David's PCT motel and restaurant list

By David Plotnikoff (who won't complete the entire trail before '06)

Before we get to the restaurants and motels, first a necessary reminder: This is one family's experience in trail towns. And that's all it is. We're not the Zagats of the Sierra Nevada. With my wife and infant daughter usually meeting me and dropping me at trailheads (I always walk alone), we burned a lot of cash on night-before-trailhead food and lodging and night-after food and lodging. I would guess a section hiker like me with five weeks of vacation a year and three bodies to shelter and feed probably spends ultimately 10 times what a thru-hiker does on a border to border hike because my method is so relatively inefficient, with all the short segments and setup nights.

Here's the disclaimer: Just because we found a motel or restaurant to be wonderful (or awful!) that doesn't imply any guarantee as to what your experience would be. My goal here is to save people some of the research time -- and some of the regrettable choices -- we made. I will add to this list in 04 as I go from Shasta to Willamette Pass. In the meantime, if you glean new information that would supercede anything you see here, PLEASE e-mail me so I won't be in the position of passing out-of-date information on to others. And if you encounter truly outstanding food or service, please consider sharing that with me as well, so others can benefit. Thank you.

My ground rules: We are not picky sleepers. We've stayed in -- and loved -- our share of $25-$45 motels. (The late, lamented Fobes 40 on Crowley Lake Drive south of Mammoth was a whopping $22 per night for the "deluxe suite" which meant there were fewer bugs in the bathroom, relatively speaking, and the room had been vacuumed at least once that season.) Motels should be clean. Funky is OK. Funky is good. Old and funky can be good also, sometimes. BUT things crawling in the shower stall, exposed wires, things that may have died under the bed during the Eisenhower administration are not cool. Holes in the ceiling that let in the rain (Dunsmuir) are not cool. If I wanted *that funky* I wouldn't have bothered to come into town. Most of the motels you're going to see listed here are running $90 in season now, give or take $20. Don't expect to find much worthwhile under $70 in any of these towns. There's just not enough surplus lodging stock to keep prices more competitive.

On restaurants: Big meat -- burgers and steaks -- are good. Big calories of any sort are good, whether they're Chinese, Thai, Italian or Mexican. I don't go for vegetarian or frou-frou novelle anything. So you may want to see other journals, such as Teatree's, for that perspective on food. (There are plenty of journals on the main sites providing an alternative-protein point-of-view on these towns' offerings.) Service is a big deal for us. A place that's got decent food and a bad attitude is not going to endear itself to me. If we're treated badly, we'll never return. Period. Ever. In places where we were treated well, we routinely tipped 20-25 percent, even if the food was just OK. We figure it's not only good for the local service economy, it also does something to bolster the rep of hiker trash. In other words, when people show kindness and consideration, we recognize they have a tough job and we feel it's our responsibility to make up for the 10 percent tippers of this world. Every place you'll read on this list had food that was better than "just OK.'' Price is not a big deal IF the food is good and the people serving us are doing a good job making us feel welcome.

In Lone Pine: The Dow Villa Motel. This is the traditional PCT pick, laden with more lore and memories than I could attempt to recount here. And the Dow Villa is a genuine piece of East Sierra history, where all the movie crews stayed when they shot Westerns in the Alabama Hills to the west of town. Try to get a room in the old section.

For dinner, Seasons or the Merry Go Round -- both within easy walking distance (everything is within easy walking distance) are both highly recommended. Other dinner options you'll see in town, such as Pizza Factory ("We toss 'em , they're awesome!") you're going to be seeing in every trail town for the next 300 miles.

In Independence, which is much smaller than Lone Pine -- something between a bona fide town and a wide spot in the road -- avoid the Rock N Rhino pizza place on the west side of main drag. Looooong waits for a very mediocre product. Better to go for the old-school dinner house diagonally across the main intersection from Rock N Rhino. If you're going back into the trail via Kearsarge Pass, remember Onion Valley trailhead campground (a LONG way up the hill) is serious, serious bear alley, so even with the bear boxes, on the way back to the trail from Indepencence try not to be packing any to-go cartons filled with leftover pizza, steaks, legs of lamb, etc.)

