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Western Travel | WEEKEND ESCAPE

Sierra bliss, without roughing it

The forest setting is rugged, but the digs are not. Plump beds, clean linen, cozy tents and an on-site gourmet chef beckon hike-in guests to this luxury camp.

September 24, 2006|Susan Spano | Times Staff Writer

Giant Sequoia National Monument, Calif. — NO pain, no gain. That's what people always say to get you to do something hard, like carry 30 pounds of gear on your back, sleep on the ground, eat freeze-dried food and go without a bath. But if you had the chance to get into the wilderness without such hassle -- be honest now -- wouldn't you take it?

Some die-hard lovers of the great outdoors claim to appreciate the hardships of backpacking. But I felt plenty appreciative when I heard I could sleep on clean sheets and eat gourmet meals at a new luxury tent camp in Giant Sequoia National Monument.

Sequoia High Sierra Camp sits on 40 of the 49,000 acres of private land that was grandfathered into the monument.

The last part of my drive in was along beautiful California 180, which passed through Central Valley orange groves on its way toward the 200-foot-tall sequoias on the western side of the Sierra Nevada.

As the foothills yielded to the mountains, I turned south on Generals Highway (California 198) for about eight more miles.

After that, I had my choice of ways to reach the camp. The hard way: hiking 11 miles on the Twin Lakes Trail, starting from Lodgepole Campground in adjacent Sequoia National Park. The easy way: 1 1/2 miles on the Marvin Pass Trail, which begins 10 miles down Big Meadows Horse Corral Road. I took the easy way.

The walk up a boulder-strewn ridge though thick pine and fir was a good way to stretch my legs and get acclimated. The camp is pitched on a steep hill at 8,200 feet above sea level. Halfway up the mountainside is the massive open-air wood dining pavilion and below it the bathhouse with flush toilets and hot showers.

The 36 tents, each outfitted with two plump twin beds covered in double-sheeted duvets and Pendleton blankets, are in clusters. Graded gravel paths connect everything.

Camping doesn't get much cushier, but giving wimps a way to enjoy the outdoors without getting dirt under their fingernails wasn't the motivation.

About 10 years ago, Burr Hughes, a Memphis, Tenn., businessman, launched himself into a second career by getting a master's degree in sustainable architecture at Cambridge University in England. There, he learned how to build structures that do as little damage as possible to the environment by grading to minimize erosion, building away from streams and burying septic tanks deep underground. Then Hughes decided to put the knowledge to use by creating a wilderness resort.

While planning, Hughes was drawn to the tent-camp phenomenon of the early 20th century, when Americans vacationed in temporary enclaves in scenic places such as Coronado Island near San Diego.

"Tents don't tear up the ground, and people like to stay in them," said Hughes, a tall, courtly man with a thick Southern accent.

He found further inspiration at the High Sierra camps in Yosemite National Park. There was a wonderful camaraderie among the guests, mostly educated, older couples who returned to the camps season after season. "They hike during the day and get to know each other over dinner," Hughes said.

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Impressive views, menus

I spent two nights at Sequoia High Sierra Camp a few weeks after it opened Aug. 1, when management company Delaware North was still working out the kinks. The reservation clerk who booked my stay couldn't tell me how to get here from Los Angeles. Topographical maps on the website were unreadable. A park ranger at Grant Grove Visitor Center in nearby Kings Canyon National Park had never heard of the new camp, and there were few signs for it on the road. Consequently, many guests arrived miffed, but Burr and Suzanne Hughes were on hand to help them off with their packs and offer a welcome snack: mint tea and orange-spice cookies.

The heart of the camp is the dining pavilion, which has big timber columns, round tables, a few space heaters, books, maps and a sitting area. But people pull patio chairs to the edge of the hill, where there's a fire ring and view of Kings Canyon, and the Monarch Wilderness beyond.

Big breakfast buffets are laid out in the morning. During the meal, a staff member comes by to find out what kind of sandwich you want in your sack lunch, because it's presumed most guests will head off on day hikes after breakfast.

Dinners, a far cry from ramen noodles, are multi-course affairs created by Ryan Solien, who trained at the California Culinary Institute and was a private chef to Bruce Springsteen and Faith Hill. The menu on my first night started with scallop carpaccio, followed by slow-cooked lamb shanks on goat cheese risotto and creme brulee for dessert. The next night, it was brie samosas, Caesar salad that Solien prepared at the table, roast duck and strawberry shortcake.

Beer is available, as is wine, a red and a white by Charles Shaw, a.k.a. Two-Buck Chuck. The second night, Brian Muldoon, one of my tablemates, passed around a bottle of finer red wine he carried to the camp in his knapsack.

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