Stress buster

05/26/2002 11:50 AM

11/30/2006 3:00 PM

LASSEN VOLCANIC NATIONAL PARK -- There are places in this world that work like magic to drain the brain of worries, the body of tensions and the spirit of unkind thoughts. Drakesbad Guest Ranch is one of them.

Pulling up to this collection of rustic old buildings on an iridescent meadow is like pulling a plug on yourself: Stress rushes out and serenity rushes in as soon as your eyes can make a circuit of the dreamlike setting.

Billie Feibiger sees it all the time. "Give people 24 hours here," she says, "and they become v-e-r-y elastic."

Feibiger and her husband, Ed, manage the historic resort in the secluded, mile-high Warner Valley area of Lassen Volcanic National Park in Northern California. She's originally from Switzerland, he's from Bavaria, and they are as much a part of the atmosphere as the kerosene lamps that still -- in the 21st century, yet -- provide soft yellow light in the cabins.

Drakesbad is not a fancy place, not at all: It's the isolation, the setting and the warm, welcoming cocoon spun by the staff that make it so beloved by a loyal clientele.

As the only lodging within the national park, Drakesbad's 19 guest rooms stay full all summer, despite the pricey tariff. Many guests reserve a year in advance -- same room, same week -- and some families have been coming back for decades.

First-timers, Feibiger says, are best off trying for a cancellation or scheduling a visit for mid-June or after Labor Day, when business is somewhat slower. "We get a lot of couples in the fall," she notes. "It's very quiet then, very romantic."

Part of the charm of Drakesbad, which has been welcoming guests for a century, is its feel of belonging to another time. The rustic, two-story lodge, with its long porch and river-rock fireplace, appears of pioneer vintage. There are no telephones or televisions in the cabins or lodge rooms, and no locks on the doors. Kerosene lamps provide the only light after the generator is shut off at 10 p.m. Propane heaters take the edge off the mountain chill.

For most of the short summer season, the climate hereabouts is ideal: crisp nights, not-too-hot days, blue skies all but guaranteed. Snow flurries start in October, and after the second weekend of the month Drakesbad closes for the winter, not to reopen until the roads re-emerge in June. (This year, Drakesbad opens June 7.)

Simple and unstructured, the resort works best for those willing to let nature be their guide. Hiking is the main activity, with a network of trails leading from the ranch to some of this off-the-beaten-path national park's most interesting thermal features.

It's just two miles, for example, to Devil's Kitchen, an otherwordly area of hissing steam vents, sizzling streams and colorful, burbling mud pots. Terminal Geyser and Boiling Springs Lake are other popular destinations for those on foot.

Closer in, fishermen can try their luck in the stream crossing the bright green meadow (technically a type of peat bog called a fen) behind the lodge. Just beyond is Dream Lake, a diminutive body of water so still it's hard to tell where the reflections end and the forest begins.

A canoe is kept here, free for the use of resort guests.

"Keep your paddle still, Mom," my 8-year-old son admonished me during the course of our excursion last summer. "Look down -- it's like being in an airplane!"

And it was, kind of, with water clear as glass revealing views of a pond bottom sown with algaes resembling exotic seaweeds and corals.

Soaking in the ranch's hot-spring-fed pool is another dreamy option for Drakesbad guests. If a visit to the ranch is therapeutic in the first place, a soak in its thermal waters is pure bliss.

Sit out here after dark, up to your ears in liquid velvet, look up at the sky and marvel. "So that's why they call it the Milky Way," my older son, age 10, whispered in revelation as we did just that, craning our necks skyward just before bedtime.

A guest ranch wouldn't be a guest ranch without horses, of course, and Drakesbad's stable -- the OK Corral -- holds 15 gentle mounts brought in for the summer from lower elevations. Trail rides for all ability levels are scheduled daily, the shortest leading around the meadow, the longest being all-day affairs with lunch on the trail.

I treated my boys to the first ride of their lives, a two-hour jaunt to Terminal Geyser. The smiles on their faces -- they positively glowed -- justified the $55 per-person splurge.

The trail took us along a forested ridge with a view over Boiling Springs Lake, a steam-scoured, poisonous-looking circle of hot water the color of bleached turquoise.

Terminal Geyser, our destination, isn't a true geyser at all, but a violently hissing steam vent that roars around the clock, spewing white plumes of sulphurous moisture into the air. The earth all around it is warm to the touch, and the streambed running through the area is coated with bright yellow hot-water algae. Ferns so brilliant a shade of green they look artificial cling to its bank.

Signs warn of danger ("Watch your children!") and urge visitors to stay on the path. But the forces beneath the earth are constantly shifting. At one point I sat down on a mound of dirt and jumped up in surprise to feel hot air blowing out of a den-like opening behind my ankles.

Guiding our horseback ride was one of more than a dozen foreign students who lend Drakesbad an international flair. Marta Cerenakova, 21, a college student from Slovakia, was here for her second summer, following the footsteps of a brother who had worked at the ranch two years before.

The Feibigers say it's difficult to recruit young Americans willing to stay for five months in such an isolated locale. But for personalities like Cerenakova's, working on a dude ranch in the American west is a dream come true.