If you're taking a break or coming in off the east side, north of Bishop, off 395, the Paradise Lodge in Paradise and Tom's Place (south of Crowley Lake) are both recommended for dinner. Straight, unaffected American chow. Paradise even has a halfway decent wine list. (And at Paradise a *creek runs through it*. Seriously.) The bar scene at each of them is also worth a mention. If you want to see vintage East Sierra honky tonk culture at its finest, be in one of these bars on a Saturday night around 10. The fishermen and the transplanted Los Angelenos are a part of the mix as much as the natives. If you're a member of E Clampus Vitus, you've done died and gone to heaven -- or at least the Bodie chapter's version of barroom heaven.

Vermillion Valley Resort. You have to do it. You will pay dearly. But you have to do it -- and do it big. In the middle of this long stretch -- the longest roadless stretch on the trail by far -- you really want to eat and drink. A lot. And be thankful that nothing you do on the way down the hill into here, nor on the way up the hill out of here, will be even remotely as dangerous as the *drive* in on Kaiser Pass Road to the west. Be glad you walked in under your own power and then took the ferry across Lake Edison. We're talking serious hair-raising terror on the blind curves. One lane, 20 miles. Pack station trucks with bad brakes coming the other way at 40 mph. No guard rails. Pray to your god. If you are planning to hook up with relatives here, you need to warn them what they're in for. It's the slowest, scariest 20 miles they'll drive in this decade, guaranteed. As much as others have complained bitterly about the total price of a stay at VVR, we didn't find it much out of line on the relative-value meter from other outposts. And this one is the most isolated of all. Don't bitch about the price. Just eat it up and be grateful you made it this far.

Just south of Mammoth off 395, the restaurant at Convict Lake Resort is the only four-star dinner place for hundreds of miles around. It is expensive and worth it. The only Wine Spectator award-winning list south of Tahoe. (A great selection of big-bodied California reds to complement most any swanky meal.) The closest comparable food may be at the Ahwahnee in Yosemite Valley. Compared to the Ahwahnee the Convict Lake Resort is a better fine dining value, less pretentious and blessed with more professional service. (Still, you'll find a lot of the 395 locals won't go there even for special occasions because they find it "snooty.") The cabins at Convict Lake are as funky as the restaurant is fine. They too represent a great value compared to any ski-resort-influenced lodging in Mammoth proper.

(If there is a good value in lodging at Mammoth, I have never seen it in 20 years of travel through Mono County. Tom's Place to the south -- at $35-$55 per lodge room, is my version of value lodging. The ultra-cheap alternative, if you're coming in or out of the Mosquito Flat trailhead, is a *bunkhouse* room at Tom's Place for $15-$20. That may include a shower... It's a long hitch from Mosquito Flat to Tom's Place and back, but a very easy one.)

Never priced what a Mammoth taxi would cost from the ski area's main parking lot to Convict Lake or Tom's Place. It may be better to hitch into Mammoth, shop at the large Safeway on the main drag, then hitch from the 395 on-ramp just east of town to Convict Lake. Note there's the main Inyo NF headquarters on the main drag beween town and 395, if you have business to transact w/the government.

Red's Meadow is vastly overpriced. Uniformly terrible food in the restaurant. We couldn't agree what was worse, the dessicated salad or the atrocious spaghetti that followed it. And $40 for a resupply drop!?! Avoid the store and restaurant entirely if you can. Get a shower at the campground a few hundred yards north and keep moving. If you're in *really* good shape time-wise, you might even be able to make Garnet Lake for the night, one of the most beautiful and overlooked spots in this area.

Or better yet, get on the free shuttle into Mammoth and live it up at the aforementioned Convict Lake Resort! Whatever you spend on a taxi ride or hitch to Convict will be well worth what you *don't* spend at Red's Meadow. (Note that if you're planning on having someone meet you out here they better check out the restrictions on driving on the Red's Meadow/Devil's Postpile road. Last time we checked, private vehicle traffic was severely curtailed and shuttle buses were the only option for much of the day. The closest place where it was practical to leave a drop car or have someone meet you was the main parking lot at Mammoth Mountain ski area. Check again with Inyo NF to be sure what the precise current policy is on road access.)

From Tioga Road, the greatest open secret in the East Sierra is down Lee Vining Canyon at the 395/120 intersection overlooking Mono Lake: the Tioga Gas Mart. Yes you're reading that right: The GAS STATION is a three-star restaurant, far superior to anything in Lee Vining proper. So good that the New York Times has reviewed the gas station's food. Seriously, when we were there, the locals were booking *weddings* at the gas station because the environs and the catered food were so much better than anything else around. There's a kind of "Bagdad Cafe" feel to this place. What kind of people would put a three-star restaurant in a gas station mini-mart? And why would they do it there, of all places? Finally, why would they position a Cirque du Soleil style circus trapeze directly across the access road for all comers to enjoy? It's a feature story waiting to be written. Oh, by the way, just in case you are tempted to try somewhere other than the Gas Mart, avoid Nicely's on 395 in Lee Vining at all costs.

In Lee Vining, the Best Western Lakeview Lodge is a solid choice for an older, quality motel. Not cheap. The term "Lakeview" is ... relative. Use your imagination.

Meanwhile, back up the hill in Tuolumne Meadows, it's tough to get a seating for dinner at the Lodge any time after early afternoon. It's really worth trying though. Considering what you've just been through and the seven to nine days of straight vertical you're *about* to go through, if you're staying in Tuolumne overnight you deserve this excellent dinner. Some people, such as my spouse, consider it significant that this place runs by family-style seating. In other words, unless you're a party of at least 4 or 5, you will probably be dining with (gasp) strangers. This is a *benefit*, not a negative. I can cite two times on pre-trek pig-outs where I was seated with "strangers" who became very good friends. Interesting people are where you find them, and you will probably find them here, if you're open to the experience.

On the lodging front, sometimes it take six months of calling Yosemite's cancellation lines before nabbing a tent cabin at Tuolumne. This has rarely been a worthwhile deal. We've found that people coming off the trail rarely get a decent night's sleep in the tent cabins. The backpacker's campground in Tuolumne Meadows (if it's not free it's some nominal fee) has always had room for casual walk-ins and they're *required* to accomodate you on the night before your permits say you're scheduled to head out. Note that there is a potentially confusing fork in the JMT/PCT right around the Lyell/Dana confluence. If you find yourself taking the spur to the Lodge, intentionally or unintentionally, don't sweat it. You're cool. Avail yourselves of the nice bathrooms and the chilled beverages for sale at the Lodge, make a dinner reservation, then walk the short access road from the Lodge to 120 and (going west across the river) to the campground and your guaranteed spot at the walk-in backpacker's camp.

If you have business to attend to, note that the wilderness permit office (the main administrative point of contact for about 40 miles around) is located where the Lodge access road meets 120, within sight of Lembert Dome. It's a tough lot to park in, but if you're section hiking, this is the preferred space to leave a drop car. Many bear boxes ring the lot. This is your one convenient chance to ask a government employee about trail conditions, bears, water, etc. for the next 7 days. They might even know what they're talking about, if your questions are about the area between Tuolumne and Benson Lake.

We have heard of others who've blown off the Tuolumne Meadows zoo scene entirely, opting just to pick up a resupply and keep heading north to Glen Aulin. Bear in mind (pun intended), these were probably people who hit it big-time in the lottery for Glen Aulin High Sierra Camp lodging spaces six months prior. If you're not among the lucky, you should be weighing the options of staying in Tuolumne, hitching east to Mono Lake (our preferred option) or heading west to White Wolf (where food and lodging may also be over-subscribed) or Yosemite Valley. Just about any backcountry camping you're going to find in this area is going to be overpopulated -- and overrun with garbage bears. There is transit through Tuolumne Meadows, but the bus (YARTS) rarely fits most hikers' schedules. If you expect to use YARTS to the valley or Lee Vining, prepare to adjust your schedule accordingly. It doesn't run on the hour.

In Bridgeport, the Bridgeport Inn is strongly recommended for a big celebratory dinner after doing the seven-to-nine day section between Tioga and Sonora Pass. Great steaks. Decent wine list. It shouldn't be too hard hitching from Sonora Pass down to Bridgeport. Lots of traffic for almost all of the season except the earliest and latest weeks. The Best Western Ruby Inn is a good clean motel, but not cheap. In addition to the Bridgeport Inn, we heard good things about the breakfast joint at the east end of the 395 main drag, right before the highway turns south. This is another very compact town where it's a pleasure to walk everywhere, no matter how bashed your quads may be after the north canyons of Yosemite.

