Summer in the Sierras: guide to rustic lodges

The term ‘mountain lodge’ can mean many things to traveling families. It can conjure up images ranging from five-star luxury to bare bones accommodation, swimming pools and children’s programs to communal meals and do-it-yourself maid service. We love it all, but when we truly want to escape civilization and immerse ourselves in nature, we book a week at one of the following family-owned and operated lodges in Plumas and Sierra counties, California.

With dozens of ice-blue mountain lakes, hundreds of miles of hiking trails (including the famous Pacific Crest Trail), and stunning scenery, this region of the Sierra Nevada mountains in Northern California is rich with summer lodges. Amenities vary, but as a rule, you can expect to get a little dirty and have a lot of fun. All the lodges listed below provide comfortable cabins, lake or creekside access, showers and bathrooms, and electricity. Some serve meals, but to my knowledge (and trust me, I’ve tried), none offer reliable wi-fi. Instead, you’ll find crisp mountain air (at 6000 feet!), miles of wilderness in all directions, and every opportunity for family together-ness. And of course, all of them come Pit Stops for Kids approved–we’ve spent time at each and every one of them!

Gold Lake Lodge: Despite its name, this lodge doesn’t actually sit lakeside. Instead, guests walk a short trail to the shore of Gold Lake, which is just fine in our book, as Gold Lake is the largest of the area lakes, and therefore the most crowded in summer. (As it’s also the only lake in the area allowing motorized boats, this is the place to be if you’re towing your own craft.) The lodge itself is tucked in a forest adjacent to the lake, and features a two large free-standing buildings surrounded by small, individual cabins. The two buildings house the lodge recreational room (complete with board games, ping-pong, and a fireplace) and dining room. One of the only area lodges to include breakfast and dinner in their cabin rates, we recommend Gold Lake Lodge if prepared meals are a must. Cabins are comfortable but small. Expect heat, but no air conditioning (rarely needed) and bathrooms in most cabins. Our family’s only complaint: the central areas between cabins at Gold Lake Lodge can become dusty late in summer, causing more dirty laundry than strictly necessary! Rates: Cabins start at $235 for double occupancy (and includes breakfast, dinner, and lunch on the trail).

Packer Lake Lodge: Located directly lakeside at one of the area’s most stunning lakes, Packer Lake Lodge offers great swimming (with a floating swim platform) and rowboat and canoe rentals. We love that Packer Lake is small enough for kids to paddle around unaided (with life jackets, of course) and that the small size keeps day trippers to a minimum. The Packer Lake Lodge Restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and offers kid-friendly fare as well as steaks, burgers, and the like. Rates: cabins with kitchen and bathroom start at $175 a night or $1100 a week. Rates do not include meals.

Elwell Lakes Lodge: Elwell Lakes Lodge is unique in that it’s not situated near any particular lake, but rather all of them, as the lodge is directly connected to the Lakes Basin Recreational Area’s network of hiking trails. We love that visitors can hit the trail right from their front door and be at any of half a dozen mountain lakes within minutes (or a few miles). Young kids can hike to the closer lakes, while older kids and teens will want to try to conquer the whole ‘loop’, stopping to jump into icy waters every mile or so. Elwell offers a large main recreational room and comfortable upper lobby with an old-fashioned wooden wrap-around deck with fabulous views. Take a book and an snack up there, find a rocking chair, and you’ll never want to come down! Cabins vary from very rustic tent cabins (with communal bathroom) to three-room cabins with multiple beds and in-suite bathrooms. The only caveat: meals are not served. At the time of our last visit, the lodge did organize a guest-wide potluck meal that was a lot of fun, and all cabins have kitchenettes and BBQs. Rates: Cabin rates start at $118 (or $750 per week).

Gray Eagle Lodge: This lodge is closest in proximity to the town of Graeagle, and is also, in our opinion, the best-appointed. Visitors will find a full-service restaurant, beautiful lodge buildings, and a scattering of cabins creekside. Like Elwell Lakes Lodge, trails can be found right on-site, and during July and August, kids will love Gray Eagle Lodge’s swimming hole and waterfall. Cabins range in size and pricing, but you can be sure there’s something for every sized family. Rates: Cabin rates start at $280 a night.

Sardine Lake Resort: Sardine Lake Resort is located in what I believe to be the most beautiful spot in the Sierra Nevada. (And yes, I know that’s saying a lot.) Situated right on the shores of Upper Sardine Lake, this resort only offers nine cabins, a plus for guests (if you can get a reservation). You can also rent rowboats by the day or half-day (the fishing is supposed to be the best in the area) and young families will want to walk the quarter mile to Sand Pond, where the water is shallow and warm with a nice sandy bottom and plenty of picnic areas. The views here are fantastic, as is the food (served daily at the Sardine Lake Lodge Dining Room). Even if you don’t stay here, I recommend stopping in for an evening meal to take in the view. Rates vary. Contact the resort directly at (530) 862-1196.

No matter where you choose to stay, I guarantee you’ll spend your days exploring some of the most beautiful mountains you’ll ever see, and your nights together as a family, playing cards and board games by the fire, reading, or just catching up on your rest! Most lodges book by the week (Gold Lake Lodge is an exception), and most fill up fast: plan ahead and book early!

About the author

Amy Whitley AUTHOR: Amy Whitley is the founding editor of Pit Stops for Kids and content editor of Trekaroo. She writes on staff monthly as a family travel expert at Go Green Travel Green and Practical Travel Gear, and contributes to Outdoors NW as an outdoor adventure traveler. Find Amy at Google.




  1. Really nice web site. If I were still in CA with my sons, now grown, I’d be all over this.

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