Rolling hills with huge oak trees stretching up to the bright blue skies give way to mountainous forests of ponderosa pine. The largest caverns in California yawn their mouths at the biggest trees in the world. Rushing rivers feed alpine lakes, while kayakers and skiers vie for athletic supremacy. One place shouldn’t have all of this, and yet Calaveras County does.
Calaveras County lies about two and a half hours east of San Francisco, running along California Highway 4. In a single day here, one can experience nearly all of the natural wonder the American west has to offer, just by following that single highway. (You’ll be better off spending two or three days, but you get the idea.) Our day starts in the west of the county, where Copperopolis – a former copper mining town turned golf resort – stands on gently rolling hills dotted with some of the largest and most beautiful oak trees I’ve ever seen. While the summer heat keeps the grasslands brown and the ponds low or completely dry, winter rains turn the area a vibrant green and bring masses of spring wildflowers to an area spattered with natural watering holes in the shade of the old trees. You can even find a schoolhouse dating from the gold rush era to accentuate the landscape.
Continuing east along CA-4, past the gold rush hub of Angels Camp, the marble of the Calaveras Formation lends itself to caverns beckoning for intrepid exploration. Three main caves exist here: Mercer, California, and Moaning. My day led me to Moaning Caverns, so named for a moaning sound echoing out of the narrow natural entrance that led to a number of deaths (centuries ago; don’t worry about safety now, as the natural opening is railed off and inside a building containing the stairs you’ll take). From a single vertical entrance, it is a 165 foot drop to the bottom, and human remains have fossilized in the rock, adding a bit of morbidity to the beauty of the mineral decorations in the cavern. Moaning Caverns is mainly a single chamber, large enough to fit the Statue of Liberty (sans pedestal) standing upright. An hour-long tour will take you down a 100-year old spiral staircase – and yes, back up the same – to experience the dripping of time, water, sediment, and wonder that has had mankind exploring caves for millennia.
Past the town of Murphys, Highway 4 gains elevation quickly, and the scenery changes to pine forest. While the pine is lovely, it hides the gem of California: the giant sequoia. The largest trees on the planet, giant sequoias can grow to more than 250 feet tall, with diameters of 30 feet or more. Photos can’t capture the scale, or the feeling of being so small next to something so large. Few groves of these magnificent trees exist, and Calaveras Big Trees State Park houses some of the largest clusters. The park has two looping trails, the north and south groves. While the south grove is larger, the north grove is more easily accessible, and the loop trail can be done in roughly an hour, passing giants with every turn. It was here in Calaveras County that giant sequoias were originally discovered by Americans – they were known to native peoples for millennia before that – in 1852, and while the groves in Sequoia National Park to the south hold the largest living specimens, the easy access of the groves here makes for the most convenient way to see the wonder of the trees. It is a must-visit for anyone who appreciates the beauty of the natural world.
Highway 4 runs all the way over the high Sierra to the Nevada state line, and for much of its way to the summit, it follows the Stanislaus River. For lovers of fishing, rafting, or just sitting watching the foam of the rapids, the Sourgrass Day Use Area of Stanislaus National Forest is the next stop heading east as you explore the natural beauty of Calaveras County. In the summer, the river is low, cascading over rocks that will be completely covered with the snow melt next spring. I’m not a fisherman, and indeed have never been fishing, but standing here amidst the rush of the rapids, watching the calm river to either side, I can understand the appeal of a day on the river. A fishing pole, or a gold pan, and the cold water paired with a cold drink, and you have all the ingredients for perfect relaxation.
As the highway cuts into Alpine County, the mountainous peaks become the dominant feature. For most of the year, this portion of Calaveras’ neighbor is only accessible from Calaveras itself, as heavy snows close the majority of the road on either side of Ebbetts Pass. (Even now in summer, the highway narrows and much of it is just a single lane winding through peaks of 10,000 feet and higher. The road maxes at about 8,000 feet.) For lovers of snow sports, Bear Valley boasts a lovely lodge and a myriad of ski runs. While snows have been less consistent in the last couple of decades due to climate change, this portion of the Sierra Nevada range has seen 65 or more feet of snow in many winters, giving the resort here some of the best powder in California.
With summer bringing accessibility past Bear Valley along CA-4, skiers give way to kayakers, paddle boarders, and boaters. The Stanislaus River is dammed at several points in the alpine elevations, giving rise to beautiful blue lakes dotted with log cabins and the occasional lodge. Lake Alpine has a better name than Mosquito Lake, but both are stunning. Clear waters lined with pine forest, high peaks in the background and solitude in abundance, relaxing days in nature beckon from these and any number of other small and large watery outposts. While less than two hours’ drive from the oak hills of the lower Highway 4 corridor, it feels – and indeed, it is – worlds apart.
There are few places in the world featuring such diverse natural beauty within an easy commute. Calaveras County is such a place. Whether you like skiing or kayaking, hiking or fishing, huge trees or deep caverns, or all of the above, you’ll find your happy place here. All you have to do is come and explore!
Thank you to the Calaveras Visitors Bureau for hosting me on an incredible trip. Few places have exceeded my expectations the way this county has, and I am grateful beyond expression to have been able to explore an area I’d never visited before.
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