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Lakeside in the High Sierra

Thick pine forests and crystal blue waters are all the frills that Huntington Lake needs

July 07, 2002|THOMAS CURWEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LAKESHORE, Calif. — After five hours of driving, night had finally caught up with us. Through the forest we caught glimpses of the lake and the flames of campfires, and by the time our high beams fell on our turnoff, we were ready to collapse. We unpacked the car and walked down to the dock. Huntington Lake, this unexpected gem in the middle of the High Sierra, lay before us, dark and still beneath the stars.

It had been a spur-of-the-moment getaway, and we had been running late all day. We'd packed the car and left Los Angeles in a blur: Interstate 5 to Highway 99. We turned right at Fresno and hit the mountains head-on. It was the middle of August last year, and we were feeling the dog days of summer.

As we drove north, fighting the monotony of the Central Valley, my wife, Margie, and I listed the things we might do during the week ahead--swimming and sailing, hiking and fishing. But that night in our cabin, a bottle of Merlot and a deck of cards between us, we knew this vacation would be a success if we did absolutely nothing.

This is what a summer vacation in the mountains is all about. Be it the clarity of the air, the cool nights or the warm days, the atmosphere casts a spell that can derail the best-laid plans. I was no stranger to the seduction. Blame childhood vacations, summer camp and a few backpacking trips for my susceptibility. My favorite destination was Huntington Lake, a blue pinprick in the Sierra National Forest 70 miles east of Fresno, just south of Yosemite National Park.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday July 14, 2002 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 5 Features Desk 0 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Huntington Lake--In "Lakeside in the High Sierra" (Travel section, July 7) the name of the owner of Lakeview Cottages in Lakeshore, Calif., was misspelled. His name is Walt Krukow.

Huntington may not have the star power of Lake Tahoe, the prettiness of nearby Bass Lake or the convenience of Big Bear Lake. Four miles long by half a mile wide, it is a little scruffy, and it doesn't get as many visitors as some lakes. But for us, this is the appeal. There are no big resorts here, no fast-food restaurants or fancy eateries, no deafening powerboats and Ski-Doos. This is a no-frills kind of escape, reminiscent of a bygone era. At 7,000 feet, surrounded by dark green forests, granite domes and peaks, it is just short of heaven.

When the sun rose the day after our arrival, the sweet indolence of a morning without an alarm took over. I filled the percolator with water (no automatic drip machines here), lighted the propane stove and stepped outside to remind myself what this world looked like in sunshine.

We were staying on the quiet southwest corner of the lake at Lakeview Cottages, a collection of 11 small, comfortable cabins, desirable for their location at the end of the road. Surrounded by tall red firs, the cabins were built almost 100 years ago and have been progressively upgraded. All have porches facing the lake.

The cabins, open from Memorial Day to Sept. 30, weather permitting, are owned by Southern Californian Walter Krudrow, but their daily operation during the summer months is handled by Jayne and Denny Mann. They not only organize activities, ranging from a pancake breakfast to a scavenger hunt for kids, but also maintain the all-important waiting list.

Because Huntington Lake is a popular destination with limited lodgings--only four resorts are open during the summer--it is a good idea to reserve well ahead. Lakeview Cottages takes bookings two years in advance. When Margie and I heard this, we despaired of ever getting a cabin. But the Manns are efficient and call immediately with news of a cancellation. When the phone rang three days after our initial call, we thought we were lucky, but we were told such luck is not uncommon.

Ours was a spotless one-bedroom, one-bath cabin. It had white batten-board walls and linoleum floors. The cabins have plenty of hot water, showers, refrigerators and enough pots, pans, plates and utensils for a family of four. We'd brought a week's worth of groceries, stopping in Visalia. Jayne had recommended that we bring table lamps for reading at night; the cabins are starkly lighted by single ceiling bulbs.

Although the lake has some rustic places to eat, we chose to fix our own meals. The local coffee shops serve hearty breakfasts and cook up burgers, fish 'n' chips and the like for lunch. Some have patios facing the lake. Near Lakeshore, the official hub of lake activity, a few places serve dinner, mostly mountain-style fare (pan-fried trout, chops, New York steak).

After breakfast--and nothing compares with frying bacon and brewing your coffee in the mountains--we went on a walk. A trail wraps around the lake through a wilderness of red firs and lodgepole pines, ferns and bracken. Overhead the breeze soughed through the needles. To our left, the lake rose from the shore like a landscape painted by Cezanne.

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