One-Stop Sporting Resorts

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, June 1995

One-Stop Sporting Resorts

The gear, the guides, the mountains, the rivers--step out of your room and it's all there
By Bob Howells

You may be imagining a plaid-shorts paradise with pastel-hued beverages served poolside, but we have something else in mind. Our kind of resort is a worn-in home base perched on the edge of all the things we like to do outside--be it paddle, climb, bike, hike, fish, or sail--that also swathes us in hard-earned indulgences. None of our top ten could pass for a youth hostel or backwoods fishing lodge; you won't find detached privies or gang showers. After a long day of serious calorie depletion, we're ready to slink into a hot tub, flop our weary bodies onto real beds, take in plush-chair views of the place that beat us up so well just hours before...and then begin plotting tomorrow's episode.

The Forks, Maine
A few miles south of Northern Outdoors, a road sign reads, MOOSE CROSSING NEXT 50 MILES, meaning this is remote, wild country at the southern stoop of Maine's North Woods. The resort's 120-acre site is surrounded by millions of acres of accessible pine and hardwood forest owned by several paper companies.

You might spend your first day on the Kennebec, the Penobscot, or the Dead River, which roil with arguably the best whitewater in the Northeast thanks to releases from power company dams. On the Kennebec, you raft 12 miles of Class III-IV water through a narrow gorge, building to a foamy climax at Magic Hole Wave, a recirculating hydraulic that'll stand a 16-foot boat on end (the trip costs $75-$105, including cookout lunch). Survive that, and you might try a guided 15-mile mountain-bike ride ($45, including lunch) on fairly flat forest roads--timed to watch the rafters flounder through Magic Hole Wave--which ends at a swimming hole beneath Moxie Falls. Or there's introductory rock climbing on a nearby 70-foot face ($75, including lunch); guided fishing for smallmouth bass on the Kennebec's headwaters, touted to be best in the world ($175, including lunch); or playing on a quiet stretch of river in an inflatable "duckie" ($25, including shuttle).

The six motelish lodge rooms and ten self-catering "logdominiums" each sleep up to six. Nothing too fancy, and you won't care: Everyone hangs and recounts adventures in the main lodge, a cathedral-ceilinged, pine-paneled hall with an outdoor deck and hot tub. Reruns of the day's rafting video are shown frequently, and nonpaddling deadbeats are resoundingly booed. The adjacent restaurant serves breakfast, burgers, and pasta; meals range from $5 to $14. Lodge rooms cost $45 per person, double occupancy; logdominiums are $25 to $40 per person. Call 800-765-7238.

Telluride, Colorado
Wheel a dusty mountain bike through the lobby, clomp by in muddy hiking boots, or clink around with a climbing rack, and you won't draw a second look at The Peaks. True, this 177-room resort oozes mountain chic and has a sprawling spa with an international menu of wraps and soaks, but it is in Telluride. Sidestep the golf course and you're at the base of the ski area, ringed by the 14,000-foot San Juans. Resident pro Joel Herck, a Southwest native, guides hikes, teaches basic to advanced rock climbing, and leads technical ascents of nearby fourteeners like Mount Wilson and El Diente. Or just hike out the door on two-hour trails to Savage Basin, the Tomboy Mine Ruins, or Bridal Veil Falls, the longest free-fall cascade in Colorado.

Telluride Sports, right in the resort (303-728-3458), stocks a selection of mountain bikes (rentals, $20 per day; $45 for a guided day trip) and can steer you to single-track loops like the 16-mile Deep Creek Loop or jeep roads in Uncompahgre National Forest; the classic ride is the 25-mile full-day trip over 11,750-foot Ophir Pass to Silverton. Fly-fishing for brown and rainbow trout is best on the nearby San Miguel River; call Telluride Outside (800-831-6230), which also runs raft trips on the Class III-IV Gunnison River and the Class III Dolores.

Back at The Peaks, you'll have the one-acre, four-level spa to explore, with a 25-foot indoor climbing wall, a Cybex weight room, and an indoor lap pool with a water-slide conduit to an outdoor pool. Rooms are big and Southwest-inspired; many have terraces. Legends of The Peaks restaurant serves up "Ranchlands Cuisine"--local lamb, free-range chicken-- as well as low-fat options (entrées, $7.50 to $30). Double rooms cost $230-$275 and include full use of the spa. Call 800-789-2220.

