Summer in the Mother Lode features a fine blend of everything fun: historic sites, plenty of water-related recreation, miles of hiking trails, wine tasting, music and dining. Visitors come to the foothills and higher elevations to relax amid nature’s best scenery, and they get to enjoy lots to do in most every town scattered across the area.
From jumping in the lake to marveling at impressive natural wonders or sipping beverages with music playing, there is a lot to keep residents and visitors exploring the area.
By Patricia Harrelson
The glass and chrome facade of the Visit Tuolumne County office is not the anticipated storefront for an agency promoting the county’s Gold Rush community. But the sleek appearance of the Washington Street visitors center announces a millennial approach to all that our county has to offer.
Inside, a polished wooden floor and handsome graphic displays enhance the crisp, contemporary feel. Mackenzie Rogers, the digital content coordinator for the visitors bureau, warmly welcomes guests. Her job title alone underscores the agency’s contemporary vision regarding what visitors want, and Rogers has a ready answer to the main question: “What can I do around here?”
Initially, she directs folks to places in the downtown Sonora area, such as the Tuolumne County Museum. Housed in the former jail built in 1866, the museum provides a taste of old time Sonora. Rogers hopscotches from there to other more contemporary happenings.
“I tell them about Second Saturday Art Night and, of course, our great array of fashionable restaurants, Emberz, the Diamondback and Yoshuku, the ramen house.”
The Tuolumne Adventure Trolley is one of the more recent additions to things to do. The free service provided by Tuolumne County Transit provides transportation every Saturday in a triangulation that reaches out in three directions from downtown Sonora. Like similar conveyances in big cities such as San Francisco and New York, you can get on and off the trolley at predetermined stops along the way.
What’s your pleasure? A Dragoon Gulch Trail hike followed by a train ride at Railtown 1897 State Historic Park? Maybe you want Starbucks coffee at the Junction Shopping Center and then a trip to town to stroll the farmers market. Hop on the trolley at Courthouse Park and head to Columbia State Historic Park for the day. The trolley accommodates each of these options from 8:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturdays, May through September.
“We came to town to check out the farmers market,” explained Kelly Mollner and Stacey Bolding, who are from Salinas. The women spent Father’s Day weekend with their families in a cabin in Twain Harte owned by Mollner’s in-laws. Their daughters each held small bags from shopping at the Candy Vault. When asked about their plans for the rest of the weekend, Mollner said, “We’re going to Twain Harte Lake and Cover’s Apple Ranch.”
“Visitors often ask, ‘Where is the closest lake?’” noted Rogers.
A beautiful map on the wall of the visitors center features nearby New Melones Reservoir, Lake Don Pedro and Lake Tulloch, as well as Pinecrest Lake.
“If there are teenagers, I suggest Pinecrest because there is something for everyone,” Rogers continued. “Plus, it’s cooler up there in the middle of the summer.”
In addition to a lovely beach, the Pinecrest Marina rents kayaks, paddleboats, sailboats, motorboats and party boats. The National Forest Service runs interpretive programs throughout the summer, presenting campfire programs, nature walks, children’s activities, music and storytelling, live animal presentations and puppet shows, and leads craft projects. If you are camping nearby, the Pinecrest amphitheater plays movies almost every night at 8:30 from Memorial Day through Labor Day.
Bring a picnic to the beach to enjoy after the kids play in the water. You can get ice cream cones at a snack bar, or head to the Steam Donkey Restaurant and Bar for a delicious meal. When the Soap Creek Lumber Co. was dismantled, the original lumber was used in the rustic restaurant, which also features logging artifacts as decor.
A word of caution regarding Tuolumne County lakes: There are a number of private lakes, like Twain Harte Lake, that are only open to homeowners; and Beardsley Reservoir, east on Highway 108, is inaccessible because the access road suffered extensive damage during storms in 2017. The road is not expected to reopen before 2021. However, because of Pinecrest Lake and lower elevation reservoirs, water play is available in abundance.
According to Rogers, visitors also ask about local trails. The U.S. Forest Service has maps and suggestions galore, but another wonderful resource is the Tuolumne County Trailheads, an informal group that began as a Facebook page to help hikers find each other and locate area trails. The group has since morphed into a radio show and blog.
Inveterate hiker Wendy Hesse, who started the Facebook page, organizes hikes on the first Saturday of each month. These hikes take place rain or shine. I have hiked with the group in the rain on Peoria Flat to the back of New Melones Dam and to the top of Table Mountain early one March morning after a low-elevation snowstorm. The day I hiked with the trailheads to Cooper Meadow was the day the Donnell Fire started. A month later, we hiked to the top of Pinecrest Peak, which replaced the scheduled hike to Disaster Creek because that was smack dab in the middle of the fire area. From the summit, we saw smoke-congested skies to the north and south while we rested in fairly clean air atop the peak, compliments of Hesse’s careful research regarding a viable hiking option.
Hesse hosts a bimonthly radio program that includes an interview with someone knowledgeable about the history or natural features of each upcoming hike. The program also features sound-bite reviews that she tapes out on the trails by asking hikers to speak about the three Ts: “What was tough, trippy or tremendous?”
She writes the Trailhead blog, which includes pictures from out on the trail as well as other hike-related information. The blog provides previews of routes you might want to take. Check out the Facebook page, blog archives and radio show for great hiking ideas. And if you are so inclined, heed Hesse’s invitation: “Meet us at the trailhead.”
Back at the visitors bureau, Rogers mentioned other places that pique visitors’ curiosity, like Columbia State Historic Park and Moaning Caverns just across the county line in Vallecito.
“They also want to know how far it is to Yosemite. I usually refer them to YARTS.”
The Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System takes passengers from the Mother Lode into Yosemite National Park. Many people, including residents, find the bus removes the challenge and stress of driving into the picturesque valley, so the beauty of the journey comes into full focus. The bus runs seven days a week and picks up passengers at Black Oak Resort in Tuolumne, California Inns in downtown Sonora and Rocca Park in Jamestown, as well as several other stops.
“Another thing people ask about is wine tasting. We used to send them to Murphys, but we have a wine scene of our own now,” Rogers exclaimed. “There are two tasting rooms in Jamestown –Inner Sanctum and Gianelli Vineyards.”
Inner Sanctum also recently opened a venue at the former Columbia Nursery. Eric Davis and his son Gardner plan to open the Independent Wine Co. later this summer on Washington Street in the space that held Tululah’s. The new establishment will house a wine bar and small-plate eatery. And Schnoog’s Cafe hosts Schnoogs@Night, where patrons gather to enjoy wines, craft beers, nibbles and good company.
A bit of wine tasting is a nice complement to a day of hiking a forested trail, boating across an expansive lake or exploring a historic or geographic site. As the chic Visit Tuolumne County office foretells, a dash of millennial flavors the natural beauty and antiquity of Tuolumne County nicely.
By Mike Taylor
Whether it’s history’s favorite memories or cool places to chill out over the summer, Calaveras County offers a cornucopia of activities sure to keep us busy when the temperature rises. Several museums offer interesting places to delve into those historic tales from the Gold Rush days in the county, if the plethora of lakes doesn’t help you keep your cool.
Visitors to the county usually stop by Angels Camp, since it’s centrally located and Highways 4 and 49 meet there. On Main Street in downtown, thousands of people stop by the Calaveras Visitors Bureau office and shop each year. Martin Huberty, the executive director who started just a few weeks ago, says he’s been amazed by the number of people who inquire about what to do when they arrive.
“The majority of people are asking about the outdoors,” Huberty said.
He admits that most people have a visit to Calaveras Big Trees State Park on their dream itineraries, but places like Natural Bridges and other spots along the Highway 4 corridor are popular. He said visitors bureau staffers are always looking to be able to refer travelers all over the county, not just to Angels Camp and Ebbett’s Pass.
Huberty said that foreign travelers lately seem to be from Europe, Canada, Australia and England, but that’s just a sampling of the signatures found in the guest book in the visitors center.
Huberty previously worked in film production in Hollywood and elsewhere (he was a co-producer on the 1991 film “Fried Green Tomatoes”), and said that he appreciates how good Calaveras County looks on film. He hopes to revive the local film commission as soon as he gets settled.
He credits Lisa Boulton, who preceded him in the executive director’s role, with helping Calaveras County gain a much more visible virtual footprint. He said that as many as 80,000 copies of the “Calaveras Experience Guide” are sent around the world to would-be travelers each year.
“I really want to maintain what Lisa built; keep the momentum going” Huberty said.
Just north of the visitors bureau, the Angels Camp Museum offers a terrific glimpse into the city’s past, with more than just knickknacks and artifacts on shelves. The museum has a large collection of carriages and there is even a former stamp mill set up on the 3-acre site.
From Angels Camp, guests make the decision to head east and up the hill to the Ebbetts Pass area, where miles of hiking trails and creeks and lakes dot the landscape. Calaveras Big Trees State Park attracts thousands of visitors each year who come to check out some of the oldest living things on the planet, the giant sequoia trees. Some specimens are older than 3,500 years. Officially considered “discovered” by Augustus T. Dowd in the Calaveras Grove, giant sequoias had been reported before Dowd’s 1852 discovery as early as 1833, but earlier reports of the largest living things on Earth didn’t gain as much publicity as Dowd’s did.
