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Warming to Sierra Gold

Family finds autumn's colorful glow near Bishop, where crisp days inspire hiking and fishing, and cozy nights await at a rustic resort called Paradise


BISHOP, Calif. — My wife grew up in New York's Hudson Valley, where the hills are alight every autumn in a glorious blaze of orange, red and yellow leaves, the air is crisp and the skies are filled with honking V-formations of Canada geese.

This was Mary's second fall in Southern California, and she'd had it. Enough with the eternal spring, already! She wanted some color in the trees, some bite in the air.

I said I knew just the place. We'd go to Paradise.

In 1974, while Richard Nixon was facing impeachment hearings, I spent my college summer break in the Owens Valley, washing dishes in a place called Paradise Lodge. It was a transforming summer for me. I left my long hair on the floor of a barbershop in downtown Bishop. And I fell in love with this spectacular region on the east side of the Sierra Nevada, about six hours' drive north of L.A.

Now, more than two decades later, I wanted to go back.

So we dug out our stash of fall clothing, piled it and our two young sons into our station wagon and set off one Friday afternoon earlier this month for the Owens Valley, where every year has four seasons and all of them, to my mind, are beautiful.

We left Los Angeles as soon as our children, 7-year-old Sam and 5-year-old Galen, got out of school. We headed east on California Highway 14 through the Antelope Valley, turned north onto U.S. 395 and made our first stop at dusk in the tiny town of Olancha, a high-desert outpost that nuzzles the southern reaches of the Sierra.

There isn't much in Olancha, but there's at least one good reason to stop there: the Ranch House Cafe, a popular Western restaurant where we had delicious ribs and fried chicken, and Galen declared the chicken noodle soup "the best I ever had." After some fine homemade pie, we were back on our way.

Driving in the dark, we passed through the eastern Sierra towns of Lone Pine, Independence, Big Pine and Bishop--handsome places with a distinct frontier flavor. About 15 miles north of Bishop, we turned left at a sign labeled "Paradise--Small Meadows." After a quick right onto Lower Rock Creek Road, we drove three more miles or so until we entered a familiar, forested crease in the hills and the road hooked left. We were there. It was just as I remembered it.

Paradise Resort, as it's now called, consists of a rustic grouping of 17 cabins and a restaurant along pristine Lower Rock Creek, a fine trout-fishing stream that gurgles out of the Sierra and tumbles toward its ultimate meeting with the Owens River. The resort has been around since the 1920s and has looked pretty much the same since 1948, when the restaurant was extended over the creek, providing a scenic overlook.

When I'd called to reserve, I was disappointed to learn that all the old cabins were full and that we'd be staying in a new unit--a mobile home retrofitted to look like a cabin. "You're really going to like it," the reservations clerk assured me.

She was right. We loved the little cabin immediately. It had two rooms, one with a kitchenette, a fold-down kitchen table and bunk beds; the other with a queen bed and washbasin. There was a tiny bathroom with a shower. It was clean, and the kitchen was well equipped. It was perfect, except for one minor flaw: When the kids jumped around, the cabin shook as if we were in a 5.0 earthquake.

We went to bed, lulled by the sounds of the creek, and awoke to a glorious, crisp fall day. The sun spotlighted the Sierra, which rises nearly two vertical miles in a magnificent, crenelated wall. Aspens and cottonwoods were just turning their bright fall yellow.

We had breakfast in Bishop at Jack's, a coffee shop that is full of local flavor in the form of stuffed trophy fish, fishermen stuffing themselves and a waitress who bellowed "Chow's here!" as she delivered our food--a cut above average coffee-shop fare.

We then headed west on California 168, which heads into the high country. In the space of about 20 miles, we rose from an elevation of 4,200 feet to 9,800 feet, and went from sage-covered valley to snowy alpine lake.

We hiked for an hour or so on a trail that began at South Lake, and the kids had a blast throwing snowballs, looking for animal tracks and generally running amok. After a while, though, the combination of exercise and altitude got to them, and we turned back. They slept in the car as we drove back to town.

Our next stop was the Laws Railroad Museum and Historical Site just northeast of Bishop. As the name suggests, this is a combination indoor-outdoor railroad museum, collection of historic buildings and general archive of old stuff. The kids liked ringing the bell on a steam locomotive and poking around a one-room schoolhouse.

We ate that night at Paradise. The food was largely unchanged--steaks, prime rib and seafood. Oddly for a place in the heart of trout-fishing country, there was no freshwater fish. But we liked our meals--one steak, one halibut and two children's portions of shrimp.

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