If jumping into a cold, clear swimming hole or watching the evening light glint off the calm waters of an alpine lake is on your family’s agenda, you’re not alone. An escape to the mountains is a time-honored family tradition. Unfortunately, that serene high Sierra retreat is becoming more elusive as visitors descend in droves on popular destinations like Lake Tahoe and Yosemite. But don't fret, that secret Sierra hideout still exists. Here are the best under-the-radar mountain getaways that will bring your family a taste of the Sierras without having to brave the crowds.
The 14-mile June Lake Loop includes four separate lakes: June, Gull, Silver and Grant, which between them make the “something for everyone” promise come true. Swimming, hiking and fishing are tops here, but there are also outfitters offering float trips, mountain biking and horseback riding. Since this is a popular ski resort area in winter, accommodations are extensive and varied, from rustic lodges and retro motels to upscale condos, and plenty of camping. And fascinating Mono Lake with its eerie tufa formations is within an hour’s drive.
Along the Ebbetts Pass National Scenic Byway, a string of classic Sierra adventure outposts includes picture-perfect Lake Alpine and Bear Valley, a popular winter ski area turned adventure mecca. Campgrounds and classic resorts reign supreme here, with Bear Valley Resort, Tamarack Lodge and Alpine Lake Resort offering a variety of accommodations, including “glamping” in tent cabins for a hassle-free outdoor experience. The four-mile loop around Lake Alpine is one of the area’s prettiest hikes, as is the side trail up to Inspiration Point for views worthy of the name.
Deep in the heart of the Stanislaus National Forest, Pinecrest Lake has been a favorite of in-the-know families for generations. Camp in one of the 200 Forest Service-operated sites or stay at the Pinecrest Resort, a collection of cabins, townhouses and motel-style accommodations that also features a restaurant, snack bar and marina where you can rent kayaks and other boats. Swim at one of three designated beaches and hike family-friendly routes like Trail of the Survivors and the Shadow of the Miwok. The nearby hamlet of Strawberry offers more cabin rental options and an ultra-cute general store and restaurant.
Few areas of the Sierra have as many lakes to choose from as the Lakes Basin National Recreation Area, where somewhere between 20 and 50 (estimates differ) cluster in a relatively compact area surrounding Gold Lake, the area’s largest. Sand Pond at the near end of Lower Sardine Lake is a kid-pleaser for its shallow sandy bottom and slightly warmer water and the Bear Lakes Loop is a relatively easy hike that passes four lakes with numerous swimming options. If more serious hiking is on your agenda, the Sierra Buttes fire lookout and Mount Elwell are notch-your-belt climbs. With just three rustic lodges and five campgrounds, accommodations are more limited within the immediate area, but the historic Yuba River towns of Sierra City and Downieville offer plenty of options (Downieville’s Riverside Inn is a personal favorite), along with more developed Graegle.
If your family likes to kayak, swim, water ski or wakeboard, you’ll hit the jackpot at Bass Lake, just half an hour south of Yosemite in the Sierra National Forest. Swimming is on offer here too, and you can rent tubes and pontoon boats for more leisurely floating. The Pines Resort is the center of the action with chalets and cabins near the boat launch, while RV and tent camping, both complete with water and hookups, are among the offerings at Bass Lake at Yosemite RV Park and Resort. Hike steep Willow Creek trail to see two stunning waterfalls, Angel Falls and Devils Slide.
Two hours south of Yosemite National Park and almost equidistant from the gateway city of Fresno, the conjoined Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks feel worlds away when it comes to communing with nature in relative solitude. Hike the North Grove Loop Trail to see the General Grant Tree, the world’s second largest at 267 feet, take a guided tour of Crystal Cave, or walk along the South Fork of the Kings River through Zumwalt Meadow and visit John Muir Rock. Lodging options within the parks include cabins, lodges, and camping that fill up quickly; the nearby town of Three Rivers picks up the slack with hotels and B&Bs.
This long, narrow, glacier-scraped lake may be just a few miles from Tahoe’s south shore, but it sees far fewer visitors thanks to the fact that most of its pine-shrouded shoreline is privately owned. Stay in one of these woodsy cabins, which range from 1930s rustic to full tech-money luxe, or at the 200-site National forest campground, which now features yurts in addition to tent and RV sites. Rent a kayak or boat at the Fallen Leaf Marina at the lake’s southern end, where there’s also a small public beach and general store. The nearby Glen Alpine trailhead into the Desolation Wilderness makes this a prime spot for families who like to hike.
Surrounded by speckled granite boulders that set off its deep blue water, Lake Spaulding will send you home with photos that will leave your friends asking “now where is this?” The reason they don’t know it is because Lake Spaulding, which is owned by Pacific Gas & Electric Company, offers only camping, with 25 car sites and more that are walk-in only. This means, of course, that when the day-use boaters depart, the only sound you’ll hear will be the wind in the pines. A five-mile trail follows an old logging route along the lake’s north shore and rainbow and brown trout are plentiful.
A lower-elevation lake at 5,200 feet, Bucks Lake is a California classic, with 17 miles of shoreline teeming with tall pines and plenty of smooth sandy beaches. Bucks Lake permits motorboats, so water skiing and jet skiing are popular past-times here, with rentals available from Bucks Lake Marina, which also features log cabins just steps from the lake. For a more rough-and-ready experience, go for one of several Plumas National Forest campgrounds on or near the lake, which include Grizzly Creek, Sundew, Mill Creek and White Horse.
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