Ah, there's nothing finer than an autumn day in California's Sierra Nevada range: warm sunshine, crisp nights, golden aspen leaves, and shockingly blue skies. Not that spring, summer, and winter are less than spectacular here.

If you're tired of the Las Vegas heat, the L.A. smog, or the Bay Area dampness, the folks at Rock Creek Lodge would like you to remember a number: 9,373. That's their elevation in feet above sea level.

If you're passing through the beautiful Owens Valley on the "scenic drive" portion of U.S 395, you might never guess the lodge was there. At Tom's Place, a small
collection of houses by the highway between Bishop and the popular Mammoth Lakes ski area, you turn toward the mountains towering above you on the west side. You wind your way up into Rock Creek Canyon as the high desert gives way to an alpine environment. The trees get taller and you pass some very nice campgrounds as the air grows thinner and cooler. Ahhhh!

If you're not too distracted by the majestic old cedars and Jeffrey Pines on the rocky slopes, you'll see Rock Creek Lodge's brown wooden sign on your left after about eight miles. If you arrive at a beautiful mountain lake, you've gone a little too far. The lodge is located a half mile below Rock Creek Lake. A wooden bridge over the picturesque stream brings you to the lodge's main building.

What's this - flowers in my dinner? The chalkboard in the lodge's window announces the bill of fare for the evening's meal in the cozy dining room. Now, any food served on a cool evening in the mountains can be called "comfort food," but if you're expecting burgers & beans here, you're in for a pleasant surprise. My dinner featured pork chops with sage and gravy, braised lentils, spinach salad with walnuts, fantastic home-baked potato bread - and "four lily soup." Did you know that garlic, shallots, leeks, and scallions are all members of the lily family? This creamy soup had a marvelous flavor.

As you enjoy the warmth from the old woodstove, you'll see some ribbons and trophies on the dining room wall. Janet and Randy are excellent cooks, and Janet has won prizes for several of her recipes - most recently for her chili-cheese bread at the 2003 Tri-county Fair in Bishop.

After dinner you can join other guests in the rustic lodge building for a board game (by the woodstove) or simply read a book from the shelf. There's a pay phone at the lodge, but don't expect phones, TVs, or internet connections in the cabins.

The 14 large and small cabins have kitchens, comfortable beds, and electricity, and eight of them (the "modern cabins") have hot water and bathrooms. For guests in the six "rustic cabins" and the lodge's dorm accommodations there's a communal bathroom with showers, and outhouse-style restrooms are also close by, although they are closed in winter.

Winter 2003-2004 rates are as follows: $95 per person, per night for rustic cabins, $120 for modern cabins. Note that winter prices include your delicious dinner (including beer and wine), breakfast, trail passes, taxes, and your all-important snowmobile ride from the lower canyon up the unplowed road to the lodge and back. That's right - the place becomes inaccessible to cars in winter. Talk about splendid isolation!

For the adventurous, the Lodge even rents a backcountry hut way up at Mosquito Flat. Go to www.rockcreeklodge for more information and current rates. Then pack your bags, get the kids and/or the dog into the car (pets are allowed for a small extra fee) and get moving.

By the way, bring a flashlight, 'cause it gets dark under the pines. After all that wine and dessert, take your partner for a romantic stroll along the road or across the meadow and look up; the stars look stunning from this elevation. You can also keep warm in the genuine Finnish sauna – a luxurious treat on a winter's evening. Then make your way back to the cabin, stoke up the fire in the stove, and burrow under the blankets for a well-earned night's sleep. Ahhh . . !

Rock Creek Lodge is open year
around. You will need all that firewood
during the rugged Sierra winter.

You did earn your night's sleep, didn't you? There's a lot to do up here. Rock Creek begs to be explored: above the lodge, it meanders through a lovely mountain meadow where pack horses graze, and below the lodge it tumbles over large boulders in the shade of tall evergreens. Everywhere there are dark pools where you can picture the trout holding signs that read, "Feed me!" (Click here for fishing information.) Did I mention the horses? There are tons of hiking trails in the canyon and the Little Lakes Valley, and many of them are available for trail rides.

In the winter, the area has great Nordic skiing on some of the best snow in the Sierras, and many of the trails are groomed. The lodge has skis (Nordic and Telemark) and snowshoes for rent, and its store provides bait and tackle in case you can't resist harassing the fish. (Click here for catch-and-release tips.) Up at the lake, the trout grow larger and are more challenging to catch. You can stroll along the shoreline and choose a suitable fishing spot, or rent a boat. Motor-powered boats are available, but I prefer the rowboats - partly so I can hear my little CD player, partly to say I earned my night's sleep, and partly to work off the custard tart with blueberry cabernet sauce I had with dinner at the Lodge.

Catching late summer
rays at Rock Creek Lodge.

By the way, after you've tried all of Rock Creek Lodge's several dessert selections, you can try the pies made fresh daily at the nearby Rock Creek Lakes Resort. They're served in the little store where the resort also sells bait, but don't let that scare you. These pies are famous throughout the region. The Resort isn't open in winter, but Rock Creek Lodge is - and Janet's homemade blueberry breakfast muffins are more than enough to get me through the winter without pie. The Lodge typically takes a breather from late October through mid-December. They open December 19 for the 2003-2004 winter season. White Christmas, anyone?

Like I said, there's a lot to do up here - even if it's just eating, sleeping, and enjoying the fresh mountain air. Rock Creek Lodge makes a terrific headquarters for your summer or winter recreation. Don't expect the luxury of fancy digs, room service, or a mint on your pillow. Do expect the luxury of cozy, simple cabins, great food, natural beauty - and perhaps flowers in your soup. Ahhh!

Photos and feature By Robert LaGrone, Las Vegas Correspondent.

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Adventure Guide to the Sierra Nevada

California's magnificent Sierra Nevada mountain range packs a punch when it comes to adventuring. Join local author Wilbur Morrison as he walks you along the Pacific Crest Trail and the John Muir Trail, through King's Canyon, up to the top of Mount Whitney, and swimming in Lake Tahoe. Offering tips on exploring this fantastic area alone, Morrison also lists local outfitters who can help you plan a horseback riding trip, a hike, a biking excursion or an overnight trek.

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