By CARY ORDWAY
If you're looking for the Wild West, you could do no better than to go to a place that was once the home of Mark Twain and even memorialized in one of his short stories. Lucky for California residents, Calaveras County is a reasonable drive from both north and south and puts a lot of Gold Rush history all within a few square miles.
Students of Mark Twain will remember The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, a short story that was actually Twain's first published work and what eventually made him famous. Today, the Angels Camp community reminds us about Twain and his story every May, drawing more than 2,000 "frog jockeys" who compete to see whose frog can jump the farthest.
Such is the spirit in Calaveras County, a fascinating collection of historic villages that you don't need to wait until May to visit. In fact, the Jumping Frog Jubilee's added traffic may just interfere if all you want to do is explore the many historic attractions, museums, interesting shops - and even wineries - found in this scenic part of the state.
Your exploration can be a weekend or a vacation and can focus on just Calaveras County or include any number of towns and attractions in neighboring counties. We spent just a weekend, parking our RV near Angels Camp and driving short distances to attractions in Calaveras County as well as a couple over the border in Tuolumne County. The distances are all short - 10 to 20 miles between towns or attractions - and the sometimes-winding roads are always scenic in this hilly, forested part of California.
The common denominator between all these attractions is history - if you're a history buff and love to walk through towns that look like they could be used for Western movie sets (minus the asphalt of course), then this part of California is your kind of place. A historic church here, an old general store there, antique stores on every block - the towns of Calaveras County are like a stroll into the past.
The Mark Twain connection is a big one for Angels Camp and, just like "the Birds" has become a cottage industry for its filming location, Bodega Bay, the Mark Twain short story has put Calaveras County and Angels Camp on the map. All manner of frog memorabilia are offered locally, and more than one business has the word frog in its name. You can even visit the cabin where Mark Twain lived for the few months he was staying in the area.
Angels Camp is the only incorporated city in Calaveras County so that tells you something about the rural nature of the neighborhood. Anxious to share its history, Angels Camp offers visitors a map for a walking tour of the town. Each of the historic buildings in town - and from what we could tell, they're ALL historic - has a number posted on the front of the building to correspond with the numbers on the map. The map has a description and history of each location.
The Angels Camp Museum and Carriage House is known for its fine collection of historic mining equipment as well as its many native American artifacts. There are reminders of life in the mid-1800s such as the drug store with the many old remedies on display in their original packaging. The Carriage House features more than 30 carriages, carts and wagons from the era.
Just a few miles from Angels Camp, a little further into the mountains, is Murphys, a tiny hamlet that also features many historic landmarks. Most of the buildings are from the mid-1800s with thick stone walls, iron shutters and white picket fences. