Monday, April 29, 2013

A Mother Lode weekend

On a glorious spring weekend, we took advantage of the unexpectedly nice weather for a weekend getaway to the Mother Lode.

Close to our house, California State Route 4 is a commuting artery, funneling fleets of suburban workers into Silicon Valley each day. Farther east, route 4 winds through the Sacramento Delta, and then across some of the richest farmland in the country.

But as you follow route 4 east of Stockton, it enters the foothills near the Civil War town of Copperopolis, and soon rises above the valley floor. From this point, route 4 is one of the most beautiful highways in the country, if not in the world.

At 4,300 feet, Arnold, California is the last town of any size on route 4. It has a supermarket, a hardware store, and the very fine Arnold Black Bear Inn, our home for the weekend. The Black Bear Inn is a beautiful facility, and Wendi and Bruce were superb hosts.

Arnold is about the same elevation as the Yosemite Valley, and slightly closer to the Bay Area than Yosemite is, so it's about a 3 hour drive from home.

Unless you leave during the worst of the Friday afternoon rush hour, in which case you get an extra 45 minutes or so of conversation time with your wife at 8 miles an hour. Which isn't so bad, if you're not in a hurry.

And we managed to get to Arnold in plenty of time to check in and grab a late dinner at the SnowShoe Brewing Company.

Saturday morning, after a wonderful breakfast, we were off "up the hill" to Calaveras Big Trees State Park. The park is home to two groves of California's Giant Sequoia Redwoods, the most magnificent trees you'll ever see.

Immediately inside the park you'll find the parking lot for the North Grove. Grab a couple water bottles and a comfortable pair of shoes and get out of your car! The self-guided nature trail through the North Grove is one of the nicest nature trails I've ever been on. It is wide and well-marked and gentle, a glorious 1.75 mile loop through the trees, suitable for a fast-paced 45 minute power walk, or, as we took it, a delightful 1.5 hour meander.

The Calaveras groves are located at the northern end of the Giant Sequoia's range, so these trees are somewhat smaller than the more famous groves in the National Parks to the south, but these trees are still remarkable. The nature trail booklet does a great job of educating visitors about the trees and their (human) history, and also includes some great tidbits; for example we were tickled that the guidebook described the highly unusual Snow Plant that we saw next to the path: entirely red, the Snow Plant does not contain chlorophyll and performs no photosynthesis, instead manufacturing its energy in a symbiotic relationship with underground fungi.

When you're finished wandering among the trees, climb back in your car and head further into the park. The park road crests slightly over 5,000 feet, then drops a remarkable 1,200 feet in just over a mile down to meet the North Fork of the Stanislaus River.

This is one of the most beautiful rivers in the Sierra Nevada (which is really saying something!), and the State Park road brings you right to the river's edge. Park in the lot next to the bridge and take any of the 5 sets of stairways down to the river side. Unpack your picnic, find a nice shady rock, and the next 90 minutes will pass like the sweetest daydream you've ever had.

After our lunch, we made our way back out of the park and decided to continue exploring "up the hill". Although we didn't have time to make it all the way to Ebbett's Pass, we did manage to make the 45 minute drive up to Bear Valley Ski Area, located at the 7,000 foot elevation.

This has been an extremely light winter in the Sierras, and the ski resort was already closed for the winter, dark and quiet. There were just enough patches of snow on the shady side of the road for us to stop and make a snowman, and then we headed back down the hill to Arnold. The Black Bear Inn makes a delicious afternoon cheese plate, and we joined the other guests in the common room for a wide-ranging discussion about absolutely nothing at all.

Sunday morning, after Wendi & Bruce's signature Pecan-encrusted French Toast, we packed up and headed down the hill to Murphys, California, one of the most famous of California's Mother Lode towns. Mid-morning found the town quiet and not-quite-yet awake, so we decided to start our day by visiting nearby Mercer Caverns before we lost our nerve.

People have been touring Mercer Caverns for 125 years, but the caves are still in very good condition, carefully tended to by the tour guides and staff. Differently from many cave tours, a Mercer Caverns tour is nothing but stairs: 440 stairs in total, equivalent to climbing down 20 flights of stairs and then back up 20 flights of stairs. The tight surroundings require the guides to take visitors down in small groups of 8-10, but allows each group to view the marvelous underground rock formations at close range; many of the most remarkable formations are just inches away!

Once we were done with the exhilarating tour, we were ready to take it easy, so we headed back to town to stroll down Main Street and soak up the atmosphere. I enjoyed a visit to the Old Timers Museum, with a wonderful docent and the great E Clampus Vitus Wall of Comparative Ovation.

Murphys was one of the most active Gold Rush towns; the diggings were so rich that claims were limited to an 8 foot by 8 foot parcel. Several buildings still standing in Murphys date back to the pre-Civil War days, and Murphys Hotel in particular claims many a historic visitor.

We found much to see in Murphys: we particularly enjoyed our visit to the Spice Tin, where we picked up several dry rubs and some curries and fragrant spices; and we spent quite some time sampling the custom Balsamic Vinegar infusions at Marisolio before deciding on the Fig Balsamic (a close winner over the Blackberry/Ginger Balsamic).

Our shopping urges fulfilled, we picked up sandwiches from the Alchemy deli and headed down the road to nearby Chatom Vineyards, a most pleasant winery with a fine garden and delightful shaded picnic tables. Chatom is perhaps not as well known as several other Murphys wineries, but we thought it was an excellent place and well worth the visit.

It's hard to pick any particular favorite from the weekend, but one thing is for sure: after spending three decades in California and somehow never managing to make it up scenic route 4, I'm sure that this visit won't be our last!

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