‘Skull’ County getaway

Posted on April 22, 2008 – 5:04 PM | by OldManFoster
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by Tim Foster and Liv Moe

On a recent Saturday we loaded up the dog and some camping supplies and headed for Calaveras County. Less than two hours away from Sacramento, this leg of the gold country offers a seemingly never-ending series of small Gold Rush-era towns, hiking spots, swimming holes, and State Parks. Calaveras means “skull” in Spanish, and legends range widely about the origin of the name—it’s safe to say that somebody somewhere found a skull (or two) and the name stuck. Realizing that one day was not enough for the trip we decided to book a camping spot and spend the weekend in the foothills.

After pitching our tent at an RV Park just outside Angel’s Camp, we headed up Highway 49 (nicknamed the Mother Lode highway) to the town of Columbia, which was celebrating its 62nd anniversary as a state park. Governor Earl Warren designated Columbia a State Park in 1945, even naming it the state capitol for the day. The town boasts a humble but well-preserved main street, including the most surviving Gold Rush-era brick buildings of any town in the state. Most spots along the main drag held special displays in honor of the day, including a classic car show, BBQ feed, and various historical demonstrations.

Columbia is unique in that it is a State Park, and a functioning town. After taking in the Columbia Museum we wandered into Columbia Booksellers and Stationers where we met Floyd Oydergaard who was dressed in 1940s gangster threads in honor of the occasion. We purchased a copy of The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County and picked Floyd’s brain about local history. He filled us in on the occasion for our arrival and told us about Ezra Dane, a noted author, historian and onetime resident of Columbia.

After leaving Floyd we headed over to the Lick Skillet, which was the only restaurant open, and fortunately for us, delicious. We were seated in a garden area on the side of the restaurant that was quaint in a sitting-in-your-parents-backyard kinda way. We got the fettucine alfredo which was pretty standard but well prepared, and a chicken dish which boasted homemade sausage and market fresh veggies. The crumbled bits of sausage were done perfectly, and were interspersed with several layers of grilled chicken atop a bed of vegetables, and drizzled with a light brothy wine sauce. Yum! Following dinner the server informed us that a peach and berry clafouti was being offered for dessert and we pounced, ordering it with a glass of Sonora port. The combination was wonderful with sweet moist peaches, tart berries, and a spicy port to cut through.

We finished dinner just after 8pm in time to wander out onto a street crowded with music and dancers. Each year on the anniversary of Columbia’s park-hood, a 1940’s style big band sets up in the middle of town for a concert, and locals and non-locals alike dance the night away. The old timers in their folding chairs lined the streets to watch the young’uns cut a rug. The combination of young and old, tourist and local was pretty touching and everyone was clearly having a great time.

For the rest of the evening we wandered, taking in the St. Charles bar, built in 1862, Browns Coffee House and Sweets Saloon, and the “What Cheer” Saloon, which was noticeably fancier than the St. Charles but, strangely, less interesting. Feeling like we had taken in as much as we could in one evening we headed back to camp for a fire, a card game, and sleep.

One lesson to learn here: campsites in the Gold Country fill up fast in the summer, so be sure to plan ahead. Instead of camping in one of the area’s several State Parks, we ended up in an RV park that was christened ‘the butthole’ within minutes of our arrival. Not exactly scenic, it was at least clean and well-cared for and boasted of being the one-time home of a prize-winning Jumping Frog.

We began the next day on main street Angel’s Camp, picking up some java at the Koffee Knook and then heading north to Mercer Caverns, which was the inspiration for this weekend away. We’d stumbled across a Mercer Caverns brochure earlier in the summer, and realized that a 55 degree cave made for a perfect summer getaway destination. Be warned, though: the Gold Country in the summer is about as hot as the valley, so if you are traveling with a dog, shade is prime real estate. The parking at Mercer Caverns is shaded only in the morning so come early and bring extra window shades if you travel with a pet. And, there’s a bonus to showing up early—the first tour of the day is usually the least crowded, too.

Walter J. Mercer thought that he had literally struck it rich when he discovered what he thought was a lost gold mine in 1885. He staked a claim, and only when he brought a geologist to investigate, learned that he had actually found a limestone cave and not a gold mine. A consummate ‘lemons to lemonade’ man, Mercer began bringing tourists in only 11 days after he discovered the caves! Mercer led tours of the caves for three years after his discovery, until a near fatal fall prevented him from going inside again. Afterwards he continued to sit outside the 16 story deep cavern for another 12 years until his death, collecting money for tours.

Cavern tours last about 40 minutes, but it seemed more like ten. There are so many strange and fascinating sights in the caves that the tour group, us included, was wide-eyed the entire time. The tour guide interspersed the natural history of the cavern with Walter Mercer’s story and kept the small tour group (even the teenagers) enthralled. The trip down, and then back up, 16 flights of narrow stairs is not for the clumsy or the lazy, and claustrophobics might not care for some of the tighter spots. As corny as it sounds, we emerged feeling like we’d found a treasure.