Forks of Salmon, California
When you book a week at Otter Bar, you can count on two things: You'll learn to paddle a kayak or pedal a mountain bike, and you'll forge at least a Christmas-card bond with fellow guests and staff (and probably Turbo Eddy, resident pooch). Just 13 of you, plus assorted instructors and cooks, will be about two and a half hours from anywhere (Eureka is the closest major town), smack in the midst of northern California's Klamath National Forest. The lodge's programs--weeklong paddling or mountain-biking packages--suit its site between the fir-covered Marble Mountains and the Trinity Alps, just a couple hundred yards from the Wild and Scenic California Salmon River.

In spring high water, intermediate and advanced paddlers hone skills on Class III-IV rapids. When the water gets lower in June, neophytes start on Otter Bar Pond, beside the lodge, and graduate on the Presidio run of the Klamath River--a Class III rapid called Kissing Rock is the you're-a-kayaker-now finale. Mountain-bike programs, which run from August to October, entail guided frolicking on hundreds of miles of remote forest roads and single-track for all fitness levels (Specialized Rockhoppers with suspension are provided). The last gasp is up double-track to 6,000-foot Blue Ridge Mountain, where everyone overnights in an old lookout cabin. Bikers can also book a combo week that includes an introduction to paddling. Some guests spurn the thrill sports altogether for great hiking, river snorkeling, fall steelhead fishing, or volleyball games on the lawn.

Surrounded by vegetable and flower gardens, the four-bedroom ranch-style main lodge (some guests stay in two adjacent cabins) is unpretentiously elegant, with 12-foot picture windows and French doors. The antique-filled guest rooms open onto a communal deck with a hot tub and sauna. A week of kayaking, including all meals (served buffet-style in the cedar-walled dining room), classes, and a shared room, costs $1,290; a mountain-biking week is $1,200. Call 916-462-4772.

Bryson City, North Carolina
Part paddling school, part year-round resort, part hard-goods mecca, NOC is the nexus for just about anything there is to do in the Great Smoky Mountains. With five world-class rivers in the area, including the Nantahala, the Chattooga, and the Ocoee, it's no surprise that NOC is a hotbed of cutting-edge river sports, like whitewater rodeo and "steep creeking" (running low-volume water with a huge vertical drop), as well as a training ground for both Olympians and first-timers. Paddling courses last from three to seven days; a five-day course costs $725, all-inclusive, and three days costs $320. You bunk in three- or four-bedroom cabins with balconies overlooking Nantahala Gorge and the Appalachian Trail and chow down on just-pulled-out-of-the-ground veggies and herbs at Relia's Garden Restaurant.

The mountain-bike operation has lately boomed, as riders have discovered the 50 miles of single-track in the Tsali Recreation Area, seven miles from NOC, and the 300 miles of gated dirt roads in Nantahala National Forest. NOC runs "bike samplers" three days a week ($70 includes a guide, equipment, and lunch); the bike shop rents Specialized Rockhoppers for $25 per day. The docket also includes sea-kayak samplers on nearby lakes and rock-climbing samplers ($70), which begin on an artificial wall and move to a natural rock face for afternoon rappelling. Sign up for a short but wild raft trip ($25-$85), or rent a four- to ten-person raft ($17 per person) or a duckie ($30) and head out on your own. The huge Outfitter's Store stocks hard goods and sundries for all pursuits. Since Nantahala's cabins often fill with kayakers enrolled in courses during July and August, you might opt to stay in Nantahala Village (704-488-2826), three miles up the road; an old stone lodge there has 14 motel rooms ($70), and 43 cabins ($80-$225) sleep two to 13. Call Nantahala Outdoor Center at 800-232-7238.

Big Sky, Montana
Don't call this ranch "dude." You won't be joining roundups at Lone Mountain (no dogies here anyway), but you will have 90 steeds to choose from if you want to ride trails through southern Montana's Spanish Peak Range. The Wild West meets swank seamlessly at Lone Mountain--your "bunkhouse" is a meticulously kept streamside cabin with a stone-hearth fireplace and lodgepole pine furniture, and the sauce on your buffalo is done just so. Surrounding it all is a wide swath of cusp-of-Yellowstone mountain country: The 160-acre ranch is five miles from Gallatin National Forest and about 20 miles from the northwestern corner of the park.

A one-week package gets you one of the 23 hand-hewn log cabins, which sleep two to nine people, or a space in the new six-room Ridge Top Lodge; three hearty squares a day; and a choice of three programs. The Rancher Package ($2,600-$3,050 for two) pairs you with a mount for six days of guided rides. The Fly Fisher Package ($3,180-$3,600 for two) gets you an Orvis-trained guide and four days of instruction and fishing on several rivers, including the Gallatin (which stood in for the Blackfoot in "A River Runs Through It"). Sign up for the Naturalist Package ($2,300-$2,750 for two), and you might band birds, munch some edible plants, or prowl backcountry geothermal sites in Yellowstone. Whatever you choose, you can dabble with the others à la carte, hike on your own to places like Beehive Basin, a 9,000-foot cirque where you're likely to spot mountain sheep and the occasional moose, or latch on to a canoe outing on Cliff Lake.

Eating at Lone Mountain is a serious matter. The Dutch chef gives endemic ingredients a continental twist: buffalo medallions with lingonberry-forest mushroom sauce, venison with ginger brown sauce. Call 406-995-4644.

Grand Marais, Minnesota
The view across Gunflint Lake toward Ontario--placid water, a dark forest of spruce, balsam, and birch--is the same today as when Gunflint Lodge was built 65 years ago. Moose, wolves, and deer still thrive in the woods, and Gunflint and the massive chain of lakes it connects to in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness still harbor plentiful walleye, lake trout, smallmouth bass, and northern pike. All that's changed is that the small, spartan fishing camp built by Justine Kerfoot and her husband, Bill, has grown to a comfortable, woodsy resort with a main lodge, 22 knotty-pine cabins (each with private sauna), and a capacity of 65 to 70 guests.

Kerfoot, now 89, lives in the original structure and occasionally regales guests with her pioneer stories. Her son's family manages the lodge as well as Gunflint Northwoods Outfitters, which runs three- to ten-day canoe trips in the Boundary Waters. A flotilla of canoes is kept on the beach for everyone to use, and guests can get maps for easy day trips, like an eight-mile paddle that begins at Larch Creek and involves three portages as it traces a historic voyageur route. Resident guides lead fishing trips by canoe or motorboat, and Trek mountain bikes can be rented ($15 per day) for riding on 75 miles of forest roads and numerous cross-country ski trails.

True to its roots, the pine-paneled main lodge is festooned with carved birds, Indian crafts, and voyageur artifacts; the big stone fireplace, shelves of old books, and huge windows overlooking the lake almost make you want to stay inside. Prices run about $100 a night per person, including all meals, which are heavy on local fish and game. Gunflint is 43 miles from Grand Marais up the Gunflint Trail. Call 800-362-5251.

Stowe, Vermont
Leather chairs, a fireplace, a reading lounge, and antique brass--that's just the locker room at Topnotch, a 92-room resort with all the patented charm of a New England country inn, plus a dash of Baden-Baden. Topnotch is the hostelry equivalent of a binge-purge cycle: Go out and get sore (run, bike, ride, hike, skate); come back and slide into a whirlpool while a heated waterfall tumbles onto your shoulders. Nestled in 120 acres of woods in the Green Mountains, Topnotch anchors one end of a paved, 5.5-mile recreation path that parallels West Branch River from the resort to the village of Stowe. Rent a bike or in-line skates at the Topnotch Mountain Bike Center for the village commute (mountain bikes, $21 per day; road bikes, $19; skates, $15), fashion mountain-bike loops on Topnotch's cross-country ski trails, or ride the Adams Camp Trail over to Nebraska Valley and spin back on paved roads. Ask at the front desk about guided half-day mountain-bike rides ($20 per person).

Out-the-door hiking can lead four miles to the top of Mount Mansfield (4,393 feet) and a glorious view of most of New England, or let hooves do the walking: Horses are stabled in a 200-year-old barn for guided trail rides three times a day ($22). Fly-fishing can be good in the West Branch or south of town on the Little River; Topnotch can arrange for gear, guides, and lessons.

Besides the waterfall/whirlpool, the 23,000-square-foot spa has an indoor lap pool, a heated outdoor pool, and a Cybex weight room with all the trimmings. The two-tier main dining room serves "new Vermont cuisine"--local organic vegetables, venison, and trout with a citified spin (entrées, $15-$25), while the Buttertub Lounge has a lighter menu ($6-$14). Double rooms cost $178-$236; add $48 per person for breakfast and dinner. Call 800-451-8686.