"I love it here -- the nature, the horses, the people ..." she said, giving her mount a pat on the neck.

The foreign students "give a lot of color here," says Feibiger, who knows firsthand the challenge of living in an adopted country. "They practice their English, see America and earn money at the same time -- it's a great cultural experience."

The young people are recruited through the Council for International Educational Exchange, Work Experience USA and similar organizations that match students with seasonal work.

"We get about 1,200 applications a year, so we end up with the cream of the crop," Feibiger says.

The Drakesbad dining hall, indeed, is a virtual United Nations of accents, with only the odd native American voice to be heard among service staff who hailed last season from France, Sweden, Eastern Europe and Taiwan.

Mealtime is a highlight, with guests seated at assigned tables adorned with fresh flowers and miniature oil lamps. Paneled in light woods and furnished in an old-fashioned theme, the room is as cozy and welcoming as a chalet in the Alps, which is what it resembles.

Meals, included in the rates, are delicious and hearty, if not gourmet. Breakfasts are as big as you want them, with a hot main course -- pancakes, waffles, eggs -- offered in addition to a cold buffet. Lunches include an array of fresh salads and a sandwich bar, with sack lunches available on request for those who will be out and about at midday.

Dinners are sit-down affairs; the entree might be chicken in orange sauce with couscous one night, a savory serving of lasagna the next. Wine is available from a limited list, or you can bring your own. A selection of homemade desserts caps the menu.

Outside of scheduled mealtimes, Drakesbad guests are left to their own devices. But patterns do develop: After dinner, there's conversation and marshmallows around the campfire, or reading and games in the lodge. Soft drinks and beer are available from two iced-down wooden tubs on the porch (payment is on the honor system), and trail maps and books can be purchased the same way, in the self-service gift shop.

There's pleasure in knowing that this is how it always has been.

Settled in the 1860s by E.R. Drake, a German immigrant who ran cattle on the land, the ranch was bought in 1900 by Alexander Sifford, a Susanville schoolteacher. He set up a campground around the hot springs and began welcoming guests that same year.

The name "Drakesbad" was adopted in 1908 on the suggestion of friends, because it sounded European and communicated the notion of thermal springs. Eventually the campsites were replaced with canvas tents and a dining room. A wood-and-stone lodge was erected in the late 1930s. Cabins, a dining room and swimming pool were soon added.

Sifford's son, Roy, took over the business in the 1940s and was as passionately dedicated to the property as his father had been. He sold out to the National Park Service in the 1950s but remained a fixture around the ranch until his death in 1991 at age 98.

The property, along with other visitor facilities in Lassen Volcanic National Park, is managed now by California Concession Services, which plans no big changes.

It doesn't pay to mess with tradition, after all.

"Drakesbad works," Feibiger says, pausing in the dining room with a coffeepot in her hand. "It really, really works."

Travel wise: Drakesbad Guest Ranch and Lassen Volcanic National Park

Getting there: Drakesbad Guest Ranch is 17 miles northwest of Chester (Plumas County) on Warner Valley Road, in the south central portion of Lassen Volcanic National Park. Allow about four hours for the drive from Sacramento.

Rates: Three daily meals are included in rates that range from $113 to $138 per person in a double-occupancy room. The charge for children ages 2-11 is $70 per day. Weekly rates also are available. The least expensive rooms, upstairs in the lodge, have showers down the hall. The most expensive are roomy bungalows facing the meadow, with private baths. Rates do not include horseback riding or gratuities.

Season: Drakesbad opens June 7 and closes Oct. 14. Peak season is mid-June through Labor Day.

Reservations: For reservations or a spot on the waiting list, call (530) 529-1512, Ext. 120 and leave a message. Or, go to the Web site www.drakesbad.com and send an e-mail. Once the ranch opens, you can call the AT&T operator at 1-010-2880 and ask for the Drakesbad No. 2 toll station in the 530 area code. (There's no direct phone service -- Drakesbad really is that old-fashioned.)

Lassen Volcanic National Park: Highway 89 runs north-south through the park. Take Interstate 5 to Red Bluff and go east on Highway 36 to enter from the south. Or, continue on Interstate 5 to Redding and go east on Highway 44 to enter from the north. Both routes connect with Highway 89. Entry fee: $10 for seven days.

Seasons: The park is open year-round, but much of the high country (including parts of Highway 89) is under snow from late October to mid-June.

Where to stay: There are eight campgrounds with first-come, first-serve sites from $8 to $14 per night, and four group campgrounds that can be reserved. Permits are required for backcountry camping. Lodging outside the park is available in Mineral, Chester, Viola and other nearby communities.

Visitor information: Park headquarters, in Mineral nine miles south of the park on Highway 36, is open 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays year-round. The Southwest Information Station, near the southwest entrance, is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily through September. The Loomis Museum, at the northwest entrance, is open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily through September.

Timing a visit: Allow at least three hours to transit the park on Highway 89. Be sure to pick up a road guide ($5) at the park entrance or in a gift shop.

For more information: (530) 595-4444. or www.nps.gov/lavo/ , which has a traveler's guide. To receive a free, 64-page guide to travel in the Shasta Cascade region, or for additional lodging tips, call (800) 474-2782, or visit www.shastacascade.org.

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