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Natural

Tahoe's backyard wilderness is stay on quiet side

By CARY ORDWAY

It's not often that a resort gets put on a map just as if it were a town, but there it was on our Rand McNally map: Sorensen's, a little berg near the intersection of Highways 89 and 88, deep in the Sierras southeast of Lake Tahoe.

We double-checked with Innkeeper John Brissenden and, yep, there are eight souls who call this place home. And on any given summer night there are another 33 cabins full of people who have Typical Sorensen's cabincome from places like Los Angeles and San Francisco to put some distance between them and the steel, glass and asphalt of everyday life in the big city.

Out here where the mountains are high and the stress is low, Sorensen's Resort sells what Brissenden describes as "the magic of the surrounding wilderness area." In fact, this wilderness is like staying in a national park without the bumper-to-bumper RVs. A network of trails and lakes are just minutes away in any direction, with the Carson mountain range always close at hand, just waiting to provide the perfect backdrop for your next family photo.

Just in case you big-city types suffer serious withdrawal, South Lake Tahoe is just a short scenic drive away -- 16 miles to be precise. You can pop into town, get a fix of glitz at one of the major casinos and be back just in time to watch the deer feeding as you enjoy a quite glass of wine and a wilderness sunset. There's also plenty of Lake Tahoe lodging available that is not so far off the beaten path — but we found we enjoyed being out away from the city, and that this was the perfect place to enjoy part of our Northern California vacation.

We arrived at Sorensen's about midnight after a too-long drive up from Sequoia National Park. Our advice: Arrive well before dark because the drive over the pass -- whether Highway 50 or 88 -- is deep in the mountains, winding, two-lane and potentially hazardous at night with deer crossing the road. We spotted deer (thankfully beside the road, not on it) just about every five minutes for close to a 60-mile stretch of highway.

If you do Hiking around Sorensen's resortarrive late, Sorensen's has it covered. Our cabin was already unlocked, the lights on to welcome us and an incredibly comfortable, fluffy bed was beckoning these weary travelers to a quiet, restful sleep in the woods. After all, that really is the Sorensen's calling card: the "cabin in the woods" experience that just happens to have a few extra amenities -- such as gourmet dining. In fact, Lake Tahoe vacations always offer a great combination of wilderness scenery and creature comforts.

At daybreak, we got a little better look at Sorensen's, and our awe-inspiring natural surroundings. The Lake Tahoe area has dozens of resort options, but Sorensen's is the only resort in the Hope Valley, built adjacent to the Carson River. Out back of our cabin, boulders of all sizes were strewn along the sloping mountainside providing a tempting, woodsy area to explore and climb to our heart's content.

We were staying in a simple, but modern log cabin with a loft and bathroom area. The kitchen, complete with microwave, two-burner stove and a small refrigerator, was along one wall of the main cabin area. Nearby, a queen bed was covered with charming home-made quilts. The main room also included a sitting area and a dining area, as well as a free-standing wood stove with plenty of wood at the ready even though it was not needed this warm summer night.

The resort itself is actually a village of cabins, joined by meandering pathways, but separated by mature aspens, creeks, ponds and lots of natural vegetation. The cabins all have different names -- we were in the Sheepherder cabin -- and we learned later that the cabins differ in other ways as well. Brissenden explained that the cabins were purposely not built as cookie-cutter copies of one another, but as an "eclectic" assortment of cabins in many different styles and sizes. You have new cabins, older cabins, big cabins, tiny cabins and many theme cabins such as the Christmas cabins, St. Nick's and the Chapel.

WHEN Brissenden moved to the Lake Tahoe area and took over the resort 22 years ago, there were just two cabins, Sorensen Cokerand even those were falling down. Now, $3 million and 31 cabins later, the property has filled out considerably. A sauna and gift shop also have been added, as well as a children's catch-and-release trout pond.

Sorensen's also operates a small gourmet restaurant on the property that has been written up in many newspapers and magazines. We didn't get a chance to sample the resort's famous Beef Burgundy Stew, but we did stop in for a delightful breakfast of such conventional favorites as sausage, eggs and home-made potatoes, all prepared with a flair.

