Fri09192014

On The Road

Touring the Gold Country


Gary Anderson/Special to the Town Crier
It's not uncommon to see a horse-drawn wagon in Columbia.

With a comfortable SUV that promised sports car handling, we made plans to take advantage of spring in the Sierra foothills by spending a recent weekend in the towns of Murphys and Columbia, two lovely weekend destinations in the easily accessible Gold Country region.

We couldn't have been happier with the outcome, which included a variety of relaxing activities.

Leaving Los Altos on a Saturday morning, we took one of the standard get-out-of-town routes as far as Stockton, then picked up Highway 4 and began our ascent toward the Sierras. Leaving the Highway 99 intersection, Highway 4 traverses a region of orchards before the road starts to curve and climb on some rewarding driving roads.

By noon we were at our lunch destination - the Chatom Winery just west of Murphys - which offered a lovely garden and shady picnic spot adjacent to its rustic winetasting room.

We were in the Calaveras County grape-growing region, dotted with picturesque and hospitable wineries, but much less well-known than the standard destinations of Napa, Sonoma and now-overrun Santa Barbara.

With a case of wine in the trunk and our picnic cooler somewhat lighter, we made our way into Murphys. This little town is one of those that sprang up during the Gold Rush, but went into slumber after the veins played out and has only recently reawakened as a boutique shopping and tourist destination.

The little town was bustling with a small-scale art and wine festival underway, and the parking lot of the downtown Murphys Hotel was filled with classic cars driven by a Modesto car club spending the weekend in town.

Our evening was pleasantly filled by a visit to "Auberge 1899," a small restaurant managed by a French Canadian chef and his cheery wife. They create an informal dining atmosphere in which to enjoy exceptional cuisine with a French touch that takes advantage of the region's wineries and fresh produce.

Sunday morning began with a visit to the town's best breakfast spot, Grounds, where the locals hold down their regular spots in the front room and visitors find tables in the comfortable rear room looking out on a pleasant courtyard. A variety of omelettes, pancakes and French toast dishes nicely complemented the fresh-ground coffee drinks.

We didn't have anything scheduled until noon, so we decided to do a little unplanned exploring and headed up the hill off Main Street, following a hand-painted sign that pointed the way to Mercer Caverns.

On our way there, we recognized another small sign as one of our favorite wineries, Stevenot. We stopped briefly to enjoy both their lovely grounds and the chance to pick up some of their varied red wines.

We were pleasantly surprised by our tour of Mercer Caverns, a small cave formed by the uplift that created the Sierra Nevada range. Guided by an eager college-geology student, we descended steep staircases nearly six stories down into the hillside. This isn't Mammoth Cave, by any means, but was a rewarding and interesting way to spend an hour and literally see another side of California.

Again on schedule, we headed out of Murphys on Highway 4, then almost immediately turned left onto Parrot Ferry Road. This curving and barely traveled 15-mile road crosses a dammed portion of the Stanislaus River in a secluded valley that probably looks as it did when the '49ers panned the streams and mined the hillsides for gold.

Twenty minutes later we were in Columbia, a state park that encompasses a restored portion of the mining town, home to 7,000 people at the height of the Gold Rush.

Now it consists of a few streets bordered by old false-front buildings that contain two small operating hotels - the City and the Fallon - as well as a restaurant, an ice cream parlor and a variety of re-created stores that look almost as they did when the town was alive in the 1850s.

Volunteer docents - dressed as miners, settlers, matrons and shopkeepers of the period - explain and interpret the region's history. Columbia's annual Fourth of July celebration is the highlight of the historic events that take place in the park.

But history was only a secondary pleasure on this particular Sunday, the occasion of Columbia's annual wine-tasting event. In addition to all the local wineries, vintners from other parts of the state were pouring wine in the lobbies and gardens of the two hotels and several other interiors. Since this is a state park, walking outside with an alcoholic drink wasn't permitted, but polite volunteers at each doorway encouraged us to drink up before moving on to the next venue.

The annual tasting event showcases Columbia's other claim to fame - the hospitality program of Columbia College, which trains students in culinary arts and hotel management. At several venues, students proudly offered delectable hors d'oeuvres and desserts that proved the quality of their training.

With the hotels in the village filled with representatives from the wineries, we stayed at the Columbia Inn, a recently renovated and reasonably priced motel, fortunately an easy walk from the historic town center.

Monday morning, after returning to Murphys for another breakfast at Grounds, we drove out of town down the Murphy Grade, which took us to Highway 49. With the sun shining and nothing forcing us to come home, we headed north through Jackson to Plymouth and then took Highway 16 into Amador County's Shenandoah Valley.

Although home to a variety of wineries, this is another region that hasn't been spoiled by a lot of traffic. We stopped at Renwood, Shenandoah and Dobra Zemlja, each known for their red wines but equally proud of their gardens and vineyards. Our designated drivers eventually brought us back to the Bay Area.

We're already looking forward to returning to the region. We know that it's lovely at any time of the year, offering both great driving roads and pleasant things to do and see. Though less than three hours away, we're happy to say this small segment of California is still far enough off the beaten path to offer a relaxing weekend respite.

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