UNDER COVERS: A shared experience; Clair Tappaan Lodge

Bernadette Fay
Thursday, January 11, 2007

Nestled in snow-covered pines at 7,000 feet in the Sierra, the Clair Tappaan lodge welcomes families and folks who share a sense of adventure. The key word here is share because the lodge, owned by the Sierra Club, is a community experience. Meals are shared, each guest is responsible for a simple daily kitchen chore, and evenings are spent in one of two community rooms. After hearing about the lodge for years, our family of four (two adults, two kids) decided to rendezvous there with another family (two adults, one teenager) for some wintertime R&R. If you've got kids, you know that stands for recreation and wrangling, but at this lodge, it's worth it.

Comfort zone

Upon seeing our group room -- three stacks of three-bed-high bunk beds for a total of nine beds in a small room -- our thoughts drifted to Japan's "capsule" hotels. There was no chest of drawers, not even a table. Each bunk was furnished with a thin mattress. How were two families going to manage these accommodations for three nights? Here's how: We hung our ski clothes on the hooks on the wall. The two unused bunks became luggage holders. Our cooler packed with beer, wine and snacks became an impromptu table. We also used the room for sleeping -- not hanging out.

Bath and beyond

There are two men's and two women's bathrooms -- sparkling clean -- with shower stalls and cubbies where you can keep your toiletries (bring your own). There's a drying rack for swimsuits and towels.

Grounds for approval

The lodge, built in 1934, is large, and wood is everywhere. This includes the dining room, where meals are served family style on several big tables. Common rooms include the cozy, quiet library and the larger and livelier living room with its massive stone fireplace. The large kitchen, always spotless, is the domain of the cook, who will help guests get started on their few chores (making salads, setting the tables, etc.); a pingpong table and hot tub are downstairs.

Geared up

No television, no phones or alarm clocks in the rooms. No computers. No Internet. This is the Sierra Club, after all.

In the vicinity

It's a skiers' smorgasbord: Sugar Bowl and Soda Springs are a mile away; Donner Ski Ranch, 1.5 miles; Royal Gorge, 2 miles; and Boreal, 3 miles. Great sledding and excellent cross-country skiing are just out the lodge's back door.

Good to know

Bring your own bedding or sleeping bag; bring your own towels for the hot tub and showers. Meals always include a vegetarian option, while every morning, a lunch buffet -- sandwich fixings, chips, cookies and fruit -- is set out so you can make and pack your own lunch. If you're a single, ask about the two-person "cubicles" on the top floor.

Highs and lows

The first night was, frankly, a little rough (bunk beds? chores?). By the second night, the sense of sharing something wonderful had kicked in and we felt at home -- in the best sense of the word. Working for 20 minutes or so with your kids in the kitchen is nothing short of heartwarming. Cozying up to the fire in the living room afterward or piecing together the communal jigsaw puzzles induces a warm glow. It all fits -- the lovely wooden lodge, sledding in the snow, having fun together.

19940 Donner Pass Road (old U.S. 40), Norden. (530) 426-3632 or (800) 679-6775; www.sierraclub.org/outings/lodges. The lodge can accommodate 140 people in two dorms (men's and women's), 11 group rooms (five to 12 people each) and 16 semi-private rooms (one to two). All have bunk beds; no wheelchair access. Winter weekend rates (through April 8) are $60 per person; $32 for ages 4-13 (younger free); prices include three meals a day. Rates are slightly lower for members of the Sierra Club and for Sun.-Thurs. nights.