By Cheryl Crabtree
Serene Hope Valley lies just 20 miles south, a thousand feet higher and a world away from its often-crowded neighbor, South Lake Tahoe. It’s part of Alpine County—a gorgeous wilderness area rich in history, wildlife and unbelievably pristine scenery. The public owns 96 percent of the county—most of it totally undeveloped. You won’t find a single traffic light or supermarket; just a peaceful alpine oasis with real-life nature shows 24/7.
There are plenty of ways to get to this secluded pocket of the world from Santa Barbara. If a road trip isn’t your bag, a number of carriers run daily service to Reno Tahoe Airport, which puts you a mere 1.5 hour-drive from Hope Valley. Alternatively, fly into Sacramento and drive scenic Highway 88 past Kirkwood Ski Resort and Caples Lake, or go up Highway 50 to Lake Tahoe and head south on Highway 89, which dead-ends at Hope Valley.
Hope Valley (elevation approximately 7,000 feet) lies between towering mountain peaks just a few miles east of the Sierra Nevada crest and Carson Pass. The west fork of the Carson River flows eastward through the valley’s lush alpine meadow—one of the largest in the entire Sierra Nevada—down a canyon toward the Nevada flatlands. The native Washoe people thrived here for hundreds of years before early American explorers came through. In 1844, John Fremont and Kit Carson trekked across the county and discovered a travel route westward over the steep mountain range. Soon, Carson Pass became a major emigrant trail. By 1849, gold prospectors were rushing over the Carson route of the California Emigrant Road (now Highway 88) to seek their fortunes in the Sierra foothills. About a decade later, silver prospectors began to settle in the area, and the Pony Express sped through, but the population remained sparse through the ensuing decades.
Today, Hope Valley appears nearly as pristine as it did in pioneer days, thanks to the efforts of forward-thinking preservationists John and Patty Brissenden and a coalition of residents and visitors, who helped establish a permanent conservation easement of most of the valley in 1984. Fall is a glorious time to visit, when the groves of quaking aspen trees and meadows turn color and transform the valley into a brilliant setting for back-to-nature adventures. Birders come to view migrating flocks, fly fishermen cast for trout in the calm (compared to spring) river waters that criss-cross the meadows, and artists set up everywhere to capture the glorious scenes. Hikers and mountain bikers traverse the hundreds of miles of trails to picturesque destinations like Frog Lake, and boaters cruise nearby Caples Lake, angling for trophy fish. Horseback riders can join various alpine treks led by nearby outfitters.
Sorensen’s Resort in the heart of Hope Valley arranges workshops and activities throughout the year. The fall lineup typically includes fall color hikes, historic Emigrant Trail hikes with local experts, llama tours, watercolor painting, music, photography, fly-fishing lessons and more.
A four-mile drive downriver brings you to the historic old-west town of Markleeville and Grover Hot Springs State Park, where you can swim in a large pool fed by natural hot springs, cool off in a “regular” swimming pool and picnic beneath towering pines. While there, check out the Alpine County Museum complex, with exhibits tracing area history from the Washoe, explorer and pioneer periods through the present. It also encompasses an 1882 schoolhouse, a log jail, carriage shed and stamp mill.
If You Go:
Where to Stay
Caples Lake Resort, 1111 Hwy. 88, Kirkwood, 209/ 258-8888; www.capleslakeresort.com. Cabins, lodge rooms, marina, store, and nearby campgrounds on Caples Lake, 4 miles west of Carson Pass and 1.5 miles east of Kirkwood.
Sorensen’s and Hope Valley Resorts, 14255 Hwy. 88 (one mile east of intersection with Hwy. 89), Hope Valley, 530/694-2203, 800/423-9949; www.sorensensresort.com. This all-season resort has welcomed travelers since 1926. Choose among cozy bed-and-breakfast cottages, fully outfitted log cabins and contemporary mountain homes. On-site restaurant/café and sauna.
Sister property Hope Valley Resort and Campground is just a half-mile east of Sorensen’s in Woodfords Canyon. It offers full RV hookups, drive-in and walk-in campsites, a Classic 1947 Spartan trailer and a three-bedroom vacation home overlooking the river. Call 800/ 423-9949 and ask for the campground or visit www.hopevalleyresort.com.
Alpine County Chamber of Commerce, 3 Webster St. Markleeville, 530/ 694-2475.
Alpine County Museum, Four miles west of Markleeville, at the end of Hot Springs Rd., 530/694-2317; www.alpinecounty.com/museum/. Open 11 to 4, Thurs.–Mon. from Memorial Day through October.
Grover Hot Springs State Park, Pool info 530/694-2249, general info 530/ 694-2248; www.parks.ca.gov.
Santa Barbara Airport, call 805/967-7111 or visit www.flysba.com for information on carriers and routes.
Land Trust of Santa Cruz County (oversees protection of 60 acres in Hope Valley), 831 429-6116; landtrustsantacruz.org.