Venturing Back into the Woods, Toddler in Tow

Sophia enjoys a snack on our cabin's ample, elevated front porch.

My husband Bruce scoffed “that’s not camping” when I suggested we could gradually ease back into our pre-child camping habit by staying in one of Lassen Park’s new Manzanita Lake cabins. He balked, but Bruce also jumps at any chance to escape Redding’s heat for the cool quiet of Lassen Volcanic National Park. He quickly agreed that a “quasi-camping” experience in a cabin would be permissible, especially since it would be the first time trying an outdoorsy overnight with our toddler daughter.

I’ve written about our little 2-year-old escape artist before. Sophia is a master at climbing out of her crib, and she’s never slept in a sleeping bag. Nor did we adults want to attempt to sleep in a cramped tent with a squirmy toddler. A cabin was the only realistic option.

So we packed up the Rossling and headed east on Highway 44. After an easy hour’s drive from Redding, we pulled into the park’s Manzanita Lake camping area. Visitors bicycled lazily around the campground. Children laughed and played tag on a downed tree. Even the scent of pine trees and campfires seemed to whisper a welcome: Take a deep breath. You are now on vacation.

We checked in, got the key and climbed wood steps to the kind of wide, shaded front porch Bruce has always dreamed of having. The porch, elevated several feet, offered a view of the lake through moss-hugged tree trunks.

Looking toward Manzanita Lake, the view from our campsite at sunset.

Single bunk beds in a 2-room cabin.

Inside, our sparely outfitted cabin smelled wonderfully of fresh-cut planks. It featured only bare essentials: a small rustic table and two chairs, a mirror, a rail shelf (narrow, but high enough to keep sunscreen out of kid reach), a gas heater, and tall windows with mini-blinds, letting in plenty of natural light. A standing broom-and-dustpan set was a thoughtful addition; a few coat hooks would have been useful, as well as a small cupboard or more shelving.

The tiny bedroom included two bunk beds (one double mattresses at thigh level, opposite a single bed; single beds perched above each, reached via metal ladders). Sleeping bags and pillows, as well as a camping kit, including stove, can be rented. And our 2-room cabin had an interior door, of course — very handy for not disturbing a sleeping child while we were in the main room.

One bunk includes a double bed below, a single bed (not shown) above it.

Showers and restrooms with flush toilets were a brief walk away near the campground’s entrance and general store; pit toilet outhouses were scattered throughout the campsite.

But Sophia didn’t care about the cabin or its amenities. Within minutes, she was outdoors, gleefully barefoot and covered in black soot, having used the slanted campfire grill as a mini ladder into the fire pit. I started to wipe her off (further smearing her) until my husband reminded me that this was camping. Sophia was supposed to get dirty.

And then it dawned on me — we had actually made it. The Rosses were camping again!

Families like ours, whose children are a bit too young for tent-sleeping, find the site’s 20 cabins very appealing, said Sue Fischer, manager of Manzanita Lake Camper Store and Camping Cabins. But the cabins have also attracted folks who are done with sleeping on the ground and prefer one of the cabins’ bed-height mattresses (I found the padding quite comfy; Bruce did not. The plastic-y exterior and hard wood frame underneath reminded him of dorm living.) Fischer said she’s booked multiple family reunions, an older group of women from Arizona who like to travel, and larger groups that need a few cabins.

Cabins felt comfortably spaced from each other.

“It just really speaks to people who wanted the camping experience but couldn’t afford the RV or trailer,” Fischer said.

One woman booked at Manzanita specifically because the cabins don’t have electrical outlets. She wanted to unplug her kids from their myriad entertainment devices, Fischer said.

Overhead lighting also won’t be found inside, though a lantern is provided. Our daughter loved carrying the light around and putting on her pajamas by its glow. We even used its dimmest mode as a nightlight for Sophia — once the sun went down, the cabin’s interior was pitch black.

The sun’s setting also put an instant chill on the outdoors, so I was comforted knowing that Sophia was sleeping warm within four walls. Meanwhile, Bruce and I cuddled close to the campfire outside, as late as we pleased, before creeping into the cozy heated cabin ourselves. At almost 6,000 feet elevation, Lassen can get quite cold at night, especially if a wind kicks up. I was secretly very grateful that our daughter was too young for a tent!

Plus, the campsite’s plentiful bear boxes reminded me of all the sweet-smelling yogurt tubes and graham crackers that we parents now constantly travel with. Perfect bear bait. I have long been afraid that I would accidentally lure a wild beast right into my tent. But again — four walls equaled one relieved mama.

Naptime: The best time for a hike. Bruce poses with a sleepy Sophia at the trailhead.

