Markleeville, Calif.--population 165--I could see snow flurries blowing past an old clapboard house, silently adding another layer to the white blanket that already covered the town.

Inside the small wood-walled dining room, which we had to ourselves, steam rose from pots of coffee on a hot plate, and the fire in the Franklin stove softly popped and sputtered. In all respects, it was a lovely way to end our weekend in this remote and beautiful corner of the state.

As California's population surges toward 33 million, and life in congested cities seems only to grow more hectic, it's nice to know there's still a Markleeville. The town is the seat of Alpine County, which at 700 full-time residents is the least populous county in the nation's most populous state. There's only one traffic light--a flashing yellow signal--in the entire 727-square-mile county.

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Markleeville sits at an elevation of 5,500 feet, 34 miles southeast of Lake Tahoe and an hour by car from Reno. I first stumbled on it several years ago during a long spring drive from Mammoth to San Francisco via Tahoe. California 89 over Monitor Pass had just opened, and as I drove through Alpine and its tiny county seat, I was impressed by the scenery and the utter lack of crowds. I returned a few weeks later with a group of friends and my cross-country skis, and I've been back two times since.

Markleeville is surrounded by forest land, rivers and craggy granite peaks, and during the summer it's a center for trout fishing, hiking and rafting. In the winter, though, when snow closes the high passes south and east of town, there isn't much to do but cross-country ski and soak in an outdoor hot springs pool with a view of the Sierra--which was just fine by me.

Knowing we wouldn't be arriving in Markleeville until late Friday night, we'd made arrangements with the trusting owner of our motel--the J. Marklee Toll Station--to let ourselves in. The motel is named for town founder Jacob Marklee, who in 1861 built a toll bridge across the local creek. Jacob was shot and killed two years later while arguing with another hothead who avoided a murder rap by pleading self-defense.

Our room at the motel was simple and clean, and although the heater was already running when we arrived, it didn't seem quite warm enough. We slept through a cool night, piling on blankets and wearing wool watch caps, and only on the following day did we realize we'd simply failed to turn on the heater's second gas jet. So much for big city sophistication.

Saturday morning, after fueling up on huevos rancheros at the Alpine Restaurant just off the town's commercial street, Highway 89, we bought picnic fixings at the Markleeville General Store, threw our cross-country gear into the car and drove four miles to 700-acre Grover Hot Springs State Park. The sun was out, and we skied for nearly two hours through pine and cedar woods and along the bank of a half-frozen creek dotted with snow-capped boulders. We met no other skiers, but here and there we did spot the massive crackled trunk of a ponderosa pine or a stand of leafless quaking aspens, whose branches had shimmered with gold not too many weeks before. Along the way, the only sounds we heard were the rhythmic swoosh of our skis and a soft thud whenever snow slid from the trees and hit the ground.

We ended in a broad meadow adjacent to the park's two outdoor concrete pools--the first fed by six hot springs and kept at 104 degrees, and the second filled with chlorinated water heated to 75 degrees. The mineral water here contains very little sulfur, so there was none of the stink usually associated with natural hot springs. Mac and I changed into our trunks and spent a good hour with a dozen other bathers, most of whom appeared to be downhill skiers from Kirkwood Resort, about 40 minutes away.

We shuttled back and forth between the pools, heating up in one before cooling down in the other, all the while gazing at the ring of snowy crags that loomed over us. The pools weren't fancy and the changing rooms were definitely no-frills, but as I floated in steaming water under an open sky, watching the sun hit the 10,023-foot summit of Hawkins Peak, I honestly couldn't have wished for anything more.

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