History, adventure, chic western towns and gold: You’ll find them all in California’s Calaveras County.
As we drove to California Gold Country, between Lake Tahoe and Yosemite, I was wowed from the get-go: a vivid landscape of golden-hued hills, grazing cows, a bounty of vineyards and picture postcard historic towns.
What was less obvious is the gold found beneath the earth. in 1848 the news of gold nuggets in those hills brought over 300,000 prospective miners and merchants to the state and changed it forever.
Well-preserved Gold Rush towns offer shopping and wine tasting in the Calaveras County
Murphys has gone from boom to bust, and drowsy and to chic. It has retained the charm of yesteryear, but added 28 wine tasting venues, several good places to eat and boutiques with artisan products, antiques and three specialty stores of children’s clothing.
Down the road from Murphys, we stopped at Ironstone Vineyards. This must-visit winery features stunning architecture, plush gardens and 14-acres of extensive grounds and fine wines. Open daily, sip in the tasting room, dine at the bistro, catch a bite at the deli, peruse the museum, and or shop at the jewelry boutique (home of the 44-pound crystalline gold piece located in a huge vault). Ironstone is well known for its outdoor amphitheater and summer concert series that have featured entertainers such as Justin Moore, Toby Keith, Counting Crows, Train, Styx, REO Speedwagon and more.
Historic Angels Camp boasts one of the most picturesque historic downtowns in Gold Country and it’s worth a stop to stroll down the main street.
There’s no better way to get an overview of the California Gold Country “Boom” that begin with the 1849 Gold Rush than to visit The Angel’s Camp Museum. The standout exhibits include scale models of mining machinery, colorful stagecoaches, and a covered wagon straight out of Laura Ingles Wilder’s book Little House on the Prairie. “It’s impossible to walk around this area and not be on top of a gold mine,” Jim Miller, a historian and museum guide told us. “I have a friend in his mid-80’s who is still prospecting in dry riverbeds. The old miners didn’t get all of it,” he added.
Angel’s Camp, the hub of Calaveras County, is best known for the Jumping Frog Contest described by Mark Twain. The four-day Jumping Frog Festival takes place the third weekend in May. Fun exhibits at the museum include the frog jumper coaches, their techniques (including a frog spa) and the winners. My favorite champion is seven-year-old Bria Heintz, whose special techniques were her big grin and enthusiasm.
Another not to be missed little gem is the Calaveras County Museum on the historic Main Street of San Andreas. The museum includes the courthouse and jail where the notorious stagecoach robber Black Bart was tried, jailed, and escaped. There’s an outstanding Miwok Indian exhibit with artifacts and photos.
Sleepy little Mokelumne Hill was one of the richest gold mining towns in California in the mid-1880’s. The legendary Hotel Leger saloon will draw you in with its stunning mahogany bar hung with antique stained glass and is usually packed with friendly locals who want to talk.
We stayed a night in the reputedly “haunted” Hotel Leger in one of the 13 antique-filled guest rooms. It was built in 1851 to house prospectors during the Gold Rush and it has kept its creaking floors, thin walls and a reputation for a visiting ghost. Earplugs are provided in each guest room to muffle sounds. As the written explanation in our room explained, “Whether it’s the rumble of a Harley, fellow guests conversing or Live Music coming from the saloon on weekends.” The earplugs were useful.
What’s new? From ghost town to boom town.
Accommodations in the Gold Country are limited, so a new modern hotel in Copperopolis is welcome news for visitors. Copperopolis was a booming copper mining town in the 1860’s. Today it is an up-and-coming destination for golf, tennis, fine dining, and luxury homes. The Quail Creek real estate development company rebuilt the town square with specialty boutique shops, restaurants, residential lofts and a gazebo for summer concerts. A Porsche and two Tesla’s were parked around the town square, an indication of changes in the area’s demographics. New single-story homes border the 18-hole championship Copper Valley golf course.
After checking into the brand new 29-room Gateway Hotel located in the center of town, we slipped into plush bathrobes and soaked in the hot tub next to the large pool. The modern hotel is also dog and Tesla friendly with 8 recharging stations. At the nearby Golf Club Vine18 Restaurant we indulged in tobacco crusted filet, blackened tilapia and chocolate molten lava cake.
The great outdoors. Raft, hike or spelunk
The next morning, we headed for Calaveras Big Trees State Park to hike through two groves of giant Sequoias, the world’s largest trees. The State Park, located near Arnold, offers a campground, picnic areas and miles of hiking, biking, snowshoe, and cross-country trails in winter. The trail cut through a mixed conifer forest dotted with the bright yellow autumn leaves of Mountain dogwood trees. In the spring these trees burst into white blossoms.
For an Indiana Jones-like adventure don’t miss Moaning Caverns, located outside the town of Murphy. Our cave tour guide, Haley led the way to a hole in the earth where we climbed 235 feet down a narrow spiraling iron staircase in semi-darkness. The vertical chamber of the cave is so big it could hold the Statue of Liberty.
Once we were deep into the cavern, Haley informed us the staircase we had just descended was welded and constructed in the cave 99-years-ago from metal salvaged from a World War One battleship. As we sat on a rock platform in the 10-million-year-old cavern, Haley turned off all the lights and left us for a short time in the pitch-black darkness. I thought of the miners in the 1880’s who descended with ropes and candles to search for gold. What happened if their candle burned out? They never found gold in the cavern. And I thought of the 12,000 years old human skull found in a pile of bones nearby. Using a powerful flashlight, Haley pointed out massive stalactites, stalagmites, and formations with names like “Screaming Skull.” Spelunking tours are also available, but the climb down and back was enough for us to put our fear of heights to the test.
The sinuous Stanislaus River carves its way through the forests and foothills of Calaveras County. In early spring, you can join an OARS rafting trip for an adrenaline-infused whitewater adventure on the river near Murphys, California.
Sip and Taste
The newly opened Hinterhaus Craft Distillery and tasting room attracts a trendy crowd on Highway 4 outside Arnold. In the tasting room we settled into Adirondack chairs by the fireplace to savor a flight of handcrafted spirits. The whiskey, bourbon, gin, anorak, and vodka are earning accolades and winning awards. Liquid gold in California Gold Country.
Change is on the way
“Since the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve seen a huge upsurge in visitors, and we’ve seen a lot of people decide to reside in Calaveras County. With our broadband and local services, people who can work from home have migrated into the foothills. It’s natural that people would want to live with the Sierras literally out their back door,” explains Martin Huberty, Executive Director of the Calaveras Visitors Bureau and Film Commission.