BEAR VALLEY, Calif. — It happens every year.
When snow becomes too thick to plow on Highway 4 in Alpine County, Ebbets Pass closes and at that point, the whine of two stroke engines can be heard throughout the mountains.
Most of us use cars or bikes to get around during our daily commute, but in the little mountain town of Bear Valley, the snowmobile is the way to get around.
On average, Bear Valley gets around five feet of snow each year. The community is not big, about 100 or so permanent residents and 400 or so vacation homes. The town has a general store, a fire department and even a school, which drums up plenty of business for local snowmobile taxi driver Don Hicks.
“Everyone in town has my phone number and I give it to all the Airbnb guests,” Hicks said.
There are about nine miles of unplowed snow covering the roads in the residential portion of the Bear Valley community, and the local ski resort is conveniently placed above the homes, allowing residents to ski to their front step.
It might take Hicks a trip or two to get vacationers' luggage up the hill, but his tow-behind trailer makes fast work of it.
“It sure beats walking,” Hicks said.
Of course, paying for a snowmobile taxi isn’t the only way to get around. Many part-time residents have their own snowmobiles and store them at Bear Valley Snowmobile storage and rental. Owner Mike Denicola says his a one-of-a-kind business simply exists because roads in town can’t be plowed.
“If they plowed the road, the snow would get so high people wouldn’t be able to get into their homes,” Denicola said.
You don’t have to live up here to enjoy snowmobiling. If you rent one from Bear Valley Snowmobile, you can take a self-guided tour. ABC10's John Bartell, however, opted to ride along with tour guide Steve Heerema for a little history lesson.
“The Washoe came from the east and the Miwok from the west for 10,000 years to meet in a place like this,” Heerema said.
Native American and mining landmarks are scattered all along Hwy. 4 in the Ebbets Pass area, and so are a number of alpine lakes and cabins. It’s remote up here and a snowmobile is about the only way to experience the vast winter views of the Stanislaus River drainage area and the Dardanelles Mountain peaks.
Longtime resident, real estate broker and historian Eric Jung says before there were million-dollar vacation homes, Bear Valley was a cow town. Most the land was owned by just a few ranchers.
“Subdividing became fashionable in the 1960s,” Jung said.
Growth in real estate almost directly correlates with the number of snowmobiles.
“In the first few years of Bear Valley there were probably only five snowmobiles. Today, there’s over 500 snowmobiles registered with the state right here in Bear Valley,” Jung said.
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