Sunday, July 16, 2006

Secluded Bass Lake offers traditional family vacation

The jagged and dramatic Ansel Adams Wilderness gets all the attention in this part of the Sierra Nevada, but my boyfriend and I wanted something a little homelier, a little more affable: the John Candy Wilderness.

That's the name we gave to Bass Lake, a warm-water reservoir 14 miles south of Yosemite National Park. It'll never be featured on Sierra Club calendars, but as the filming location for movies such as "The Great Outdoors" (which starred Candy and Dan Aykroyd) and commercials for Wells Fargo and Coors, Bass Lake is iconic in its own unpretentious way. It's a place where families can enjoy an authentic old-fashioned vacation off the main tourist circuit, with low-frills campsites, swimming coves and barbecues.

It's also a place where they can enjoy fully equipped lodges, hot tubs and a nice glass of wine.

But despite taking a few stabs at going upmarket, Bass Lake still has a long way to go before it becomes the next Lake Tahoe. That's probably why it doesn't show up much on the Bay Area vacation radar, but it's also why it's good to go now.

On a midweek visit in June, my boyfriend and I headed straight to The Pines Resort and Village, which doubles as Bass Lake's main drag. It has comfortable lodgings, a grocery store, an upscale restaurant and a lakeside hot tub, among other things. The more luxe suites were booked, but on short notice we were able to snag a two-story "chalet" described as "condo-like," with a fireplace, kitchen and loft. The price was another sign we weren't at Tahoe: $109 a night.

If "chalet" and "condo" seem contradictory, with quaint charm battling sleek convenience, the juxtaposition turned out to be apt here -- if by "quaint charm" you mean " '70s ski cabin" and by "sleek convenience" you mean Travelodge. Indeed, the chalets were built in 1977, hardly the Golden Age for vacation architecture.

The chalets -- all duplexes -- looked suspiciously like tract housing, with bland brown exteriors, asphalt views and small, concrete-slab balconies accessorized with plastic chairs and tables. The insides weren't much more inspiring.

But it was the lake that we, like most visitors, came for. Surrounded by hilly acres of Ponderosa and sugar pines, with the Sierra mountains as a backdrop, it's a huge, watery playground for swimming, boating, waterskiing and fishing, with plenty of quiet coves for picnicking and camping. The lake's elevation of 3,400 feet makes both the water and the air fairly temperate throughout summer.

We hopped aboard one of the most popular ways of exploring the lake -- the Bass Lake Queen II, a modest, faux-paddle wheeler that makes an hourlong circuit. The Queen Mary II it's not, but the captain's conversational (if at times repetitive) style made for pleasant absorption of lake facts.

When its dam was built in 1910, we learned, Bass Lake was called Crane Valley Reservoir, after the sandhill cranes the Mono Indians thought they saw in the 1800s. (They were actually great blue herons.) After a local lumber company polluted the lake, killing all the fish, a name change was in order. The lake was restocked with, and named for, bass. Now anglers bait their lines for 17 species of fish, including Kokanee salmon, rainbow trout and bluegill.

Bass Lake is still a favored hangout for great blue herons, as well as a couple of bald eagles, which nest there every spring and summer. And there's a new migration: People who've feathered their nests elsewhere are rapidly building mega-homes around the lake.

Heading to the communal hot tub before dinner, we noticed that some chalets actually had pretty good views of the lake. (Presumably these were not the ones that rent for $109 a night to last-minute arrivals.) The smell of charcoal briquettes wafted down the road as groups relaxed on the generously sized porches. A couple of families splashed in the pool, and though the hot tub was about as small as our fireplace, people were friendly about sharing it. All considered, we decided, it really wasn't such a bad place.

At Ducey's, the resort's main restaurant, we expected to be chided by the hostess for not having a reservation, and we were -- but then she laughed kindly and took us to a table with a full view of the lake.

Bass Lake visitors typically scatter during the day -- to fish, to ski, to hike or to gawk at Half Dome -- and Ducey's is the regrouping place for the middle-to-older crowd. Younger visitors congregate in the Bar & Grill across the parking lot, and families seem to stick to their chalets and suites.

Ducey's menu seemed custom made for John Candy, with creamy sauces and bacon featured in almost every entree. We went for two of the specialties, salmon Wellington and beef filets wrapped in, yes, bacon.

What the food lacked in refinement, it made up for in portion size. Whether this was to help enforce the resort's 10 p.m. quiet time, we weren't sure, but afterward we sleepily lit a Duraflame log, spread our blankets on the floor and passed out before we could even think of doing anything that would annoy our neighbors.

It's hard to say whether Bass Lake will maintain its low-key atmosphere or become a mini-Lake Tahoe in the next few years, but for now it still offers visitors a low-key experience that's getting harder and harder to come by. If John Candy were still around, I bet he'd vacation here.



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IF YOU GO
Getting There

Bass Lake is about 10 miles east of the intersections of highways 41 and 49 in Oakhurst, or about a four-hour drive from San Francisco. It's 14 miles from the southern entrance to Yosemite National Park, which isn't affected by the recent landslide on Highway 140.

Where To Stay

Pines Resort and Conference Center, (800) 350-7463, www.basslake.com. 20 lakefront suites, 84 two-story chalets. Chalets, $169-$219 in summer; suites $219-$379. Seven-day minimum for some units. (If reserving a chalet, check to see if a Contiki Tours youth group is also staying that night. On one night of our visit, the bus tour's lively chalet party didn't quiet down until after midnight.)

Camping: Go to www.fs.fed.us/r5/sierra/ and click on "Recreational Activities" and then "Camping." The Chamber of Commerce, below, also has campground details.

Where to eat

Ducey's on the Lake, in the Pines Resort (see above). Breakfast and a dinner menu of steaks, seafood and pasta in 120-seat dining room. Most dinner entrees $21.95-$29.95 (filet mignon and lobster up to $64.95). The upstairs Ducey's Bar & Grill has more casual fare for lunch and dinner; entrees $5.75-$14.95.

Other restaurants are in Oakhurst, about 8 miles away; visit www.oakhurstonline.com.

What To Do

Bass Lake Water Sports at The Pines Village, (800) 585-9283. The lake's only full-service marina for boat and watercraft rentals.

Bass Lake Queen II, (800) 350-7463, www.basslake.com/queen.html. Departs 3 p.m. daily from the Pines Resort Marina through Labor Day. $10 adults, $5 ages 5-12 (younger free), 50 percent discount for resort guests.

Outdoors: The Falls Beach Picnic Area and Recreation Point are two popular swimming beaches. Three hiking trails begin at the lake. Other nearby activities: mountain biking, rock climbing and golf.

Jazz on the Lake, (559) 642-3121. Concerts every Friday through Sept. 1, poolside at Ducey's. Gates open at 6 p.m., music from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. $8; optional buffet $13.50.

For More Information

Bass Lake Chamber of Commerce, (559) 642-3676, www.basslakechamber.com.

Bass Lake ranger station, (559) 642-3212.

Bass Lake weather, boating information, events, Webcam, bald eagle photos and more: basslakeca.com.

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