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Drakesbad Guest Ranch

04/24/2018 11:00AM ● By Sandie Tillery

Mountain Peaks

May 2018
By Sandie Tillery
Photos Courtesy of Drakesbad Guest Ranch 

HIGH IN THE EASTERN mountains of far Northern California, a hidden treasure awaits present-day explorers who want to relax and rediscover a simpler way of life for a short while. It’s not easy to get there, but the long journey on a dusty, bumpy back road ends in a picture-perfect setting with rustic cabins nestled in a lush high mountain valley. Drakesbad Guest Ranch has been a vacation destination for many return guests whose families have grown up looking forward to their trek into the back country of Lassen Volcanic National Park.

Drakesbad traces its roots to Edward Drake, an explorer and pioneer of the late 19th century who had acquired 400 acres and settled in what was known as Hot Springs Valley. in 1900, Drake sold to new owners, Roy and Ida Sifford and their family, who had visited the area to enjoy the healing properties of the natural soda waters of “Drake’s Spring.” The Siffords renamed Hot Springs Valley Drakesbad (meaning Drake’s bath) after its founder. They developed it into a guest ranch with rustic accommodations. Hot springs, horseback riding, friendly camaraderie and solitude have attracted people for over a century.

In 1958, the Sifford family sold the privately held property to the National Park Service. It is now run as a concession within Lassen Volcanic National Park. For more than 40 years, California Guest Services has employed seasonal workers from around the world. They help maintain the property and serve guests with the attention to customer service and protection of the environment that was the passion of the original owners.

Through the years, facilities have been rebuilt, upgraded and expanded. They renovated the bathhouse near the thermal spring pool last year. In recent years, more accommodations have been added with their own bathrooms. But most guests don't mind the walk to the bath house, a plunge in the soothing hot springs pool that is cooled some for daytime use and warmed for a luxuriating nighttime spa. With zero air pollution at that elevation, the night sky lends a certain romance to the whole experience, according to Michael Han, regional vice president of California Park Service. They now offer fine dining at dinner and a variety of choices for breakfast and lunch served buffet style.

Han oversees the Drakesbad concession, visiting the ranch often. “Drakesbad resonates with folks who want to disconnect,” Han says. “There is no wifi or TV, no power in most of the rooms. They spend time in nature without mainstream connections. They relax, pick up a sense of themselves, something that is important to those who recreate in national parks.”

Ed and Billie Fierbiger joined the staff as camp hosts in 1990, coming from a strong background in hospitality services and management. They served together in their seasonal positions for 21 years until retiring in 2011. Billie managed staff and reservations, overseeing the kitchen and menu planning. Ed wrangled horses and managed the ranch and upkeep on the facilities. His favorite role, however, was helping serve guests during meals, getting to know them and looking forward to their return in years to come. They made friends with the guests, many of whom, according to Han, returned because of the Fierbigers’ welcoming hospitality.

Drakesbad is a designated Pacific Crest Trail “Trail Angel,” a stopover for hikers to rest, relax and replenish supplies. Fierbiger has been inspired by their dedication to make the long trek and has met some remarkable people. Fierbiger reflects on the value of the close friendships formed between the guests and staff throughout the years, among them current ranch hosts, Nick and Zuzana Smith.

Nick stopped over while packing with mules along the Pacific Crest Trail. He stayed for a couple of weeks, sleeping in the hay and helping around the ranch while one of his mules recovered from an injury. Smith loved the place enough to join the staff, where his love story began with Zuzana, who came from Slovakia to work for two summers. In time, they married and signed on in 2016 as ranch hosts. “After all these years we can truly say that Drakesbad guests and employees become our family and every year we look forward to reunite with all of them and meet the new ones as well.”

This year’s season runs from June 8 to October 8. Reservations for this idyllic mountain retreat fill quickly, but early and late season reservations may still be available. Horseback riding and meals can be scheduled for day visits as well on the website. The entrance to the ranch property comes in from Chester on the south end of Lassen Volcanic National Park, a beautiful drive from everywhere. •

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