Speaking of bears, I had never seen one in the wild. During our Lassen stay, Bruce and I strapped Sophia into our backpack carrier and set off for a beautiful hike up the Manzanita Creek trail. We were having a grand time and had headed back when we heard a strange, loud chorus of … crickets? birds? alien spacecraft? … coming from behind a small rise. We reversed course to check it out, and discovered a large pond that must have been brimming with frogs — we don’t know how many, because they all fell eerily silent and out of sight once we crested the rise.

So we plunked ourselves down on the bank and tried to get really quiet so the frogs would start singing again. Tell a toddler to speak softly and you’ll get a stage whisper loud enough to wake the back row of the Cascade Theatre. Bruce and I were cracking up over Sophia’s “hushed” exclamations of “HEAR ONE?! HEAR a FWOG?”

Then we heard a noise in the brush on the opposite bank, about 60 feet away. We thought a large bird, maybe an egret, was thrashing around. But no — a large black bear waddled down to the water, taking our breath away. We stammered to each other and tried to point out the bear to a confused Sophia (“Where’sa fwog? Where’sa FWOG??”). And then, two roly-poly little bear cubs tumbled down the bank, chasing each other like animated balls of fluff.

Just as soon as the cubs appeared, the mama bear heard us (well, let’s be honest, she heard Sophia), and grunted a warning that sent the babies scampering back out of view. Then she sat sentinel in the shade of a tree, patiently waiting for us to move along.

Eventually, we did, but it was hard to tear ourselves from such an incredible sight. We even got Sophia to spot the adult bear. (“Is a DOG,” she corrected us.)

Single-seat kayaks can be rented for $14.25/hr, doubles $19.75/hr, or for half- and full days. Life jackets are provided, including for tots as small as 30 pounds. For most visitors, an hour is perfect, and offers this view of the peak.

Back at our campsite, before roasting hot dogs and cooking s’mores, we introduced Sophia to the child’s important task of wood (stick) collection for the fire. Although, I have to admit, we felt a little sheepish about forgetting matches. One of our kindly neighbors gave us some. (I have to point out that I felt like the cabins’ picnic tables and fire rings were a good distance — I’m guessing 40-50 feet — from each other. At some campgrounds, you’re practically sitting in your neighbors’ laps. Or you’re “separated” from them by a meaningless hedge. At Manzanita, you can certainly see and hear your neighbors, but not uncomfortably.)

In the wee hours of the morning, when Sophia woke up crying at god-knows-how-early, I was again glad for the cabin’s four walls — for our neighbors’ sake. They didn’t hear a thing as Sophia fussed, whined and wiggled from her travel bed to the bare floor to my bed to between her mom and dad, back to the floor and then, finally, onto the opposite side’s bunk. In daylight hours, Bruce and I had thought that bunk’s height would be a fall risk for our toddler. At o’dark thirty, I think I mumbled something like, “Don’t fall out, kid,” and dropped back to sleep myself. By morning, she was still there, intact and sound asleep, fortunately.

I’d say that’s a second vote for the comfy mattress.

All the same, I was just tired enough in the morning to not want to set up our camping stove, wait for boiling water and run it through our travel coffee filter setup. Bruce walked down to the general store and brought me back a paper cup of hot coffee with a plastic lid, gently chiding me for how far I’ve stooped as an outdoors woman.

Hey, it may not have been “camping,” but sometimes you gotta transition into these things slowly.

Manzanita Lake’s cabins are open through Columbus Day, Oct. 11, and will re-open in mid-May. The cabins have been fairly well booked this season, but pockets of days remain available and cancellations occur. Three cabin sizes are available:

– A 1-room cabin. Sleeps two. $57/night
– A 2-room cabin. Sleeps five. $81/night
– A bunk house. Sleeps eight. $81/night

For more information, see Candace Brown’s story on the cabins, visit LassenRecreation.com or call manager Sue Fischer at (530) 335-7557. From November through April, phone (530) 200-4578. 

Kimberly Ross is managing editor of aNewsCafe.com and a longtime Northern California journalist. After 10 years reporting news for the Redding Record Searchlight, she is now the proud at-home mama of one crib-climbing, chicken-chasing toddler. Kimberly grew up in San Jose and graduated from Chico State University as managing editor of The Orion student-run newspaper. She loves hiking and bicycling with her husband Bruce and daughter Sophia, and secretly imagines people could be impressed by her zumba moves. Reach her at kimberlyr.anewscafe@gmail.com.

A News Cafe, founded in Shasta County by Redding, CA journalist Doni Greenberg, is the place for people craving local Northern California news, commentary, food, arts and entertainment. Views and opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of anewscafe.com.

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is on aNewsCafe.com's board of directors and is a longtime Northern California journalist. After 10 years reporting news for the Redding Record Searchlight, she is now the proud at-home mama of one crib-climbing, chicken-chasing toddler. Kimberly grew up in San Jose and graduated from Chico State University. She loves hiking and bicycling with her husband Bruce and daughters Sophia and Lucia.
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