For those of you considering taking a break or resupply off at Ebbetts Pass or Carson Pass, in Minden (to the east), the JT on 395 -- right around where Minden turns officially into what was Gardnerville -- is the place for died-and-went-to-heaven Basque food. (A REAL bad place for vegetarians). Along the same lines, the municipal golf course, just south of town off 395 is another legendary Basque haunt with devotees stretching as far as the Bay Area. Go hungry, VBRY hungry. And go native: try the Picon Punch. Then make sure there's someone else to drive you back to the Carson Valley Inn. Minden is grossly overlooked as a resupply depot. It is a full-service town and a lot easier to deal with than South Lake Tahoe, in our opinion.

As far as we can see there are either few or no good deals in Truckee or Tahoe City for either lodging or food. (Blue Agave, the Mexican family-style place in Tahoe City was decent food but no bargain.) And as for South Lake Tahoe, the motel bargains are weekdays only -- $35 to $45 at a half-dozen clean places on the main drag. Tough to find any good deals under $90 on Friday or Saturday. In South Lake, when you're coming off Echo Summit, Hansen's Resort is the best value in the funky el-cheapo motel category (off Pioneer Trail, and a long walk to the main drag). Avoid the scary Chateau Inn and Suites unless hookers and crack dealers at midnight sound like an attractive entertainment package. Aside from the casino buffets, we were surprised that there was not a lot of good food in South Lake Tahoe. Rojo's Tavern on the main drag -- and the no-name burrito place behind it -- are two locals-only hangs we found palatable.

Sierra City. Avoid the Buckhorn restaurant at all costs. The food is passable but expensive. And the service is probably the worst you'll encounter at a restaurant of this supposed caliber. You'll have to be hunting the clueless wait-staff down for every trivial or non-trivial request. ("Um, the salad bar? Could you get someone to refill the lettuce, please?") The British breakfast and lunch place, Mountain Shadows, is a delight but no bargain. Many people report the bar across from the store and post office offered the best dinner deals around. I picked the Buckhorn instead, and regretted it. The cabins at the Buttes Resort are an excellent value, particularly if you have family coming up to meet you here. This is a better place for a family reunion than Truckee or Tahoe City. Very laid-back three-block town and very easy place to take care of all your business. The resupply options at the store are getting better. (As of '03 the attitude of the store folks toward the thru-hikers on the porch is *much* better than it had been in recent years.) But it's still an iffy proposition to resupply from here to Belden out of the store. If you have relatives hooking up with you here, have them do groceries in Tahoe City or Truckee, the two closest metropoli with Safeways.

It's worth using Quincy as a staging base for a section hike. It has a great breakfast spot (Morning Thunder), a great dinner house (Moon's) and a decent place for a monstrous half-pound or one-pound burger (Stoney's). It also has all the supplies and other stuff you could imagine needing for 100 miles in either direction. It has a Safeway and a Rite Aid. Consider this your last REAL supply option before Shasta City on I-5.

In Quincy, the preferred motel is the Gold Pan. At Moon's, the dinner place, try to be seated back on the patio in nice weather. The cat is an evening's entertainment in her own right. Very nice artisan pizza and pastas. Also nearby -- particularly if you have family coming up who are prepared to shuttle you around by car -- consider in Blairsden the outrageously excellent Grizzly Grill. Bay Area quality cuisine at Plumas County prices. Seriously. And in Graeagle, the golfer's paradise next door to Blairsden, the River Pines Resort was nice old-style motel rooms wth vintage fixtures in a park-like setting. You'll find at least 4 dining options in Graeagle/Blairsden and another four in Quincy. Do not spend any more time than absolutely necessary (say about five minutes, unless you're waiting for someone to pick you up) down the canyon in Belden. It's a dump. Very bad, creepy vibes to the compound. Nothing in the store of value. No lodging to speak of. Iffy restaurant. You'll probably be wiped out by the hot and dusty descent into the canyon. Suck down a couple beers and get the hell out of town quickly. Much better to hitch 20 minutes up-canyon to Quincy and live right. If the Gold Pan is full, there's also a decent backup motel directly across the highway from it. Both are at the northwest end of the main drag. Everything worth seeing in Quincy is within walking distance of these two motels. The most far-out spot you may need to walk: The grocery/drugstore complex is six or seven blocks to the southeast. Avoid the Round Table in this strip mall. Not hiker friendly at all.

