Can’t decide if you would rather kick back and sip wine, or get a shot of adrenaline zip-lining over a forest? You can do all this and more in Calaveras County on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada.
Calaveras County offers some of the best the foothills have to offer, from a pleasant day of wine tasting in Murphys to adrenaline-packed escapades at Moaning Cavern Adventure Park. This scenic area includes high alpine vistas, giant sequoias, ranchland and chaparral while the hamlets along Highway 4 draw you in with history, charm and a range of dining options from casual to upscale.
Ground central for wine tasting is the attractive, laid back town of Murphys, with more than 15 tasting rooms, many in historic, architecturally interesting buildings, bordering Main Street and beyond. Founded in the 49er gold rush of the late 1800’s, Murphys is enjoying a renaissance of sorts with the burgeoning interest in California wine. No dusty ghost town, Murphys is a vibrant town filled with boutique shops, cafes, restaurants, and a large dose of history.
Zinfandel is popular in the area, thriving as it does in the warm climate and a favorite libation of the gold rush miners, but you’ll also find the newly popular Malbec, as well as Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc at Stevenot, Milliaire, Newsome-Harlow and Wild Heart Winery tasting rooms. In addition, some less common Spanish varietals like Carinena, Albarino and Tempranillo can be found at Metate Hill Winery. Several wineries, including Black Sheep and Stevenot, offered chilled sparkling wines, the perfect antidote to a warm, summer day. The Calaveras Winegrape Alliance organizes events throughout the year, including the annual Passport weekend
Moaning Cavern Adventure Park, located in Vallecito, near Arnold, offers much more than the usual cave tour and gold panning, which are fun and educational by themselves. The park has expanded to include offerings that appeal to adventure junkies, first installing two parallel, 1,500 foot zip lines that zing guests high over the forest. This became so popular they added a radical cave rappel, where thrill seekers can lower themselves on ropes down the side of the 165 foot main chamber of Moaning Cavern, a unique sport that is sure to elevate your heart rate. For those who don’t suffer from the least bit of claustrophobia, a 2 hour cave-crawl is offered, where spelunkers suit up in orange overalls and crawl on their belly through twisting, narrow tunnels.
There’s no shortage of nature in Calaveras County, which contains the Stanislaus National Forest, Mokelumne Wilderness and Carson-Iceberg Wilderness. A portion of the Pacific Crest Trail treads near Arnold.
Calaveras Big Trees State Park features some fine examples of Giant Sequoia Trees, the world’s largest trees, found only on the western slopes of the Sierra. Some of the trees, thought to be up to 2,000 years old, grow to a towering height of 325 feet, supported with massive 33 foot trunks. Gazing way up to the tops of the trees from the base is striking, but not as impressive as when you view a mighty fallen Sequoia and walk the length of it, or stand upright in a hollow core. One base of a tree felled in 1852 has been used at various times as a dance floor and a pavilion, while a bowling alley was constructed on the length of the log. Well-marked trails take you on short strolls or longer hikes through groves of Sequoia and aromatic incense cedar.
In addition to the many restaurants in Murphys, nearby Arnold offers a range of eateries as well. Casual dining options include the ever-popular Snowshoe Brewing Company, which has anchored Arnold since 1995. Patrons enjoy tasty burgers and fresh Mexican food in a spacious bar and dining area adjacent to the large, steel fermentation tanks where the freshly brewed wheat, brown and pale ales are handcrafted. Burgers are about $10, while other entrees range up to $20.
Fine dining can be found up the highway from Arnold at the Sequoia Room Restaurant, which is open to the public, at Sequoia Woods Golf Course. A romantic setting can be found in the chic restaurant featuring expansive views down the fairway flanked by thick pine forests. The sophisticated menu offers toothsome choices including grilled salmon with lobster mashed potatoes and prime rib. A calamari appetizer demonstrated the creativity of the chef, being served with a chipotle dipping sauce, generous helping of fresh ginger and a side of vinaigrette-tossed greens, the flavors of which melded together perfectly. The roasted rack of lamb, encrusted with pungent mustard, was juicy and tender, accompanied by delicately fried baby spinach that melts in the mouth and fluffy mashed potatoes. A refreshingly California-centric wine list included a wide range of the best of the state, from locally produced wines to examples from better known Napa, Sonoma and Central Coast vintners. Prices were reasonable, starting at $21 for a bottle of Rosenblum Zinfandel, though they spiked to a heady $180 for an Opus I Cabernet Sauvignon. Entrees range from $14-26.
Lodging in Arnold is available at the Timberline Lodge, a comfortable, rustic building with rooms that may have a tree trunk adding architectural interest, or a free-standing wood stove. Rates are affordable at $79-$179.
In Murphys, a variety of charming, historic, modern or rustic accommodations are available, including the romantic, Victorian Dunbar House, featuring a full country breakfast served in the dining room, garden or your own room. If you’d prefer a serene, out of the way location the Milfiore Country Retreat, a restored farmhouse surrounded by welcoming porches and gardens offers peace and quiet.
There’s no shortage of things to do in Calaveras County, and in fact the challenge might be to narrow down the choices for a weekend getaway. The area has a lot to offer, from sophisticated lodging and dining, to an exploration of the nearby wilderness, and is sure to inspire a return visit.
To reach Murphys and Arnold from San Francisco by car (approximately 2 hours, 45 minutes, depending on traffic and weather):
- Take the Bay Bridge east on I-80.
- Take the Highway 24 exit to I-580 east.
- Take I-205 east toward Tracy and Stockton.
- Take Highway 4 east toward Highway 99 toward Stockton and Angels Camp.
- Take Highway 99 south.
- Take the Farmington Rd exit onto Highway 4.
- Arrive in Murphys.
- Arnold is about 3 ½ miles further on Highway 4.
See related articles on Moaning Cavern Adventure Park: rappelling and ziplining.
The support of the Calaveras County Visitor’s Bureau is gratefully acknowledged for hosting a visit.