Just outside Arnold, in White Pines, the Sierra Nevada Logging Museum offers a deeply descriptive exploration of the industry that once fueled the Mother Lode’s progress. Detailed working models demonstrate sawmills and much more at the site that also boasts lots of logging apparatus and a Shay locomotive that once plied the foothills delivering timber.
North from Angels Camp on Highway 49, San Andreas, the county seat, features two big museums dedicated to the county’s past. The Calaveras County Museum on Main Street and the Red Barn Museum on the Government Center campus on Mountain Ranch Road, are both managed by the Calaveras County Historical Society.
The main museum features the county’s original jail and the courthouse where storied stagecoach bandit Black Bart was tried. It also includes the facade of the old Double Springs Courthouse, which served as the county’s first governmental meeting hall, and relics from numerous families that have been donated to the historical society.
The Red Barn Museum is dedicated to the machinery that settlers used in the county. A full butcher shop is on display, and several pieces of mining and logging equipment are inside and out, showing how machines helped tame the wilderness, mine for gold and harvest timber and more.
Wineries also find visitors knocking on their doors in areas of Calaveras from the elevation at Murphys and below. And while Murphys features the greatest number of wineries, there are more scattered across the county. Tasting rooms attract oenophiles to Murphys, Vallecito, Angels Camp, Mokelumne Hill and other parts of the county.
When the sun really turns up the heat, Calaveras County features several caverns that promise cool temperatures mixed with interesting history and more. Moaning Caverns in Vallecito is perhaps the best-known, and it offers a pair of zip lines that swoosh guests along the Stanislaus River Canyon.
Mercer Caverns outside Murphys and California Caverns outside Mountain Ranch immerse guests in the past as they explore geological formations that take thousands or millions of years to create. A miner named Walter Mercer spent a hot summer toiling for gold in 1885, and when looking for new digs, he discovered a cave that had several skeletons inside. The discovery of the cave and the bones created a huge local sensation.
Mercer erected a house near the entrance to the cave and started to conduct tours. People paid 50 cents to undertake the strenuous two-hour tour. He called his cave the New Calaveras Cave, meaning the new place of skulls. In addition to the human remains, the fossilized skeleton of a large animal was found, initially thought to have been a bear. They were later determined to be those of a giant sloth.
Mercer built ladders and stairways in his cave, but when exploring the cave, he sustained an injury that was believed to have hastened his early death a few years later. His family continued to operate the caves until it was sold in 1946. The new owners changed the name to Mercer Caverns.
California Caverns were originally known as the Mammoth Cave. In the early days of the Gold Rush, Capt. Joseph Taylor was target practicing and noticed his targets moving in a breeze. He soon discovered that the breeze came from the ground, from a cave. Within the year he opened the cave for tours and the visitors came from far away to check it out. A summer vacation to the Big Trees often included a trip to visit Mammoth Cave.
Back then, visitors often carved their names onto the cave’s walls. Later, when spelunkers had carbide miner’s lamps, guests burned names or other inscriptions onto the delicate walls of the cavern. These inscriptions are windows into the cave’s past; practices frowned upon today as it damages the cave’s geology.
The main chamber of this cave system is so large that miners reportedly gathered inside to conduct town business and escape the summer heat. The cave was also used to hold dances, religious services and even weddings. There was even a saloon inside. The nearby mining camp was understandably called Cave City.
Mark Twain and John Muir visited this cave. Muir was so impressed that he mentions them in his 1894 book “The Mountains of California.”
Between 1910 and 1980, Mammoth Cave was abandoned. It was later bought by the Sierra Nevada Recreation Corp. and the name was changed from Cave City to California Caverns. This site is the oldest concession for a natural attraction in the state.
If the caverns don’t cool visitors and residents off, then visits to Calaveras County’s lakes surely come into play. See the reservoir sidebar to jump into the water!
Dine and more in Amador
By Scott Thomas Anderson
Soft jazz, sizzling clams and the ring of wineglasses fill the air on the Bistro 49 patio. Wearing a wide, teal sunhat, Maureen Funk slips through the elbows and chairs of a midday lunch crowd. Overhead is one of those blue, Gold Country skies that make breezy summer afternoons almost feel like spring. And on this vista in Jackson, people soak in that brightness, every table filled with faces sipping white wine and craft beer under lime-colored umbrellas.
Funk knows Bistro 49 is one of Amador County’s most bustling new lunch spots.
A self-described “culinary laboratory,” this gastro pub-style kitchen serves items like gulf shrimp pasta, garlic-tinged seafood linguini and avocado and mango fish tacos. The menu can be paired with the bistro’s high-end brews and thoughtful selection of wines from the Shenandoah Valley.
