In these times when many people lead such hectic lives that they can’t manage to get away for a week’s vacation, what makes so many families spend their scant free time returning to Drakesbad Guest Ranch in Lassen Volcanic National Park year after year? When my husband Ralph and I were invited to stay there recently, I thought it was just another lodge among many where we could enjoy some R & R. Once there, I quickly learned why this place holds such a special place in so many people’s hearts. While we enjoyed the opportunity to hike during the day, to show up for gourmet meals at the appointed hours, and to soak in the thermal hot springs at night—I knew that those activities did not define the appeal of Drakesbad.
One night I spent a couple of hours in Drakesbad’s lodge—a rustic two-story building with guest rooms upstairs and a large common room downstairs. There was plenty to keep anyone occupied downstairs—a huge stone fireplace with split firewood nearby, board games and cards, Lincoln logs and Legos, and books. I was attracted to a large table piled high with scrapbooks and photo albums. I flipped through the Pacific Crest Trail log book. I enjoyed reading the entries that mentioned stopping at this halfway point of the trail for a fine soak and meal. “Dirt monger” wrote, “Best spot on the trail.”
Although historians know something about Edward R. Drake, who had been a trapper and guide before settling in this part of the Warner Valley in the late 1800s, it was the Sifford family, who spent sixty years there, that left behind a wealth of family and local history for all to enjoy. I studied photo books filled with old pictures of their family and friends, ranch employees, and guests. Scrapbooks were crammed with letters, journals, and newspaper clippings yellowed with age. From these pages, I read, “Brown bear tore off the wall of the kitchen suppose he smelled meat.” “Spoiled—tough. The bruno [sic] tore wall from kitchen chased our waitress. After meeting, Zora teeth chattered.” It was noted elsewhere that the bruin later had to be killed.
I flipped through the pages of a photo album created by Ruth Wilson (1914-1996) who came to this area of the park every year from 1963-1996 (except two years that Drakesbad didn’t open). She mentioned that she had met many wonderful people here. Ruth obviously loved nature and documented the wildlife that she saw—the California Sisters, the birds (grouse frequently) the killdeer eggs, and bears. Another album, filled with photographs of wildflowers and with botanical observations, was assembled by Lynn Armstrong after cataloging Ruth’s extensive work.
I read about Dream Lake. Dream Lake was a man-made lake that was within easy walking distance of Drakesbad. It seemed that everyone loved hiking over to it, borrowing the small canoe that was tied up to the dock, and spending hours boating and fishing. As I continued reading, I ran into newspaper articles about a controversy that arose when the National Park Service, in its efforts to make things historically correct, decided that the lake had to be allowed to revert to its natural state. Although Dream Lake still shows on some maps, it now is more of a swampy area than a lake. Undoubtedly a few long-term visitors still miss it.
After the Siffords sold Drakesbad to the National Park Service for inclusion in Lassen Ntl. Park in 1958, concessionaires took over management of the ranch. For more than 20 years, co-managers Billie and Ed Fiebiger continued the tradition of hospitality at Drakesbad. When they retired at the end of the 2011 season, they thought it was for good, but it didn’t take long for them to realize how much they missed working in the park, and they returned to manage the Lassen Cafe and Gift shop at the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center.
Still interested in what Drakesbad means to people today, I decided to ask a few people in the dining room. When I asked a group of eight women, who appeared to be in their 40s-50s, what had brought them here, I learned that one of them was a member of a family that had been coming to Drakesbad for 40 years. I talked with an older couple, who said that they had celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary here joined by all of their children and grandchildren. This year, they were here to celebrate their 58th anniversary.
I talked with the current managers, Pat and Valerie, to learn about their observations while running the lodge, Pat summed it up, “People come here, meet another couple at dinner and enjoy their time so much that before they even leave, they all make reservations to return the next year. There’s a group of four families that has been coming up here for fifty+ years. Three generations of one family has been coming up here for 71 years.”
Pat helped me understand how Drakesbad is unique, “After all,” he said, “there are other places that are beautiful and have great hiking. It’s the fellowship that sets it apart—and the traditions.”
Drakesbad, like other lodges and historic places away from home, has not been immune to downturns in the economy and changing travel patterns. However, they have been proactive about attracting families to come. According to Pat, reservations are up and some of those increases are likely due to his innovations: kids stay free (specifics online here), free wine tastings before dinner (giving guests a place to mingle and meet) and hiring an activities’ director to run a full range of kids’ (including toddlers) activities: archery, fishing, star-gazing, crafts, and campfires with S’mores.
Whether you are a hiker or an armchair traveler, Lassen and Drakesbad Guest Ranch are well worth the effort of getting there. Drakesbad, as is the case with the much of Lassen National Park, has a relatively short season, but reservations can be made year round by phone: 866-999-0914 or online.
Susan “backpack45” Alcorn enjoyed being a guest of concessionaire California Guest Services in September 2013.