On a cold December day, it’s easy to dream about cocooning in a cozy cabin under the pines, fireplace aflame, hands cradled around a steaming mug of cocoa. Think flannel, friends, food and four wooden walls beneath an A-line roof that’s frosted with snow. For those seeking a nearby getaway that captures winter’s essence, the foothills and Sierra are home to many properties that provide cabin stays year-round. Several stand out as particularly welcoming, as owners and operators anticipate a snow season they hope will be more hospitable than last year’s.
Danish hygge at Desolation Hotel
Desolation Hotel in Hope Valley (elevation 7,000 feet) is blanketed in hygge, that Danish and Norwegian word that means, basically, warm contentment. Desolation Hotel is probably the most quintessential mountain cabin resort within a two-hour drive of Sacramento, with 27 stand-alone cabins sprinkled among a grove of white-trunk aspens just off Highway 88. (These trees burst into orange and yellow each autumn, bringing leaf peepers from miles around.) A communal firepit and on-site restaurant round out the experience.
For decades, the property was Sorensen’s, named for its 1920s founder Martin Sorensen (who, like the word hygge, hailed from Denmark). It kept that name through several ownership changes. In 2019, John and Patty Brissenden — who had lovingly owned and operated Sorensen’s since 1982 — sold it, the name changed to Wylder Hotel and then, this past summer, Desolation Hotel. (Its condo-style sister establishment with the same name opened 21 miles away in South Lake Tahoe in 2022.) The Hope Valley location also includes campsites, seven luxury yurts and a 1951 Spartan trailer at its campground beside the Carson River, but its cabins are the mainstay.
“Every cabin is unique and has its own charm,” says Brandon Crudup, general manager of the Hope Valley property. Some examples: Creekside cabin has a vintage woodstove. St. Nick’s, a beautiful A-frame, came from Santa’s Village in Scotts Valley near Santa Cruz. Foxtail is a compact studio. Johan’s, another studio but decorated differently, was the first cabin constructed. Sierra House, with a staircase to its loft bedroom — including an additional single bed accessed by a four-rung ladder — and another bedroom downstairs, appeals to families or couples traveling together.
The cabins have oak floors, pine walls, fireplaces, baths and kitchens. They come complete with bedding and towels but no televisions, so couples and families can reconnect with each other. (And their dogs; all the cabins are canine friendly.) “We’re giving guests the whole experience,” says Crudup, “so they don’t need to leave the property.”
Cooking is not a requirement, however. The cafe, open daily for lunch and dinner, has retained the Sorensen’s name. It still serves the beloved beef burgundy stew that’s been on the menu for 40 years; the deconstructed berry cobbler, too. The lineup includes as much farm-to-table fare as possible, Crudup says, noting that “in the mountains, it needs to be hearty … without making people feel weighed down.”
Desolation Hotel Hope Valley has hiking trails on the compound. Also, wintertime guests can participate in activities including snowshoeing (the full-moon snowshoe tours are popular), cross-country skiing (Hope Valley has excellent tracks at its Sno-Park) and downhill skiing and snowboarding at Kirkwood Ski Resort (15 miles away on Highway 88). With almost no nighttime light pollution, Hope Valley also is a prime spot for stargazing. The hotel provides telescopes and night binoculars so strong that Crudup says gazers can spot some craters in the moon not seen with the naked eye.
Crudup’s goal is to maintain the hotel’s status as a destination guests visit repeatedly for family traditions and to increase its buyouts for weddings and corporate retreats. As for how business will go this winter, he says it all depends on the snowfall. “The gigantic snow year last season, with many storms on weekends, took a toll,” he says, noting that snow banked higher than cabin rooflines.
Also affecting business in recent years: The pandemic actually increased occupancy, likely because the cabins are stand-alone, but two major 2021 wildfires — Tamarack (near Markleeville) and Caldor (El Dorado County) — brought so much smoke into the area that reservations decreased. “Business goes through peaks and valleys,” he says, noting that weekends and holidays are typically high because bookings tend to follow the school schedule. Desolation Hotel’s winter cabin rates start around $280 a night.
Cabin camping in style
In South Lake Tahoe, Camp Richardson is home to 17 year-round cabins that skirt Lake Tahoe between The Beacon Bar & Grill and Tallac Historic Site. Additional cabins open up only during the crowded summer season. The cabins actually have fairly low occupancy rates in winter, providing prime opportunity for people who want to hunker down in peace beneath tall pines, the lake lapping icy sand on the beach nearby. The cabin community can fill up at Christmastime, says reservation clerk Hailey Wolsfeld, but the schedule between New Year’s and April remains refreshingly open. Snow sports are a key reason people come to Tahoe in winter. “People who want to ski tend to stay closer to the resorts,” says Wolsfeld. The closest ski area is more than 7 miles away.
Winter cabins at Camp Richardson range from Hudson, a studio that sleeps two (starting at $125 a night) to Studebaker, which sleeps eight (starting at $255 a night) and is perched close to the lake. All the year-round cabins include heaters, gas fireplaces (except Hudson), full kitchens (with cooking utensils), bathrooms (with towels) and bedding. The Beacon, also open year-round, gives guests good reason to trudge through the snow for a hot toddy or a Rum Runner, a boozy tropical fruit cocktail.
Luxury on the lake
A bit farther down the hill, an inviting cabin resort beckons from the shores of Rollins Lake, just outside Colfax. A drive through the woods on Highway 174, then along some ever-narrowing country roads, leads to Rollins Lakeside Inn Resort, owned by Scott and Linda Fetty. They rent three two-bedroom and six studio cabins ranging from $149 to $329 a night. Each cabin is fully outfitted with a full kitchen, bath, linens and towels, television and outdoor grill. All cabins have views of the pristine lake, a 900-acre reservoir that meanders between 26 miles of foothill shoreline.
At around 2,200-foot elevation, the property often sits below the snowline in winter, which many guests find appealing. “The last couple of winters have been quite brutal, though,” says Linda Fetty, noting that their place draws skiers who would rather drive 40 minutes or so east on Interstate 80 to the ski areas than stay right in the snowy fray. Fetty says in a typical year, Rollins Lake will see some snow — “it’s so pretty; just enough to see it” — but 2022-2023 brought much more than usual.
Fetty says they keep the cabins open year-round, and to boost wintertime business, they offer extended stays. “We get some traveling nurses who stay long term, or PG&E workers,” she says.
Located about 6 miles from Grass Valley and Nevada City, Rollins Lakeside Inn Resort could be a base for guests who enjoy the towns’ holiday street celebrations, boutiques, galleries, coffeehouses and restaurants. Several trails in the area, including one to Rollins Dam and the strenuous Stevens Trail, will appeal to hikers. Anglers can catch trout, bass and a variety of other fish in the lake.
Lake Tahoe and the Sierra foothills teem with cabins available through VRBO, Airbnb and other vacation rental websites and companies. It’s important to look carefully, though. For example, a number of listings describe rentals as cabins, when in fact they’re duplexes, one-floor portions of multi-floor homes or even condos. True stand-alone cabins run the gamut from shacks with no running water located a long trek from an outhouse to massive lakeside mansions that sleep 30 and fit everyone in a hot tub, too. Note pet policies, the availability of towels and bedsheets, and rules about parties. Also, keep in mind: With VRBO and Airbnb, contact with an owner or manager may require initiating a reservation, which involves keying a credit card into the system.
Snow is falling! Let the hygge begin.
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