"There are more trails that aren't here – that were here – than there are here now."
The worn-out gears in my head turned, trying to make sense of what Dylan Renn said about his childhood Sierra Nevada playground of Bear Valley, California. Sandwiched between a volcanic ridge to the west and a massive granite formation to the east, Bear Valley is a glacially carved canyon in the heart of a geologic transition, with the valley itself a lush meadow that stays green and brilliant with wildflowers well into fall, especially after a big winter. This dynamic zone makes riding Bear Valley like eating a layer cake; there's varied goodness all the way through. Above treeline, there's a dusting of loose volcanic soil, giving way to a savory mix of decomposed granite and dirt in the trees, followed by thick, rich loam, and finishing with a hard foundation of granite slab.
Eventually I figured out the crux of Renn's comment. There used to be a lot of trails in Bear Valley, but after years of shrinking population and nobody using them, there're more trails that used to exist here than there are now. There's still about 35 miles of interconnected singletrack, but what Bear Valley lacks in quantity, it more than makes up for in quality.
Located two hours south of Lake Tahoe in Alpine County, the smallest county by population in California, there isn't much going on these days in Bear Valley. Locals joke that you can sit in the middle of Highway 4 and drink a beer without getting run over, but it hasn't always been this way. From the late 1960s until the early 1980s, Bear Valley was a winter playground for celebrities including Clint Eastwood, Lloyd Bridges and Robert Conrad. Thanks to the vibrant ski community here, Bear Valley attracted more than 300 year-round residents who wanted to escape more crowded slopes around Lake Tahoe. Renn and his lifelong best friend, Ryan Oddo, grew up as neighbors in Bear Valley, raised by parents who were avid skiers.
As children, Renn and Oddo benefited from Bear Valley's boom days, living in an outdoor paradise where adventure and exploration await in every direction. They both went to the now-shuttered elementary school, and partied in high school at houses that now sit empty most of the year. Aside from some tales the boys like to tell, there's very little evidence left of the boom days in Bear Valley.
So why does Bear Valley struggle, especially when it's only a three-hour drive from major population centers like San Jose? Locals say Bear Valley is still too remote with too few services. Others point a finger at numerous investment corporations that have mismanaged the resort over the past 15 years. Multiple years of drought have hurt ski operations and there's been no lift infrastructure for mountain biking, although the resort just ordered a new six-pack lift with bike racks.
Yet another explanation can be found in the lobby of the Bear Valley Lodge.
Built in 1967, the lodge is a gorgeous piece of alpine architecture with an open-ceiling lobby more than five stories high and a fireplace made from slabs of granite cut from a nearby meadow. At the foot of the fireplace is a piece with several grinding holes used by the original residents of Bear Valley, the Washo Tribe. Legend goes that when the rock was cut and placed in the lodge, it cursed the resort.
I asked about this legend when I met the owner of Bear Valley Adventure Company, Paul Petersen, a wiry, bright-eyed man in his mid-50s with the vivacious soul of someone 20 years younger. He shook his head and gave a chuckle.
"I don't know about that, but here's what I do know: You can come up to Bear Valley on the Fourth of July and get a room at the lodge without even having a reservation. Try that anywhere in Tahoe."
This is the paradox of Bear Valley. While many resorts would consider ample accommodations on the busiest summer weekend of the year a curse, folks like Petersen, a fixture of the local community, see it as an advantage that sets Bear Valley apart from other destinations in the greater Tahoe area.
"Not many people live up here anymore because it isn't an easy place to make it," says Petersen, who, along with his wife, also manages three condominium associations and volunteers for several nonprofits. "There aren't a lot of good jobs left and the winters can be brutally long. Most folks who used to live up here have moved down to Arnold or Murphys."
Petersen arrived in Bear Valley when he was 17 years old, became a ski instructor during the celebrity days of the resort and has remained ever since. He's been in Bear Valley longer than Renn and Oddo have been alive. In fact, Petersen was the boys' Nordic ski coach when the kids were in elementary school. Later on, they both worked for Petersen as mountain bike guides.
Although Oddo is now an engineer, Renn stuck to his knobby-tire roots, and owns a mountain bike skills coaching business in Truckee. But one thing the two still have in common is trailbuilding. The centerpiece of their work is a trail called Oddenn (pronounced Odin after the Norse god), a clever mashup of Renn and Oddo's last names. Separated into two sections above and below Highway 207, Oddenn is the upper part of the trail, with the lower section known as The Ring. Riding Oddenn to The Ring is a 1,600-vertical-foot descent made up of granite rock drops, technical rock gardens, loamy high-speed corners and virgin dirt; the day we rode it, the only tire tracks we saw were our own. The trail finishes with a half-mile-long, 300-vertical-foot drop on a massive playground of granite slickrock into the parking lot of the village. Oddenn also offers stunning vistas of the 5,000-foot-deep, glacially carved Mokelumne Canyon, one of the deepest canyons in North America.
Access to The Ring is from the west side of Highway 207. When building the trail, Renn and Oddo came across a number of fire rings and what looked to be a volleyball randomly laying nearby in a pile of logs.
"Turns out it was a human skull," says Renn. "There was a skier who went missing the previous winter and there was a reward for finding her. We thought we were gonna be rich, but it ended up being another person. We didn't get the reward, but the Forest Service did approve and adopt our trail."
Bee Gulch is another trail about a half-mile northeast of Oddenn, that descends to Lake Alpine. Bee Gulch starts out on a narrow, loose trailbed dropping aggressively through a sparsely treed, volcanic slope rich with wildflowers, with sweeping south views of the Dardanelles towering over Spicer Meadows Reservoir. At treeline, Bee Gulch gets technical, with numerous awkwardly placed rocks ready to smash a derailleur. Upon reaching Lake Alpine, riders can loop around the south side of the lake and take Emigrant Trail all the way back into Bear Valley.
As good as the trails are in Bear Valley, the elephant in the room is the thousands of acres of federal Wilderness limiting backcountry riding opportunities. Bear Valley is surrounded by the Carson-Iceburg and Mokelumne Wilderness areas, a frustrating fact for locals who've been mountain biking here since the 1980s.
"Some of the boundaries were drawn poorly," says Petersen. "In the Carson-Iceburg, there's a trail paralleling Highway 4 to the south linking Mosquito Lake to Lake Alpine. It's a terrific connector trail, an easy shuttle and would be ideal for mountain biking, but part of it is just barely over the Wilderness line."
For many years Petersen has been the one with the most to lose in regards to Wilderness and trail access around Bear Valley. He's lived here longer than almost anyone and has owned a business for decades that relies largely on mountain biking in the summer. While he's done an outstanding job working with federal land management to expand trail access and promote the area, it's pretty clear that he needs help to take Bear Valley to the next level.
Enter Mike Cooke, a Bay Area resident who owns a vacation home in Sky High Ranch a few miles west of Bear Valley. Last year, Cooke and a few friends started the Bear Valley Trail Stewardship, a nonprofit to lay the foundation for a trails renaissance in the Bear Valley area. Just by shaking his big leathery paw, it's clear that Cooke is a trailbuilder. He also seems to have Bay Area connections to folks willing to invest serious money into trailbuilding, a unique situation that most other remote destinations struggle desperately to find. Only a year in existence, BVTS has already made headway with federal land managers, striking multiple agreements for trail maintenance and new system trails.
"Our biggest challenge isn't finding money, it's finding people who want to live up here year-round and get the work done," said Petersen. "Having Mike's energy and enthusiasm is encouraging. I would love to see Bear Valley return to what it was when I first moved here: a thriving year-round community of folks who love the outdoors."