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Yet another Sierra paradise

Alex Close
Sierra Sun
Alex Close/Sierra SunPinecrest Lake sits just west of Sonora Pass in the Stanislaus Wilderness Area and is a perfect escape from any reality.
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Nestled in the granite peaks of the High Sierra just west of Sonora Pass is a small manmade lake called Pinecrest. Some know the area because of Dodge Ridge Ski Area, others for the Lair of the Bear.

On the populated end of the lake sits a small general store, bait and tackle shop, restaurant and large family-friendly beach. Around the other edges of the lake are sporadic summer cabins accessible by hiking trail or by boat. The lake is privilege to warm Sierra summer days and light afternoon breezes that pop small sails up all over the water while little inflatable rafts full of giggling children bob around inside the roped off swimming area.

The land to the northwest of the lake is a vast expanse of maintained fee-area campgrounds where families post up for a week, children ride bikes and campfires are still allowed.

During the summer months, day visitors from Modesto and the San Joaquin Valley make the trip up to Pinecrest to cool off. What those day trippers ” and even the scores of families who come for a week of fun in the sun and roasted marshmallow s’mores ” don’t realize is that just a half mile up the road lies the Lair of the Bear, a Cal Berkeley-sponsored summer camp for alumni and their families.

The summer camp offers campfires with skits and songs, arts and craft hours painting ceramics and tie-dying T-shirts, a swimming pool, tennis courts, organized hikes and everything else a summer camper could want. On the weekends the campers change over at the Lair, elated families leave and excited new ones show up. The crew of college student camp counselors clean and prepare for the next week.

It’s a perfect time to stroll through the campground and take in how the Golden Bear lives.

While the bronzed bodies of summering college students hosing off patios, cleaning the pool and sweeping out mess halls conjures up reminiscent feelings of youth, the walking tour continues and the carefree High Sierra vacation rolls on.

Heading back down to the lake, the general store comes in handy for supplies.

A box of cheap, cold beer, some peanuts and the flip switch air hose to inflate a little yellow raft is all an afternoon beach-goer needs.

Soon, tied up to the string of buoys at the edge of the swimming area, nothing but children’s laughter, the gentle lapping of water against a raft and the crisp crack of an opening can are the only sounds to accompany a cloudless Sierra sky.

After swimming and floating until the sun drops down into the blanket of trees surrounding the lake, it’s time for a stop into the Steam Donkey restaurant for a tasty burger and a beer on the spacious patio.

After dinner, it’s back to the Meadowview Campground to digest.

As the fire crackles away and the mallows ooze nearly off the stick before being squished between two grahams and a piece of chocolate, the cares of whatever world you’re from float up into the starry night sky on a thin plume of smoke.

From Tahoe, take Highway 395 south to Highway 108 to Sonora Pass. Follow the windy, rolling road over the 9,000-plus-foot pass and down the western slope. At a small marked town called Strawberry, turn left toward Dodge Ridge Ski Area and Pinecrest Lake. The road dead ends at the beach.

Walk-in campers should look at the Meadowview Campground for a spot, as Pinecrest Campground is a reserve-only area, and illegal camping is not looked fondly upon.

And check out the Serene Bean coffee kiosk near the Steam Donkey Restaurant; the breakfast burrito is the only way to start off a proper day at the lake.

If you’re not into floating or laying on the beach, there is a well-maintained four-mile trail around Pinecrest that can be done in two hours with a cool off stop to jump off the large granite rock faces into the cool Alpine water.


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