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Routes / Ebbetts Pass, California's Highway 4

The roar of the snowmelt, from Murphys to Markleeville.

Ebbetts Pass with a few wildflowers, image
Photo caption
In late spring, the snow has usually melted at the higher elevations along Ebbetts Pass.

The mountain was coming undone. The sound was everywhere, as soft as a roadside drip-drip, as thunderous as a cascade wheeling over granite cliff.

This was the Ebbetts Pass of early June, but not the music of just any water. This was virgin snowmelt, its garrulous tunes heralding a new season. The crust of winter was loosening its grip on the high Sierra and every slope and slant of the 8,730-foot pass had something to sing about. Wild flowers, from lupine to corn lily, would pull rank in meadows. Bear to marmot would fatten on a budding food chain. Three rivers, two flowing west, one flowing east, would run high and mighty from recharged headwaters.

Roaring snowmelt aside, Ebbetts Pass, the vertex of State Highway 4, is a mellow place. From Murphys to Markleeville, I drove this scenic byway, pressing "pause" in pockets of wilderness and culture along its ever-bending axis. Here, where I knew I’d see fewer of my own species and more of things wild, I’d come to "drink."

Gloried, storied miles
It’s less than eighty miles from Murphys to Markleeville, story- and glory-rich miles: from the civilized quaintness of a Mother Lode village to a rural town’s time-worn Cutthroat Saloon. Between Calaveras’ burgeoning wine country and a county so rugged most of its land is not up for private grabs waits a bounty of good, clean outdoors.

Up Utica Grade, past the Forest Service office in Hathaway Pines, I found unpretentious, forest-bound Arnold with almost one inhabitant for each of its 4,000 feet elevation. You can trust a place where charbroiled hamburgers survive beside daintier fare of cafes such as Blue Coyote. Arnold’s livelihood was lumber mills until 1962, but now tree-huggers are welcome. Amid its stalwart pines and brawny heritage, I found interesting shops, art, two golf courses, White Pines Lake, and the Yellow Dog Inn on Pine Drive. A gentle place among cedars, the inn was a meditative spot to porch-sit on a white cedar settee. The town is a good place to fill up on gas, food, and any outdoor items before you head upcountry.

Past Arnold the evergreens make a quantum leap in size. In Calaveras Big Trees State Park, I camped near the gnarly toes of one of California’s last stands of the red-barked giant sequoia. Up to 325 feet in height and 24 feet in diameter, Sequoiadendron giganteum grows as part of a ponderosa pine belt.

In the sequoia’s sparse understory, spring harbingers lingered—graceful white-blossomed branches of dogwood. Snow plant, that gaudy saprophyte, poked through duff like a red candle.

I started with things smaller than myself at the visitor center. The "vertical ecology" of the big trees begins in their sun-washed crowns. Chickarees—tree squirrels—snatch strips of bark as nesting material. Carpenter ants burrow tunnels in the wood to hatch their broods. The red-breasted sapsucker drills holes and returns to harvest insects caught in sap.

The park’s North Grove is Hobbit-cozy, but the denser South Grove just across a fork of the Stanislaus has about ten times more giants. I followed the latter’s self-guiding trail a few miles to the 250-foot Agassiz, the largest tree in the park. I appreciated the hyperbole in the "Palace Hotel" tree—its base opening reminded early viewers of San Francisco’s Palace Hotel’s Grand Court.

Back on the highway, I stopped to admire the 1860 Dorrington Hotel. It still lodges travelers and has a restaurant with northern Italian cuisine. Then I was in the woods until Bear Valley, 20 miles and 3,000 feet later. The picturesque high country earns S.R. 4 its State Scenic Highway designation. Past the dark swirls of forest, vistas broaden, crag and ridge shoulder cloud and sky. Liberty, Vista, Big Meadow, Hells Kitchen were safe places to pull over and savor this corridor to "California’s Alps." Best view was to the squared-off volcanic buttes to the south known as the Dardanelles.

A maze of Forest Service roads off 4 invites 4WD-exploring—one leads to the Calaveras Dome, a granitic monolith. Down Boards Crossing, I walked a fisherman’s trail along the Stanislaus through Jeffrey pines, incense cedars, white fir, and black oaks to a silver spot in the river called Deep Hole.

Dinner’s Waiting
At Lake Alpine campground, I met an old man, roughing it family-style with three generations of kin and pop-up camper. He pointed to my swollen backpack and said, "I used to do that." He was 82 and wanted some seasons back. I wanted some of his years in these mountains when they were even more solitudinous.

I must have looked hungry. As I recalled a tiger swallowtail I’d seen nuzzling a western wallflower, the elder’s family presented me their leftovers—three grilled trout.

I’d spent the day hiking to Duck Lake on a vague trail, boggy with spring melt. I sat for hours on a warm slope of granite that palmed an icy lake where only the wind spoke. All the while a son, father, and grandfather were pulling my dinner from a sparkling lake.

Some time later I would pull Lake Alpine all around me, beveling its dark glass surface with a kayak, feathering air with a double paddle. Then I’d shed the plastic craft and swim with a bevy of swimmers, crawl on sun-baked granite "beach," watch Inspiration Point.

Coddled at Bear Valley
At Bear Valley’s portal, two grizzlies greeted me. The wooden bruins were carved from a felled sugar pine and guard the resort-village. Bear Valley thrives as a ski area, when the winter gate just east closes to motor traffic, and snow piles deep in narrow chutes and cirques.