That famous stew dates back to 1983, but the property itself originally was homesteaded in 1876 with a 176-acre grant deed signed by President Ulyssess S. Grant. By 1926 it had become a resort. The Sorensen family sold it in 1970 and, after an economic downturn, the resort was sold to Brissenden, a former field representative for former California Congressman Leon Panetta. Today it's a family affair at Sorensen's with Brissenden's step-daughter, Jennifer Camargo, now helping to operate the resort after some time spent away in "the big city."

From what we could tell, Brissenden has it exactly right when he says he sells the "magic" of the area. Since we're California transplants -- Washington state natives who spent a lot of time in the Cascade Mountains -- we couldn't wait to don our hiking boots and check out some of the many trails in the Lake Tahoe area. We especially enjoyed the Crater Lake trail that is kind of a half-drive, half-walk. With a four-wheel drive you can easily drive up from Highway 88 a couple miles and then walk a couple miles more up to the lake. This road and trail takes you up along the rim of the Valley with the views growing more spectacular with each switchback.

The Hope Valley, and this little slice of the Sierras, is chock-full of such walks and drives. For a less rigorous experience, we drove just a few miles down Highway 88 to the historic town of Markleeville and nearby Grover Hot Springs State Park. Markleeville is the seat of Alpine County, the least populated county in California and, although tiny, this town is a fun stroll -- especially if you enjoy historic scenic street photo of Markleevillebuildings.

The state park is a few miles out of town and offers a hot springs pool where, for $4, adults can enjoy the effects of a soak in hot mineral water. The water is 104 degrees, but nearby you can also take a plunge into cooler water in a large swimming pool.

Back near Sorensen's, don't miss the Hope Valley Outdoor Center -- even if the furthest thing from your mind is outdoor activities. The reason is that owner Joyce Coker offers two major treats that, between them, probably will attract just about anyone visiting the area. Number one is an unusual selection of microbrews on tap in her rustic bar. The other item is her special homemade chocolate chip cookie -- probably the largest and thickest you'll ever encounter.

The Outdoor Center was the last stop on our visit to the Hope Valley so, munching on our chocolate chip cookies, we headed on down the road -- probably adding back all the calories we had burned off during our brief visit to Sorensen's and Lake Tahoe's backyard wilderness.

AT A GLANCE

WHERE: Sorensen's Resort is located about 16 miles south of South Lake Tahoe. From Sacramento, travel east on Highway 50 through historic Placerville (worth a stop) and on over to the junction with Highway 89. Take 89 over to Highway 88, turn left and you're there. An alternate route is Highway 88 northeast from the Stockton area. The area is easily included in any Northern California vacation itinerary.

WHAT: Even with Lake Tahoe just down the hill, Sorensen's offers a very remote "cabin in the woods" experience. In summer, there are great hikes and drives; in winter, the resort has its own cross-country ski area. Fishing and many other outdoor activities are also available in the area.

WHEN: Year-round, except that some attractions may be difficult to reach in winter. For example, the road to Markleeville is sometimes closed due to heavy snow in winter. Roads are generally well maintained between the resort and South Lake Tahoe.

WHY: This is an unusual combination of wilderness and civilization. With South Lake Tahoe being so close, it's easy to go into town for the day or dinner. Yet the Hope Valley has true wilderness complete with mountains, trees, lakes, trails and wild animals.

HOW: The cabins at Sorensen's range from $95 to $395 per night. To make reservations, call (800) 423-9949 or visit http://www.sorensensresort.com. There are many other options for Lake Tahoe vacations and, for a few examples of Lake Tahoe lodging, please click here. Ask about vacation packages that will save money on meals and lodging. Last minute travel deals often are available if you are traveling on short notice.View condos and homes for rent at Lake Tahoe Vacation Rentals at LakeRentals.com.

OTHER DESTINATIONS: If you like a wilderness experience, be sure and and check out California Weekend's articles on Big Bear, Shaver Lake, Sequoia National Park and Calaveras County.

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