Wine flows, frogs fly, and everyone strikes it rich in Calaveras County.
Mark Twain's first writing success was "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," published in 1865. The hilarious yarn about a wagering scam is a good introduction to Angels Camp, where Twain first heard the story.
Today, you can purchase a copy of Twain's story all over town. You will also stumble upon leaping amphibians everywhere—toy frogs, frog kitsch, frog jewelry, and even bronze frogs in the sidewalks honoring champions from the Jumping Frog Jubilee. The Jubilee, held in May, attracts some 40,000 people, who cheer the hopping bullfrogs. (The world's record was set in 1986 by Rosie the Ribiter, who jumped 21 feet, 53/4 inches.)
Visitors will discover more than flying frogs in California's central Mother Lode country. Though the pleasant towns of Angels Camp and Murphys along Highway 4 still evoke the boom times of the Gold Rush, they're quieter now than they were in the 1850s. A visitor can sample mountain wines, go spelunking, nose around art galleries and antique shops, even shout in the same saloons where gold miners slaked their thirst 150 years ago. You can go white-water rafting down the Stanislaus River or hike among the giant sequoias. There's ample lodging, ranging from B&Bs to campsites, and good dining for all budgets. Autumn, when the scent of crushed grapes hangs on the foothills, is a fine season to go.
In 1848, Henry Angel opened a trading post here; a year later, some 4,000 gold miners were camped in the gully. The classic 1924 Angels Theatre—with hand-painted Gold Rush-era murals inside—has reopened, showing first-run and indie movies.
A walking tour of town leads past handsome iron-shuttered brick and wooden buildings and over a footbridge spanning Angels Creek. Strung like Gold Rush laundry over Main Street are vintage miners' trousers and shirts. North of downtown, a statue of Mark Twain contemplates treeshaded Utica Park.
Up Main Street, just a few blocks, the Angels Camp Museum sprawls over three acres and boasts buggies, minerals, and an assortment of expected mining equipment. There's also a model of the Angels Camp branch of the Sierra Railroad, which once rattled down from Jamestown. And a case full of spittoons. And, of course, frogs.
For an adrenaline rush that will last all week, wander up Highway 4 through Vallecito to Moaning Cavern—just follow the billboards. Here is the notorious 165-foot rappel: Hanging in a formidable network of harness and hardware, you make your own way down a climbing rope through the throat of the cave and into the massive main room, where you twist in space, dropping another 100 feet or so. Even braver folk can take the rugged three-hour spelunking tour. Sissies can go on the regular cave tour, which means climbing down—and up—235 steps. (Not amusing: a pile of skulls at the bottom, remnants of more than 100 people who fell into the cave over the centuries.)
It's nine miles up Highway 4 from Angels Camp to the neighboring mining town of Murphys, founded in 1848 by John and Daniel Murphy, whose wagons creaked over the Sierra in 1844. The diggings here were extraordinarily rich, and the town grew prosperous despite the usual cycle of devastating fires and rebuilding. Today, its streets are lined with oaks and sycamores; handsome mid-19th-century buildings house art and antique emporia; and a pretty little park, complete with a Victorian bandstand, sits beside the creek.
At the Old Timers Museum on Main Street, in the 1856 Traver Building, there's an eclectic melange of Gold Rush memorabilia: toasters, pocket watches, flatirons, and potbellied stoves. And be sure to check out the mischievous plaques of the "Wall of Comparative Ovations," installed outside by E Clampus Vitus, the old, prank-loving California fraternal order. In the park, a peek into the original jailhouse, Murphys Pokey, will make you behave. Across the street is the Black Bart Playhouse, with occasional concerts or plays.
The Murphys Hotel, one of California's oldest, opened to guests in 1856. Ulysses S. Grant slept here; so did Twain and Black Bart, the poetry-writing bandit who successfully robbed 28 Wells Fargo stagecoaches before his arrest in 1883. Locals line up along the saloon's bar. In the morning, follow the divine smells across the street to Biga Murphys Bakery.
The sun-washed hills of Calaveras County, a major producer of wine in the late 19th century, are still garlanded with grapevines. Try the local vintages in several tasting rooms in downtown Murphys and at wineries outside town.
Ironstone Vineyards, on the outskirts of Murphys, attracts visitors year-round with wine tastings and events such as the daffodil festival in the spring. Take the morning at Ironstone to explore the seven-level winery, its extensive wine caves, museum, and outdoor mining exhibit, before you grab lunch at the deli and picnic on the grounds. Then, belly up to the elegant 1907 bar to sample Ironstone's Obsession Symphony, a slightly sweet white wine. In the banquet room, you can see a fully restored 769-pipe theater organ, originally made in 1927 for Sacramento's now-defunct Alhambra Theater. In winter, the organ accompanies silent films. Don't miss the 44-pound specimen of crystalline gold leaf, which, its sign claims, is the "largest single piece of gold mined in North America." Ironstone also has weekend gold panning, concerts, and fly-fishing classes.
For a more intimate tasting, drive a few miles north of Murphys on Sheep Ranch Road to bucolic Stevenot Winery. In the tasting room, buy a bottle of Tempranillo, a medium-bodied red wine, and assorted chocolates in the gourmet section.
Also on Sheep Ranch Road is Mercer Caverns, smaller but prettier than Moaning Cavern. It has all the awesome cave accessories: stalactites, stalagmites, draperies, and columns. It's 161 feet, down several flights of stairs, to the bottom. When you emerge from this dark hole in the ground, consider a visit to something soaring high above ground—the giant sequoias.
You'll find them 14 miles up Highway 4 from Murphys, past the commerce of Arnold, in Calaveras Big Trees State Park. It's both humbling and thrilling to prowl among the planet's largest living things. Tourists from around the world follow the well-trampled trails through the North Grove. The best hike of all is a five-mile loop through the remote South Grove, 10 miles from Highway 4. In late summer, cool off in the pools of the Stanislaus. On a weekday, you may have the big trees and the songs of creeks and birds all to yourself.
Photography courtesy of Dave Bunnell/Wikipedia
This article was first published in September 2001. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.