At the edge of the parking area my gaze fell sharply from 8,758-foot Mt. Reba to the Mokelumne River Basin, a glacier-quarried canyon. An arduous hike (or mountain bike) to the river carries one steeply down 4,000 feet in 4 1/2 miles.

But I had "amenities" on the mind. By the time I caved in to those of Bear Valley Lodge I’d done my wilderness time. I traded tent for a few days in a quiet suite with ceiling fan, dips in the lap pool, soaks in a hot tub. Under corpulent rafters in the Cathedral Lounge, I read by the five-story hearth, not having to stoke the fire once.

My stay coincided with the Calaveras County Winemakers dinner at the Lodge. So it happened Chef Steve Montrose’s rabbit, duck, and fresh greens were paired with barrel-fermented Stevenot, Chatom, and Ironstone vintage. In the hints of oak and vanilla, berries and black cherries, I tasted the local wilderness.

Where angels dare to blow
Come the end of July, I returned to Bear Valley to sate another appetite. A fat cumulus cloud landed on the mountain and turned into a 1,200-seat tufted pavilion. I stepped inside and heard trumpets and Cole Porter’s Blow, Gabriel, Blow! A tenor, a baritone, and sopranos in purple and blue crushed satin warmed their silver pipes on a medley of Porter’s classics. It was the 28th annual Bear Valley Music Festival.

The heady setting brought me back a week later to hear the soprano with ample hips and Nefertiti neck expire tenderly as Mimi in La Bohème. A weepy audience filed into the cool night. Somewhere the mountain wept, too. Next morning, I went to see.

The highway east of Lake Alpine has more curves than Arnold Schwarzenegger’s quadriceps has cuts. Lodgepole limbs seem to motion Slow down! A sign puts it bluntly: "Vehicles over 25 feet not advised." The road is too narrow for a line down its middle.

The road rocks you through picturesque Mosquito Lakes, Pacific Grade, Hermit Valley, the elbow. Trailheads beckon. Bee Gulch was a quick rise with instant view to Alpine and its prehistoric humps of gray rock. I watched for hard-core backpackers going from Mexico to Canada afoot the Pacific Crest Trail. They’d have to cross Highway 4.

Seven miles of bumpy, but car-safe, dirt-top fed south off 4 to Highland Lakes—popular for trout fishing and camping. Big snow patches lingered and a trail into Carson Iceberg Wilderness swarmed with mauve swamp onion, golden arnica, the swan’s down of mariposa lilies.

A quick fix of woods and water was never far. I found one a few hairpin turns beyond where the conifers gave way to leathery chaparral. The ruddy and ashen bones of volcanic range gaped from the east. Noble Canyon trailhead, up-road from a ravine holding a decaying Cadillac carcass, connects about nine miles south with the Pacific Crest. But in only a few paces, I could see the froth, hear the roar of Noble Creek, a hundred feet below me.

The sun banged on my last stretch where 4 and 89 run concurrent through a green valley. My turn-around was Markleeville, a town spurred by the silver boom of the 1850s. It’s a friendly though curious place in a county of nearly 800 square miles of lakes, meadows, peaks, rivers, and forest. Creatures furry, finned, or feathered don’t need the stuff of a general store or a saloon like the Cutthroat that opens at 7 a.m. But some of us less fuzzy ones will indulge a grilled ham and cheese, jumbo fries, shuffleboard, a tune on the juke.

I took my berry pie to go, though, not wanting to miss the next set. I headed back up the pass and took my seat in the mottled shade of cottonwoods near willow thickets. I listened for hours to a creek called Silver run up and down the scales, pouring its heart out into the Carson River.

music at bear valley
It’s a little closer to heaven. So maybe it’s easier to hit that high C. The Bear Valley Music Festival has blossomed from its first year in 1969 with 15 string players. Its 29th season, July 26-August 10, mixes classical, rock, and pops. The stellar line-up includes Carter Nice
tent at Bear Valley Music Festival conducting more than 100 singers and instrumentalists.

As alpenglow lights up the horizon, listen to Bach, Beethoven, Igor’s Jazz Cowboys, the Van Cliburn Medalist, Gershwin, jazz, and more. Between sets, the air’s pine scent encourages tailgate picnics.

While passing through Murphys on your way up, you might buy the pâté, homebaked breads, and Chardonnay. Many music lovers simply grab a slab of granite—nature’s free seating under a star-lit dome. Tickets for tent-pavilion seating are $12 to $30 (with lodging packages available). For program information call or write Bear Valley Music Festival, P.O. Box 5068, Bear Valley, 95223; (800) 458-1618 or (209) 753-2574.

from mines to vines
I pulled into a service station on Murphys’ Main Street to ask directions, and it turned into a winery—Milliaire. Barrels were filled with grape juice on its way to Zinfandel —a varietal cultivated in the area since the Gold Rush. Oddly enough, I was looking for a local winery—Stevenot.A ten-minute drive through golden hills skirting town and I was there, standing inside its cool tasting room. Its arbored grounds, gardens, and gourmet food items invited delay.

So does the rest of compact Calaveras wine country. Six well-respected wineries are tucked in the oak-wooded foothills and canyons, where soil, elevation, and climate favor an impressive array of award-winning varietals. Milliaire, Stevenot, Indian Rock, Chatom, Kautz Ironstone, and Black Sheep all produce varying quantities of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Merlot, and a few others. Tasting rooms range from the modern Ironstone to Black Sheep’s restored barn. For wine-tasting hours and organized wine tours, contact the Calaveras Wine Assn., P.O. Box 2492, Murphys, CA 95247; (800) 225-3764.

Photography courtesy of Tom Hilton/Wikipedia

This article was first published in May 1997. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.