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Vivid shades of the Sierra's pioneer past

Etched into the spectacular landscape in and around Hope Valley are rugged reminders of America's westward migration.

October 12, 2003|Patricia Connell | Times Staff Writer

Hope Valley, Calif. — With the turn of every season, the mail seems to bring an inviting brochure from Sorensen's, a rustic resort 20 miles south of Lake Tahoe in California's Alpine County. It shows log cabins in the woods, wildflowers and golden-leaved trees, a hammock strung between aspen trunks.

Something in this summer's mailing caught my eye: a series of Emigrant Trail hikes, guided walking-and-driving history tours offered on five Mondays in summer and fall. My sister, Eileen, is a fifth-grade teacher with an avid interest in America's pioneer history, and her enthusiasm is contagious. Lured by the promise of emigrant lore and the Sierra's autumnal scenery, I booked a three-day weekend at the resort and signed us up for the hike.

We flew to Sacramento one Saturday morning (Reno is closer, but the airfare was more expensive), rented a car and picked up U.S. 50 heading east for a leisurely two-hour drive to Sorensen's. Feeling peckish as we approached the Gold Country town of Placerville, we turned off the highway and settled on A Main Street Cafe, a family-run place with eight tables. The menu recounted the history of the 1857 brick building and pointed out the original horsehair plaster still covering part of one wall.

The offerings were simple -- sandwiches, soups, salads, desserts -- but everything was appealing and homemade. Our egg salad sandwiches -- one on pesto pine nut bread, the other on sunflower honey wheat -- were plump and tasty, the potato salad tangy, the huge lemon bars fabulous.

The trip resumed, U.S. 50 rising into the Sierra and paralleling the pretty South Fork of the American River for much of the way. Then came a short stretch on a secondary road, altitude 7,000 feet, and suddenly there was Sorensen's, its 20-odd buildings scattered along the road and backing into the woods. The impression was pleasing: cottages and log cabins amid evergreens and aspens (here and there turning brilliant yellow), connected by paths interspersed with beds of blooming yarrow. Our little bungalow, called Foxtail ($120 plus tax per night), was just big enough for its tiny kitchen and bathroom, queen bed and table with two chairs. The mattress was piled high with a blanket and comforters, whose importance we wouldn't appreciate until nighttime.

We had time to explore a bit before dinner, checking out the different building styles, the children's catch-and- release fishing pond, the wood-fired sauna (no sign of a fire this early in the season) and the nestled-in-the-woods gazebo (site of an afternoon wedding whose boisterous outdoor reception was, to our chagrin, going strong). After a dinner of soup, salad and an enormous mixed berry cobbler a la mode -- Sorensen's signature dessert -- we strolled back to our cabin to mull over the next day's activities. We're not much for fishing or horseback riding, both of which were readily accessible, but we were looking forward to a mountain hike.

Every cabin is furnished with a copy of "Alpine Trailblazer," a book of Alpine County hikes. "The Sierra today has the world's longest system of interconnected mountain trails," write authors Jerry and Janine Sprout, and their dozens of choices were daunting. We settled on the trail the authors call Carson Pass South, which heads south from a visitor center at 8,573-foot-high Carson Pass.

Icy alpine pools

The next morning was sunny and brilliantly clear, as only a day in the mountains can be. It also was plenty brisk. As we walked to the restaurant for breakfast I thought, it must be in the 50s, maybe even 40s. The office provided the overnight low: 27 degrees.

A 12-mile drive southwest on Highway 88 brought us to the Carson Pass trail head. Two dozen vehicles were in the parking lot, but many belonged to wilderness campers who had ventured well into the forest. We limited our hike to a couple of miles round trip -- just far enough to reach little Frog Lake, the first of four lakes along the five-mile path, a gem of an icy alpine pool in which hikers' dogs splashed happily. The woods were silent and fragrant and, even given the trail's popularity, wonderfully pristine.

The altitude had us panting for breath, so having made it to at least one lake, we returned to the car. We drove west for more sightseeing in Alpine County (population 1,200), passing other lakes and taking a detour through Kirkwood, a ski resort in the middle of a construction boom. Then we headed back to Sorensen's for an early dinner, because at 8 p.m. Frank Tortorich, the leader of the next day's Emigrant Trail hike, would be giving a slide show.

Frank and his wife, Mary Ann, were staying in another cabin, Rock Creek, bigger and more ruggedly handsome than ours. There they welcomed us and the half-dozen others joining the hike. (Group hike dates for 2004 have not been set, but Frank also conducts private tours for groups of six or more.)

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