Campbell River, British Columbia
The wilderness centerpiece of Vancouver Island is a place called Strathcona--a 550,000-acre provincial park of 7,000-foot snowcapped peaks, steep, glaciated slopes, old-growth forests, and deep, cold lakes. On its edge, tucked among giant Douglas firs, is Strathcona Park Lodge, a small complex of chalets, cabins, and a private marina on Upper Campbell Lake. Equal parts resort and "outdoor education centre," Strathcona is a place to learn almost anything. Guests can pluck any of three offerings from a daily "Best of Adventure" buffet that includes classes in canoeing, kayak touring, and sailing; rock climbing on an indoor wall or nearby bluffs and crags; a ropes course; and a wilderness skills clinic. Courses are $33 per day, $18 per half-day, and are taught by pros, most of them cream-of-the-crop grads of the Canadian Outdoor Leadership Training Programme, a 100-day course based at the lodge.

Of course, you can skip the tutorials and opt for hiking in the high country, where turquoise waterfalls tumble into glacial tarns. The classic day hike is the six-miler (one way) to glacier-fed Landslide Lake. There's mountain-biking on logging roads outside the park (rent a mountain bike at Pedal Your World, 604-287-2453, in Campbell River, 28 miles east, for $18 per day) and fishing for cutthroat and rainbow trout on the lake.

The lodge's 12 waterfront cabins sleep two to ten and go for $57-$93 per night; chalet rooms with balconies overlooking the lake cost $36-$64. Mountains of wholesome grub--halibut, greens, vegetarian casseroles--are served buffet- and family-style in the Whale Room (three meals, about $20 per person per day). Call 604-286-3122.

Sundance, Utah
Sundance is the West as Robert Redford would have it, which is mostly wild and left alone, but with Navajo rugs and other American Indian crafts to warm up your quarters and views of Mount Timpanagos and the Wasatch Range through the windows. It all carries a filmmaker's stylized touch, but the manipulation is welcome. The dried wildflowers in your room are Sundance-grown, and the 17-ingredient granola in your minibar is Sundance-made.

Amid the orchestration, the beauty of the place is undeniable. Yes, a river runs through it. (A stream, actually; fly-fishing for fat browns is done nearby on the Provo River.) Ride horseback through the 6,000 acres, glimpsing deer and elk en route to 350-foot Stewart Falls, and then feast on lunch packed by the Sundance chef (two-hour ride, $45; lunch, $10). Or mountain-bike on 25 miles of private single-track to hook up with rides through Uinta National Forest (mountain-bike rentals, $10 per day; guides, $15 per hour). Or hike 8.3 miles through groves of aspen and pine, past cirques and glaciers, to the 11,750-foot summit of Timp.

And then there's the arts thing. It's not the film festival--that's in Park City, in January--but films from the festival screen on Fridays and Saturdays, and there's live summer theater (South Pacific this year). In the granola spirit, the Tree Room Restaurant uses local organic herbs, veggies, and critters in Harvest Menu dishes, which change weekly, such as campfire-style stuffed trout (entrées, $17-$23). Pizza and pasta are served in the Grill Room ($7-$15). Standard cottage rooms cost $125; one-bedroom suites cost $225. Sundance is 20 minutes northeast of Provo. Call 801-225-4107.

San Diego, California
Leave it to a southern California resort to out-Polynesia the South Seas: For tropical ambience and island-style action--or inaction--Catamaran might as well be on Vanuatu. In reality, the Pacific Ocean's at your back, Mission Bay straight ahead, and you're captain of your own fate on a motorized beach chair. But such sloth doesn't wash long in San Diego--Mission Bay is a hardbody beehive with a 4,000-acre park, a filigree of skating/biking paths, and sandy beaches protected from the open ocean by a narrow, man-made isthmus. Rent skates or a beach cruiser ($20 per day) and you can glide out the hotel door for eight uninterrupted miles, or trade in the beach chair for a sailboard, catamaran, sea kayak, or small sloop ($10-$35 per hour). The in-house Resort Watersports (800-585-0747) has all the gear, plus lessons in sailboarding, sailing, and sea kayaking.

Catamaran's palm-tree-fancying owners have planted the eight-and-and-a-half-acre grounds in lush Polynesian gardens, and the South Seas theme carries over to the interior, with lots of colonial Hawaiian art and artifacts, not to mention a 15-foot waterfall in the lobby. The Atoll Restaurant follows suit, with dishes like opakapaka fish (entrées, $7-$20). Double rooms, $140-$195. Call 800-288-0770.

Bob Howells is the author of Backroads of Southern California and Backroads of New England (Gulf Publishing Co.).

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