Chester is outrageously overlooked as a trail town. The fact that it's not in the town guide is an oversight that deserves to be corrected. It's an easy 10-minute hitch in from the trail on 36. And the Chester Manor Motel is one we'd highly recommend for value. Avoid Benassi's and the St. Bernard Lodge for dinner. (Mediocre, overpriced food at the former and a litany of service problems at the latter.) You'll find other options for Mexican and basic roadhouse food right on the main drag. The Tastee-Freeze has a very large menu of inviting yummy, greasy things you'll regret you ate sometime around 2 a.m.

The Coyote Grill at the Hat Creek Resort in Old Station was the only game in town last year. You may hear of other restaurants in the "other" Old Station a couple miles to the north of the resort. We never found either of the restaurants there to be open. And one was definitely shuttered for good. Uncle Runt's and the Rimrock may still be in operation but they just didn't align with our schedule. Figure to get into the Coyote early in the evening for dinner.

In Burney, the Shasta Pines Motel is strongly recommended. As is the Rex Club for dinner. Another good dinner choice is the Outpost, immediately adjacent to the Shasta Pines. This is a very worthwhile town stop after the hell of Hat Creek Rim and before the hell of Section O. Don't skip it and don't skip the Safeway on the main drag.

In Dunsmuir, the Rail Park Resort and its restaurant are both expensive and strongly recommended. But they are separated from the town's main drag by a long stretch of I-5. (They're one exit to the south, between Dunsmuir proper and the Castella/Castle Crags exit.) The B&B is highly praised by many thru-hikers. It, too, is reportedly no bargain. If you are tempted to try the ultra-cheap cabins at the Cave Springs Motel on the north side of town, ask to look at one before you sign on the dotted line. Ours was very scary.

In Mt. Shasta City, we always stay at the Treehouse, directly off I-5. And we always eat at the Piemont, a classic old-school Italian dinner house to the south end of town. The Piemont is a local institution. Not uncommon to see a lot of social table-hopping among families who have known each other for two or three generations. Very warm and inviting service. Tip them well. The other old-line Italian dinner house which was equally welcoming was Mike and Tony's. Only ate there once, but we'll be back. When it comes to caloric replacement and value-priced red wine, you're not going to beat these two. Anyone who chooses the hippy-dippy, new-age places in Shasta City when they could be inhaling this chow has a screw loose.

In Etna, the legendary B&B and its hiker hut is apparently out of business as of early 2004. The Etna Motel has only 10 rooms , so better reserve early. There are two decent restaurants directly across from the motel. Plus the brewpub and one other restaurant (reportedly good for lunch) on the main drag at the south end of town. Etna is a dream of a town, with everything from a small full-service grocery to a drugstore and hardware store. Worth the hitch down the hill, regardless of whether the B&B is operating. The motel reportedly will accept hiker boxes.


Jumping WAY ahead, in Bend, Deschutes Brewery and Bend Brewing Co. for casual dining are both excellent. And Pine Tavern for something a bit more special -- such as a birthday or anniversary -- is also a sure thing. The Riverhouse is the finest motel for 100 miles around, and a good value to boot, right on the Deschutes.

In Cascade Locks, the CharBurger is not cheap. But it really hits the spot. Expect to be spending a lot of time in this cafeteria-style place overlooking the bridge. Expect to spend a lot and go away deeply sated. The Best Western in Cascade Locks is reportedly the only "non-scary" motel option in town. (This is gleaned from several journal entries over the years.) An alternate lodging option east up the Gorge is the Hood River Inn for those who want to take advantage of broader dining choices and support services (full grocery and outfitters) in Hood River.

I will continue to add to this file as I walk. Right now, my plan is to do roughly Dunsmuir through central Oregon in 04. Please feel free to write me with any questions at dave@emeraldlake.com.

David Plotnikoff
Special Projects Coordinator
San Jose Mercury News
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