In the 1840s, the lure of gold drew hordes of prospectors to the foothills of California's Sierra Nevada mountains, 133 miles east of San Francisco and 135 miles west of Lake Tahoe. Saturated with authentic gold-rush towns such as Angels Camp and Murphys -- with their raised wooden sidewalks and dusty streets -- present-day Calaveras County is a window into U.S. history, with plucky local traditions like the 5-day Jumping Frog Jubilee the third weekend in May which celebrates the Mark Twain story that garnered the region fame in 1865. Rather than dwell in its storied past, however, Calaveras County is also looking to the future and investing in a new industry: wine making. There must be something in the soil, because a new vineyard or winery seems to sprout here each week, making it a rewarding destination for oenophiles as well as Gold Rush buffs and Mark Twain fans.
Vineyards & Wineries
Calaveras County is quickly becoming California's new wine destination. With 35 vineyards and 23 wineries, the region is fertile and particularly hospitable to wine grapes.
Ironstone Vineyards (1894 Six Mile Rd., Murphys; tel. 209/728-1251; www.ironstonevineyards.com) is more than just a vineyard; it is a full-fledged wine-themed tourist destination. With an outdoor amphitheater, a tasting room and deli, a wine cellar cavern, a jewelry shop and gold rush museum, extensive landscaped gardens, and acres of grape-yielding fields, the complex provides entertainment for everyone. Ironstone offers free daily tours, which include a visit to the cave where the wine is aged and a stop at the Heritage Museum and Jewelry Shoppe (which houses a 44-pound piece of crystalline leaf gold, the largest in the world), culminating with complimentary wine in the tasting room.
In nearby Vallecito, Irish Vineyards (tel. 209/736-1299; www.irishvineyards.net) is a small, family-owned vineyard and winery that makes all of its wines on site. Irish Vineyards makes Malvasia Bianca, a fruity Riesling-like white wine that won the Best of Class prize at the California State Fair, and an apricot wine, a unique semi-dry wine made from 1,200 pounds of split apricots, among many other wines. Twisted Oak Winery (tel. 209/736-9080; www.twistedoak.com), also in Vallecito, has a playful, "twisted" sense of humor -- just look for the rubber chickens hanging from the surrounding trees and you'll understand. Twisted Oak's Tempranillo, a dry earthy red wine that won the gold medal in the 2008 Riverside International Wine Competition, is a standout.
Nearly all of Calaveras County's wineries welcome visitors to drop in for complimentary wine tastings. For more information on wineries or vineyards in the region, call the Calaveras Winegrape Alliance at tel. 209/728-9467 or visit www.calaveraswines.org.
What to See & Do
And then there's the gold. Visitors to Calaveras County are still lured by the prospect of finding some. Local rivers are still teeming with it -- I'm a city slicker, and even I found a few (tiny) nuggets on a gold panning expedition. There are several places to pan for gold in Calaveras, but some people opt to simply grab some panning equipment and head down to the Mokelumne or Calaveras Rivers. To find a gold panning tour guide or to learn more about gold panning opportunities, contact the Calaveras County Visitors Bureau (tel. 209/736-0049; www.gocalaveras.com). Treasure hunters can also pan for gold in troughs at Moaning Caverns (tel. 866/762-2837), Ironstone Vineyards (tel. 209/728-1251), and Columbia State Historic Park (tel. 209/536-1672; www.columbiacalifornia.com), a fully preserved 19th-century gold rush town.
Calaveras County is rich with other natural attractions besides gold and grapes. Big Trees State Park (1170 East Highway 4, Arnold; tel. 209/795-2334) is home to two groves of giant sequoias: the North Grove and the South Grove. The park's gargantuan relics -- which can reach a height of 325 feet and a diameter of 33 feet -- have been around since the age of the dinosaurs, and have been sought out by tourists since a hunter tracking a bear inadvertently discovered them in 1852. Although that discovery introduced the world to the wonder of the great redwoods, it also proved to be detrimental to some of the trees as crowds of reckless tourists flocked to the park to see the forest, destroying the park's natural beauty in their wake. In 1931, the North Grove was designated a state park, and in 1954 the South Grove followed suit, thereby protecting the trees from future visitors.
