Some places just stick with you. They are so unexpectedly wonderful that they become a part of you, a part of your soul. Such is the case for me with Calaveras County in Northern California. After making my first trip to this small rural county that stretches from the foothills to the Sierra Nevada mountains, I was hooked. And after making my return trip recently, I am only more sure that this place is special.
I am lucky to have been able to drive from my home in Los Angeles to Calaveras County twice, once in the summer and once in the winter, to experience two very different views of this place. I am even luckier to have been hosted – both times – by Go Calaveras, the county’s visitors bureau, and its dedicated director, Martin Huberty, who also sits on the county board of supervisors. His goal was for me to create content he could use to help market his home, and this guide is a conglomeration of everything I’ve written and more. Make sure to click the links throughout this guide to read more in-depth articles about specific aspects of Calaveras County, and why it might be your next perfect getaway.
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The only way into Calaveras County is to drive. Angels Camp, which I’ll talk about in a bit, sits at the junction of California Highways 4 and 49, about an hour and a half from Sacramento, two hours from Oakland, and six hours from Los Angeles. If you already live in California, you can easily make it in a day from anywhere, though it might be a bit much for a day trip. If you live elsewhere, fly into Oakland or Sacramento – or even San Francisco – and rent a car.
Of course, for many, Calaveras is an easy stop before or after a trip to Yosemite. It is between two and three hours from Yosemite Valley to here, making for a lovely week or so trip for anyone during an itinerary that includes San Francisco, Yosemite, and Calaveras.
Calaveras County is rural. There is no public transit, and there are no Ubers. While within one of the small towns you’ll be able to easily walk the few blocks of a cute downtown, you’ll need a car to see anything outside of that. And if you come in winter, you’ll want that car to have four wheel drive and snow tires if you intend to do anything at remotely higher elevations. (If you’re coming in winter, you’ll probably be wanting to do those things.)
But let’s talk for a second about the layout of Calaveras. The county is shaped a bit like a slice of pizza, with the crust (fat) end facing west and the tip extending into the Sierras. Angels Camp, made famous by Mark Twain, is near the southwestern portion of the pizza, with Highway 4 extending up to the tip, through the towns of Murphys and Arnold, to Calaveras Big Trees State Park and the Bear Valley ski resort. North on Highway 49 from Angels is the historic town of San Andreas, and other small towns like Rancho Calaveras and Copperopolis sit on the western edge of the county in low rolling foothills.
What to Do
Shockingly, for a county of fewer than 50,000 residents, there is a lot. Let’s start in Angels Camp. This gold rush town has a cute historic main drag along Highway 49 with some awesome old buildings. It also houses the Angels Camp Museum, a great space with a variety of exhibits documenting the history of the area. Angels is most famous for two things. First, it sits directly on top of – literally – the mother lode vein, the most productive vein of gold in California. (Click here to read about the spirit of the California gold rush in Calaveras.) It was that gold that brought the county’s most famous resident to the area, and the second reason Angels Camp is famous: Mark Twain. Many have heard of his short story, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, which he wrote here and with which he launched his literary career. Frog themed fun is all over – though especially in May with a frog jumping festival – as is Twain themed enjoyment. (Click here to read about Mark Twain in Calaveras.)
The other small towns each have their own charm. Murphys (more in a bit) has the fine dining and wine bar scene. Arnold is the gateway to Calaveras Big Trees. San Andreas has a great county museum and historic courthouse. Copperopolis is an up and coming golf resort area. Each can be explored quickly, or used as a longer term base.
The highlight of Calaveras County is undoubtedly the Highway 4 corridor. (Click here to read about a summer drive through the entirety of it.) It is worth just driving, and stopping for photos, pretty much the entire distance. But a couple spots stand out.
First, the single most important thing to visit in Calaveras County is Calaveras Big Trees State Park, home to a few large groves of giant sequoias. The North Grove has a two mile loop trail that can be walked easily, seeing a ton of amazing giant trees that are over 20 feet in diameter. Or in winter you can rent snowshoes from nearby Arnold and see the grove that way. (Click here to read about snowshoeing in Calaveras Big Trees.)
The second important spot along Highway 4 is Bear Valley. If you come in winter and like skiing or snowboarding, Bear Valley has some amazing runs with some of the best snow in the state. (Click here to read about Bear Valley.)
Like caves? The huge limestone deposits under the area make for some great ones. I’ve only been to Moaning Cavern, but I intend to visit some of the others on future return trips.
Finally, I know it sounds cliche, but the best thing about Calaveras County is the people. They are warm, welcoming, and passionate about their homes and sharing them with visitors.
(As a side note, and a reminder, I can only write about things I have personally done. So while I haven’t explored much of the western part of the county yet, I will be sure to add those things once I experience them on my next trip!)
Where to Stay
If you are a first-timer, unless you are coming specifically to ski and want to stay at Bear Valley itself, I’d suggest staying in the town of Murphys. I stayed here on both of my trips, once at the Murphys Suites (a totally lovely motel) and once at an Airbnb about half a mile outside of town. Murphys is centrally located (about fifteen minutes up Highway 4 from Angels Camp), but more importantly, it has the best food and wine in the county. (More on that in the next section.) Main Street has adorable shops, restaurants, cafes, and literally dozens of wine tasting rooms. The only downside is pretty much everything closes by about 8pm.
There are basically no chain hotels in the county; if you want those, stay nearby in Sonora.
What to Eat
Let’s start with the obvious: drink wine. Calaveras County is home to dozens of wineries, each with a tasting room, and many with additional tasting rooms in Murphys. I’ve been to six or so, and never had a bad glass. (The ruby port at Brice Station is a true standout, if you like that.) Even if you choose not to specifically go wine tasting, order a local glass with your meals.
Speaking of drinking, Hinter Haus, located in Arnold, is one heck of a micro distillery. It has what might be the smoothest bourbon I’ve ever tasted, and this from a guy who doesn’t love bourbon.
As for food, if you’re in Murphys, my two favorite restaurants are V Bistro and Grounds. Neither is cheap (dinner for two with wine can run around $100) but both are incredible. The elk medallions at Grounds and duck breast at V Bistro are standouts.
Other Useful Information
If it is your intention to drive all the way over the mountains on Highway 4, a couple things. First, it is closed in winter. Second, the road loses quality the higher you go, and stops being a two lane highway around the summit. There are hairpin turns and it is hard to pass. Just be careful.
Weather is always important to watch out for. It can be hot and muggy in summer. Or worse, it can be smoky from California’s ever-worsening forest fires. Winter can be cold and icy, even as low as Murphys (though snow is much rarer down in those elevations). Mudslides and floods from torrential rain can close highways for a time. Just be careful; to me, the weather is part of the reason to visit in the first place.
Calaveras County is one of California’s truly hidden gems. Cool history, beautiful natural scenery, great food and wine, and warm people make this place special. From my first day of my first trip, Calaveras captured my heart, and I know it will capture yours, too. Visit.
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