Settling down to catch up with Funk, I order the Key West Cubano sandwich. It’s advertised as a stack of house-braised Mojo pork drenched in melted Swiss cheese and spread with sharp Cuban mustard. Partly because I’ve never seen anything like it on an Amador menu before, and partly because I desperately miss drinking in Key West, Florida, I order and ask for a glass of Terre Rouge Rose to compliment the sandwich. There is just one catch; the Cubano comes with pickles, which I consider to be maybe the only proof in the universe that the devil truly exists. Our waitress is easy-going about it; she tells me that getting the chefs to nix the pickles won’t be a problem.
A stellar response for a stellar afternoon.
Bistro 49 is the brainchild of chefs KC Brown and Rodney Morris, well-traveled culinary veterans who have cooked at restaurants of every size in Sacramento, Lincoln, Reno and Palm Springs. Their Key West Cubano is hot, tasty and unique. It’s a home run to be sure, and many of Bistro 49’s inventions earn rave reviews on social media.
That’s a good sign for Funk. She stays up-to-date on the area’s culinary developments because, as executive director of the Amador Council of Tourism, it’s her job keep day-trippers and world travelers aware of what the county has to offer.
Last year, ACT celebrated its 15th anniversary. Community leaders found it a good time to reflect on just how much Funk and the board of directors have done to help sustain Amador’s fragile rural economy.
Having shadowed Funk during the IPW Conference in 2016 – one of the largest travel summits in the nation – I know firsthand how effective her presentations on the Gold Country are to travel agents from England to Belgium. She made those pitches in New Orleans. In June 2019, Funk was back at the IPW Conference, this time in Anaheim, to capitalize on the chaotic opening of Disneyland’s new Star Wars: Galaxy’s End theme park. But before Funk could even think about that, she and her partners at tourism bureaus from Nevada to Mariposa counties spent May teaming up with Visit California to bring 35 international journalists to the Mother Lode.
With local experts as their guides, the reporters experienced kayaking, hiking, fishing, wildflower photography, motorcycle riding, whitewater rafting and memorable evenings at the region’s legacy hotels. Funk led a delegation of the globe-trotting writers on a wine-tasting and food-pairing expedition through the Shenandoah Valley, before touring them through the Kennedy Mine, whirling them through the Amador Museum and getting them gourmet pub grub at Brickhouse Brews in Jackson. After that, Funk showed the crew around the Knight Foundry and ended the evening under the stars at the Imperial Hotel.
Funk says that luck and the Gold Country’s spirits were with her. And, unexpectedly, so were Amador City’s quirky group of ukulele fanatics.
“When we got to the Imperial, the Ukeamaniacs were out playing on its front patio,” Funk recalls with a smile. “It was a magical, perfect kind of Amador day. I thought to myself, ‘How did this happen?’”
But the truth is, it was Funk who made it happen.
Since then, stories and social media posts about the Gold Country have started to appear in France, China, Italy, Demark and the United Kingdom. Due to publishing schedules, that will likely continue throughout the year. Funk thinks she knows what elements of Amador County really connected with the visiting writers.
“They got to see that the history is really intact,” she said. “And not just gold panning. That’s one piece of it, but here in Amador, we also have the Knight Foundry, the (Kennedy Mine) tailing wheels and the story we can tell about how the Kennedy Mine influenced Jackson. Those are all very cool narratives and they bring a three-dimensional touch to the Gold Rush history.”
“We’ve moved the needle on visitation,” she added. “Five years ago, we had a goal of coming to $150 million in tourism sales, and we hit that goal this year.”
But places like Bistro 49 are where Funk’s woman-around-town expertise helps Amadorians figure out where to spend their time. Most people who are into good food, live music and flowing libations rate Funk’s opinion above any would-be critic in the county. And Funk says that developments in the past two years mean what’s really hot for locals this summer is the emerging food scene.
“There’s a culinary trail in Amador now,” Funk said. “People think of us as only being historic, and having these diner-type restaurants, and we have quite a bit more than that. We’ve evolved.”
Highlighting the evolution is the arrival of the Little Wine Bar in Amador City and Bistro 49, Brickhouse Brews and the Blue Door Bakery in Jackson, not to mention continued excellence experienced at Taste in Plymouth and the Union Inn in Volcano. New bars have also opened this year, including Jackie’s Hideaway in Jackson and the Ione Public House.
Funk feels Amador’s culinary resurgence is fueled by new blood and fresh ideas.
“It’s exciting to see these young people starting to take on the dining scene and rock it,” she said. “As we progress, our young people have been coming back home and opening new businesses inside historic spaces. Their projects are fresh and exciting, and I love how they’re changing the culture in each of our little downtowns right now. They’re helping us get to a place where we’re evolving, but still maintaining our area’s beauty and a sense of who we are.”