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WEEKEND ESCAPE: KERN COUNTY

At Play in Pine Mountain

Hikes, horse rides and nine holes of golf keep a family busy during a budget-minded excursion to a quiet town in Los Padres National Forest

August 27, 2000|SUSAN JAMES

PINE MOUNTAIN CLUB, Calif. — My family and I love going to Mammoth in the summer, but the drive is too long for a quick escape. So one weekend in July, six of us tried another mountain retreat closer to home: Pine Mountain Club in Los Padres National Forest, 1 1/2 hours north of Los Angeles.

In summer, what Pine Mountain Club lacks in snow peaks it makes up for with small crowds and a convenient location: off Interstate 5 west of Gorman. The town, founded in 1972 and built around a country club and golf course, has a population of 1,800. Its altitude of 4,800 feet ensures crisp, pine-scented air, warm days and night skies full of stars.

Several local realty companies rent cabins on the nearby mountains, but after a few phone calls, Jennings Realty seemed the most user-friendly. Jennings provided not only a listing of cabins that start at $80 a night but also guest memberships in the Pine Mountain Country Club, for a dollar per person, per day. The membership entitles visitors to use the swimming pool, play tennis on the club courts and golf on the nine-hole course with mountain views.

We rented the Cowgirl House, a charming wooden cabin surrounded by aspens and sporting a view of the pine-cloaked slopes of San Emigdio Mountain. The cabin had two bedrooms, a living room with a queen sleeper sofa, two bathrooms and a kitchen--plenty of space for me; my parents, Royal and Bobbe; and my brother, Mark, his wife, Christine, and their 6-year-old son, William.

The house was decorated in Western style, with a big iron stove in the living room, plenty of colorful throw rugs and pine rocking chairs. The porch had a barbecue and a nonfunctioning hot tub. Because linens and towels were provided, all we needed to bring was our clothes. It proved to be a comfortable and attractive retreat.

The weekend began on a Friday afternoon, when we drove north from L.A., exited I-5 at Frazier Park and drove about 15 miles west on Mt. Pin~os Road (which becomes Mil Potrero Highway) to our rental. After unpacking, we went into the village for dinner.

At the Chalet Restaurant, a small but popular place, we sampled the daily special, fish and chips, and the cheese ravioli. The fish and chips were a success, the ravioli less so.

That night under a pile of quilts, looking at the Milky Way out the huge window by my bed, I felt as though I were camping. The cold wind blowing in through the open window felt wonderful.

Early the next morning, my father and I presented ourselves at the Pine Mountain Riding Stables behind the country club for a 1 1/2-hour trail ride up San Emigdio. Our young wrangler, Mia, lives only 10 minutes away on her grandparents' ranch and has been handling horses all her life.

As we ambled closer, the horses looked woefully at us as if they could tell we were city slickers. We nervously patted their noses, trying to make friends. Mia saddled up Sunny for me and Bodie for my dad and offered helmets.

As the three of us rode off into the sunrise, Bodie groaned and sighed and wheezed behind me. Dad, the reluctant cowboy, kept trying to encourage the horse with brisk instructions about direction and speed.

Despite Bodie's groans, the ride was wonderful. On the lower slopes, branches of pine trees had been cleared along the trail, and crystallized pine sap glittered around the cuts and stuck to the legs of my jeans. Green lichen trailed from clustered trees like holiday decorations. The woods were so quiet we could hear the leather reins creak against the metal bits in the horses' mouths.

In upland meadows scarlet with Indian paintbrush, enormous bees swarmed over wild buckwheat, and black and yellow butterflies darted through dusty sunbeams. Cottontails were everywhere, and Mia told us she had seen deer in the past week. We didn't see one, but we did see a jack rabbit that seemed as large as a small coyote.

After our ride, we returned to the cabin for lunch, made in our kitchen with provisions from Pine Mountain General Store, cinnamon rolls from Taylor's Bakery and homemade cookies from Sweet Things Candy Store.

That afternoon I joined my brother and nephew for a wilderness hike. Karen Bailey, a Jennings Realty agent and co-owner of the Cowgirl House, had provided a list of easy trails. We chose one that followed San Emigdio Canyon, which skirts the mountain I had ridden that morning.

The stream that flows through the canyon provides water year-round, which first attracted the Spanish padres after whom the national forest is named. In 1854, Army soldiers founded Ft. Tejon about 20 miles away. Wagon-wheel ruts on the canyon floor, Karen said, were left by early settlers. Just off the trail lie the abandoned shaft of an old gold mine and smelter pits where the ore was processed. As we walked, William looked for gold rock and found golden orange monarch butterflies instead. Ubiquitous cottontails frolicked in the underbrush. The trail went downhill, but we knew we would have to turn around and climb back up sooner or later.

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