“Beautiful.” “Majestic.” “Stunning.” Feedback from those enjoying a spectacular Saturday on the mountain is incredibly positive. “Great runs.” “Family friendly.” “No waits for lifts.” Smiles on the faces of patrons glowing pink in the cold tell the rest of the story. “There’s just something different about Bear Valley.”
These are actual quotations from random people I spoke with. This was my first time ever attempting to ski – I know, I’m a bit of an embarrassment to my home state of California – so I had some time to myself after each run of the Panda, the most beginner of bunny slopes here. While the rest of my group did “real” skiing on more advanced runs, I watched the people, and yes, talked to as many as I could.
Bear Valley sits along California Highway 4, just across the Alpine County line from Calaveras County, my hosts for the weekend. And as the highway is closed for the winter just a few miles up from here, it is basically a Calaveras staple to ski here when conditions are like today: a fairly clear day with a ton of powder. Reaching heights of around 8500 feet, Bear Valley has some of the best skiing in a state known for great skiing. It is so good, in fact, that the World Pro Ski Tour is competing here today, a slalom event that I also watch between my own pathetic attempts at making my way down a tiny portion of the hill.
(Just a note here that those running both the competition and the resort did a bang-up job, from the VIP tent to the crowded vendors, live entertainment, broadcasts, and the overall maintenance of the runs.)
When Bear Valley first opened, it attracted a celebrity clientele. People like Lloyd Bridges chose this place to be their winter home, drawn to the huge amount of snow this spot in the Sierra Nevada mountains gets. (Bear Valley averages more than 30 feet of snow per year, and today, there is about 140 inches of fresh packed powder on the mountain.) But it never really took off as the home for the rich and famous, instead relying on locals, tourists, and families for patronage. And while that might be bad from a money standpoint, it is a good thing for the average skier, as this pristine mountain is a play area for us.
As I take my little ski conveyor belt (being my very first time, even a lift is a bit scary) to the top of my mini-hill, I am joined by families, other first timers, or classes. All have other members of their groups out on more advanced runs, zooming up lifts – lifts with no lines, which I hear is not a common thing for such a good resort – to tackle some of the 67 total slopes Bear Valley offers, all the way to double black diamond. Catering to family units of vastly differing levels of expertise is one of the things the Bear Valley management team prides itself on. And it shows.
Between runs, there is live music playing inside the cafeteria, music not even associated with the competition, which broadcasts its own music and audio of the tournament outside. Food options are varied, with both indoor and outdoor seating. A children’s play area sits just below the deck, though many kids seem to prefer to just slide down in the fresh snow, well to the side of the runs. And everyone – literally everyone – is smiling, even those just getting up from a fall.
Even I smile, partially in enjoyment and wonder and partially to cover up the terror at not really being sure how to stop, as I manage to stand and make my way down the tiny hill, one dwarfed by even the bunny slopes. But hey, I’m here, I’m trying, and I get words of encouragement from employees (like Paul, an instructor who gives a few tips while waiting for food), other beginners, and those more advanced. I never feel for a moment that my lack of skill is unwelcome here. I tell people I’m a first-timer and get high fives, not snorts that say “you don’t belong on my hill.”
After a couple runs, broken up by some food and conversations, I understand the appeal. For those who have never skied before, it does feel like flying, for those few moments I was able to remain upright before falling into soft, deep snow, laughing at myself. And while I grade out as a solid D- (being generous), I can truly say I had fun. And terror. But yes, also fun.
Calaveras County is one of the hidden gems in California, and one of my favorite places to visit. Coming up in the winter, Bear Valley offers in a ski resort what Calaveras does in a destination: warm people, amazing ambience, smiles, joy, and a ton of fun.
Thank you so much to Go Calaveras for sponsoring my trip, and my pathetic attempt at skiing. I’ll be back, but perhaps after a real lesson or two.
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