Spelunking can conjure up quite an appetite, so after a quick trip through Mercer’s gift shop we headed off to Murphys, a little town brimming with many of the things this region has to offer. Murphy’s main street has a history museum, a grand old hotel, and a bar like many off the gold rush towns we had already traveled through. However, the sites were better preserved and the historical attractions were mingled with some less standard establishments such as an outstanding bakery, several wine tasting rooms, art galleries and an Italian deli

We found some shade for the pooch and begin heading into the heart of town when we were confronted with the “Wall of Ovations.” Erected by Bay Area artist William Gordon Huff, the Wall of Ovations recognizes noteworthy members of the E. Clampus Vitus fraternity (known as ‘Clampers’) as well as historical figures who have helped to make our state what it is today. Inspecting the wall’s many terracotta plaques we again stumbled upon Ezra Dane, who, along with Carl Wheat, and Leon O. Whitsell, revived the Clampers, founding the Yerba Buena chapter in 1931. A fraternal society focused on California history and hell-bent on thumbing their noses at more exclusive societies like the Masons, the Clampers are still active today, erecting plaques at points of historic interest throughout the state. Oh yeah, and drinking.

The Wall of Ovations sits on the side of The Old Timer’s Museum, begun in 1950 by Ethelyn and Coke Wood, boasting a nice collection of artifacts and displays on local history. After the momentary distraction we resumed our search for food and ended up at the Murphy’s Motel, built in 1856 and housing a number of rooms which still contain period furniture and fixtures. Once again we opted for patio seating and enjoyed a delicious meal while relaxing in a cool redwood grove.
After lunch we grabbed a cupcake at Aria Bakery, checked out the museum again and stopped in at The Art Gallery. Local artist George Allen Durkee was like many Murphys locals—a Bay Area refugee who had abandoned the rat race to come looking his little slice of paradise. His bright impressionist paintings revealed an assured hand, and his choice of subject—generally junkyards—was plainly close to his heart. We talked art and just as we left he tipped us to go see Ironstone Vineyards’ 44lb gold nugget. Yup, forty-four pounds.

Wine tasting had been on the to-do list all weekend and we were enthusiastic about this little detour on our way out of town. Less than a mile off main street Murphys, Ironstone is more than just a vineyard. It’s also an amphitheatre—Lynyrd Skynyrd was playing the night we were there—which should tell you all you need to know about the wine. Out of the seven or so tastes we had, the Obsession was by far the favorite. A light dessert wine made from a grape developed at UC Davis in 1972, the Obsession was slightly sweet and very clean, and also quite affordable.

After you finish sipping, head across the walkway towards the winery’s history museum (i.e. gift shop) and inside a gigantic vault, you will find the nugget. Discovered in 1992 just outside of Jamestown, the nugget was mind-bogglingly large. One of the other tourists made the unsubstantiated claim that Ironstone had bought the beast for $5,000,000 soon after its discovery. We had to make sure someone was in the photos with it, because otherwise you wouldn’t believe how big it is.
Having now seen the biggest nugget in the Gold Country, we headed to our last stop for the weekend. Calaveras Big Trees State Park is located about 11 miles outside of Murphys on Highway 4. The park is beautiful and the perfect way to end a busy trip.

Calaveras Big Trees has been a tourist spot since shortly after loggers discovered this grove of ancient redwoods in 1852. Sadly, the best-known feature of the park is a stump. Once the largest tree in the grove, (and the largest living thing in the world) it was cut down in 1853 so the bark could be removed and used as a traveling display. A pavilion was built on the stump and it was used at various times as a dance hall and bowling alley. Today it is bare, a reminder of the magnificence of nature and the absolute stupidity of man.

After stopping to marvel at the stump we headed for the North Grove. The easy hike takes about 45 minutes and passes through most of the Park’s main attractions. Conveying exactly how massive these redwoods are is easy: just imagine a skyscraper made of wood. Many are so big that you can’t see the tops. If the size of the trees isn’t enough to inspire awe, their age may. Many of these trees are over two thousand years old!

From the North Grove we drove deeper into the park and stopped at the Stanislaus River to dip our feet and relax before heading home. Unfortunately, there was no swimming to be had at this spot as the water moved too fast, but the multitude of fisherman pulling in their catches provided plenty of entertainment.

Wending our way home on Highway 49 we were struck by how much this section of the Gold Country has to offer and how close it is to Sacramento. We were especially struck by the incredible variety of offerings—everything from spelunking to hiking, fine dining to wine tasting, exploring history to art—and we didn’t even stick around for Lynyrd Skynyrd!

For more information check out: www.parks.ca.gov, www.mercercaverns.com, www.visitmurphys.com

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