Calaveras County: A Place for all Seasons

Flower-lined path draws photographers and visitors at Ironstone Vineyards.
Famous for its annual Frog Jumping Contest, frog sculptures are popular all over Calaveras County. This frog musicians display is on view at Ironstone Vineyards.

When it comes to year-round activity, Calaveras County, a 2 ½ hour drive from anywhere in the San Francisco Bay Area, has it all. Truly a place for all seasons, this is where outdoor activities, wine tasting, fine dining and just plain “fun in the sun” thrive. Here in the Sierra Nevada Foothills, you’ll find more ways to unwind than you can shimmy in your swimsuit. And to unwind any time of day, the county’s prize-winning wineries beckon. One thriving community with the unique moniker of Murphys boasts more than two dozen wine tasting venues along its downtown promenade. Take in its art galleries. Attend live theater events. Or stroll through its green community park with its bridge-covered creek and shaded picnic tables. Add in free summertime concerts and snow season skiing, the county welcomes visitors in all seasons.

On our first morning in Copperopolis, we joined the Gold Rush Tour Company knowing that their agenda would allow us to experience so much more than we could on our own. Our day began with time in the tall trees.

A Giant among Giants, Calaveras Big Trees State Park.

Giant sequoias are a major draw in the county and Calaveras Big Trees State Park contains two groves of these treasures. During the recent pandemic years, city dwellers seeking solace have flocked to the county. The sequoias have been a prime draw. Once in their midst, I could feel that sense of peace and comfort that so many others have sought. Giant sequoias, the largest living beings to ever exist on earth, line the trails in the park. They seemed to give a sense of guidance as I wandered the curved trail so generously watched over by these ancient guardians. John Muir wrote about this very grove calling it “a delicious resting place for the weary.”

Along the way, Martin, our guide, pointed out placards at the base of sequoias indicating their distinct characteristics. One majestic old tree, named the Empire State, is likely the largest giant sequoia in the North Grove. Another spectacle titled The Siamese Twins contributes to these treasures’ unique personalities by merging two trunks so close together they appear to be one tree. As the main trail meandered through the various smaller groves in the park, we learned from Martin that these gentle giants –here for about 3,000 years–were not discovered until 1852. Trees live very different lives than we do. Yet, they greatly affect us and we affect them.

Picnic area under the sequoias.

Because the park is open practically year-round, I found myself time-traveling forward to a season when a light snowfall might glisten on the branches of these beauties as the morning sun warmed the trail. A future visit was already in the works.

Wine Tasting and More: Moving on, we climbed back on board the Gold Rush Tour Company’s van for our next milestone at Ironstone Vineyards, the Big Daddy of Calaveras County wineries. In many ways, one could call it the area’s theme park with its incredible gardens, dynamic calendar of live musical concerts, and Old West Museum with its massive chunk of crystalline gold on display. Add in a fine jewelry shop that highlights local gemstones, both casual and fine dining venues, and its annual Wine & Art Festival. It’s easy to see Ironstone aims to please.

A female goddess sculpture graces Spring blossoms in one of the many flower gardens at Ironstone Vineyards.
A Gold Rush miner statue greets visitors at the entry to Ironstone Vineyards.

The Ironstone Amphitheater Live Music Events: Concerts at the winery’s amphitheater are staged in a horseshoe-shaped venue with five-tier seating where performers entertain on a 2,520 square-foot elevated stage. Because of its design surrounded by natural beauty in an outdoor setting, this is a place where music lovers can experience that feeling of really “being there.” Plan ahead for the upcoming performance of the incredible Brad Paisley World Tour 2022, scheduled for later this year.

The wines at Ironstone reflect the diversity of offerings from the Lodi and Sierra Foothills Appellations. By emphasizing the practice of Sustainable Viticulture, Ironstone Vineyards conserves water use, builds healthy soil, and helps maintain the surrounding wildlife habitat. Be sure and take in a tasting at the wine bar and in the caves.

Tastings in the Caves at Ironwood.

The Town of Murphys: The good folks at Gold Rush Tour Company did not miss a beat with our next stop. For a time after the gold rush ended, the town of Murphys slipped into an economic downfall. Today, refreshed and reinvigorated, its treasure trove of historic buildings and Victorian homes interspersed with wine-tasting rooms lines its vibrant Main Street. I visited the historic Murphys Hotel in the heart of downtown where a lively saloon and separate full-service dining room have flourished since 1856. Because I stopped by on a Friday when clam chowder, one of my all-time favorites is on the menu, I decided to give it a try. Creamy and delicious, crammed with fresh-tasting clams, onions and potatoes, the dish definitely could hold its own against its Cape Cod rivals.

Dining and lodging in downtown Murphys at the Murphys Hotel.

More wine tasting: Be sure and stop by one of the many tasting rooms on Murphys’ Main Street where you can enjoy quality locally produced wines. Often the owners and vintners are on board and more than pleased to share stories of the county’s wine culture.