An easy way to see the redwoods is to meander through the North Grove's level 1.5 mile trail. This gentle trail -- doable even for young children -- offers a type of primer to the park's history and its flora and fauna. These trees can make even the largest person feel Lilliputian -- I stumbled on a pine cone from a giant sequoia that was larger than my forearm. Be sure to check out the "Mother of the Forest," a tree that serves as a cautionary tale against human carelessness; in the nineteenth century, explorers stripped this tree of nearly 60 tons of its bark, which they sent to the east coast and abroad as proof that these monster trees existed. Today, the "Mother of the Forest" still stands, but it is dead and hollow, merely a shell of its former self.
The region is also endowed with miles of underground caverns. Mercer Caverns (tel. 209/728-2101; www.mercercaverns.com) in Murphys is a living limestone cave that was discovered in 1885 by Walter J. Mercer, a gold miner who was lured to the cave's entrance by the shade of some bay trees. Underneath the trees, he found a fist-sized hole in the ground -- that hole eventually became the entrance to the caverns. Mercer Caverns is full of all sorts of geological formations, but its most famous natural formation is the rare aragonite flos ferri; this delicate frost-like mineral deposit won the Grand Prize from the 1900 Paris World's Fair.
In nearby Vallecito is Moaning Caverns (tel. 866/762-2837; www.caverntours.com), which is home to California's largest vertical chamber in a public cave -- it is so large that it could hold the Statue of Liberty. Visitors have the option to rappel down 165 feet of rope into the cavern, a thrilling but terrifying experience. For the less adventurous, there are walking tours that descend into the cave via a sturdy staircase. Moaning Caverns is also equipped with 1,500-feet of twin zip lines; adrenaline junkies can race each other to the bottom of the zip line at speeds of up to 40 miles per hour.
Where to Stay
A few miles from Big Trees State Park, the Arnold Black Bear Inn (tel. 209/795-8999; www.arnoldblackbearinn.com) is a charming bed & breakfast with the feel of a cozy ski lodge. Each of the five guestrooms is equipped with a working fireplace and modern amenities such as satellite TV and two-person Jacuzzi bathtubs. Innkeepers Kirk and Doreen Swanson welcome guests with a gourmet breakfast, such as almond-crusted French toast with fresh fruit, and late afternoon wine and cheese plates. Rates for a double room are $245 on the weekends and $198 mid-week.
Where to Dine
The town of Murphys is the hub of Calaveras County's dining scene. This hip little town is brimming with the tasting rooms of local wineries, many of them within walking distance. There are 11 tasting rooms on Main Street alone, including the Twisted Oak Winery at 350 Main St. and the Solomon Wine Company at 379A Main St. After tasting, visitors can amble (or totter, depending on the amount of wine consumed) over to one of the town's many sophisticated restaurants, which are amply prepared to meet the highly refined palates of oenophiles.
Alchemy Market & Café (191 Main St., Murphys; tel. 209/728-0100; www.alchemymarket.com) offers a vast wine list featuring wines from all Calaveras County wineries. Chef/owner Jason Wright presents creative dishes such as strawberry-balsamic glazed salmon and tropical ahi salad, a chili-crusted ahi tuna salad with watercress, pineapple, and mango. Entrees range from $12-$24. The knowledgeable staff can help diners pair dishes with complementing wines. On Tuesday nights Alchemy has a Winemaker's Night, with live music, a local winemaker, and $5 glasses of featured wines from that local winery. There is also a gourmet market and deli next door for take-out delicacies.
For a more casual and inexpensive meal, Firewood (420 Main St., Murphys; tel. 209/728-3248) serves crunchy thin-crust pizza and has six beers on tap, including brews from the local Snowshoe Brewing Company in Arnold, such as the Grizzly Brown Ale, a local favorite.
Visit the Calaveras Visitors Bureau at 1192 South Main St. in Angels Camp ([tel. 800/225-3764 or 209/736-0049; www.gocalaveras.com). Here, you can stock up on maps, brochures, T-shirts, and all the rubber frogs you desire.
Note: This trip was sponsored in part by the Calaveras County Visitors Bureau.
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