Live Music in the Park: At the edge of Main Street, The Murphys Community Club holds musical events on the first Friday of the month from June through the beginning of September. And those aren’t the only musical events hosted there. The Calaveras Arts Council also presents their annual Music in the Parks series which includes the Murphys Community Park. Bring a blanket, pick up snacks at a nearby bakery and watch the kids swim and splash in the creek. A spacious playground and picnic tables are spread around the grounds.

Murphys Community Park in downtown Murphys, CA

Jumping Frogs: Near Murphys, the town of Angel’s Camp is famous for its annual Jumping Frog Contest, based on Mark Twain’s short story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras.” One of the longest-running fairs in California, this four-day event draws participants from not only all around the country but also around the world. Schoolkids and grown-ups in different categories bring their best jumpers to the competition. While in town, stop by the Angels Camp Museum for its outstanding exhibits of colorful vintage stagecoaches, mining tools, and covered wagons.

Along with the the annual Frog Jumping Contest, a parade also takes place at Angels Camp. Here, a boy gives a High Five during the festivities. Photo courtesy of Calaveras County.

Where to Stay: The Gateway Hotel at the Town Square in Copperopolis offers a touch of luxury and an immediate immersion into the character and history of the Gold Rush Era. The hotel overlooks a tree-shaded park-like setting where outdoor concerts host jazz, blues, rock, and classical performances for locals and patrons alike. The town’s main street looks as though it’s been plucked straight out of an Old West feature film. Despite its movie set appearance, it’s a working downtown with a full-service gym, a medical center, a local tavern, chic shops, and friendly eateries.

Copperopolis town park gazebo. Outdoor music events are held here in the Town Square across from the Gateway Hotel.

Outstanding Dinner: On arrival in Copperopolis our first afternoon, we checked into the Gateway Hotel before heading to the nearby Golf Club at Copper Valley. The club’s lakeside Vine18 Restaurant has recently brought in acclaimed Jaime Alderate as Executive Chef. Between pairings, Chef Jaime stopped by our table to chat and share his culinary passion. Because we had joined a Winemaker Dinner, several regional vintners were present that evening. About the time our entrees arrived, greetings were exchanged, folks mellowed out and before we knew it, these raconteurs were sharing tips and tidbits about where we might enjoy the best local tasting rooms. Good food and wine served beautifully in a magnificent setting seemed to foster neighborliness and new friends. Wowed by our superb dinner and wine pairings, I couldn’t deny the final indulgence of a classic French lemon Crème Brulee with fresh berries. Our Calaveras County visit was off to a grand start. https://www.vine18.com/restaurant

Truly a place for all seasons, Calaveras County offers history, wineries, outdoor adventure, gardens, and incredible scenery packed into an easily accessible destination. Add in the big trees, warm hospitality, and the family-friendly vibe along with romantic dining options for even more reasons to visit.

IF YOU GO:

Where to Stay: The Gateway Hotel is located in the center of the Town Square at Copper Valley. Outdoor swimming pool, complimentary parking. 101 Stone Street, Copperopolis. gatewayhotelcv.com. Tel: 209–785–2500.

Murphys Historic Hotel and Restaurant: 457 Main Street, Downtown Murphys. (209) 728–3444. The Murphys Hotel, a registered National Historic Landmark, has hosted many famous past guests including Mark Twain, Ulysses B. Grant, and John Wayne. murphyshotel.com

Attractions: Angels Camp Museum. 753 S. Main Street, (209) 736 2963. angelscamp museum

Calaveras Big Trees State Park. Two magnificent groves of giant sequoias. Campgrounds, picnic area, and miles of hiking, biking, snowshoe, and cross-country trails. Interpretive Center. Park Hours: Sunrise to sunset daily. 1170 E. Highway 4 Arnold (209) 334. T795

Ironstone Vineyards: 1894 Six Mile Road, Murphys. (209) 728 1251. ironstonevineyards.com

Calaveras Visitors Center at 209 736 0049. 753 South Main Street Visitors Center Hours 7 days per week, year-round: 10:00 am — 4:00 pm daily, https://www.gocalaveras.com/

Gold Rush Tour Company: www.GoldRushTourCompany.com

Calaveras Winegrape Alliance hosts special events each year including a “Spring Wine Weekend” that sells out quickly. Their website is a good resource for upcoming local wine events. (www.calaveraswines.org ) The Calaveras Wine Alliance’s staff and volunteers excel at pairing wine lovers with the right winery, in some cases providing discount passes.

Some favorite places to taste local wines in Downtown Murphys:

Newsome-Harlow www.nhvino.com 403 Main St., Murphys.

Steveneot Winery www.stevenotwinery.com 458 Main St., Murphys.

Val du Vino www.valduvinowinery.com 634 French Gulch Rd., Murphys.

An earlier version of this story appears on Epicurean Destinations where you can view dozens of award-winning national and international travel destination articles. Visit here: https://epicureandestinations.com/

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Bay Area Travel Writers tell stories through media, old and new — newspapers, magazines, broadcasts, blogs, videos, books, and online publications.

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Lee Daley

Travel writer, photographer, editor, I cover travel, culture, art & architecture. Featured in NY Times. Share the journey at https://epicureandestinations.com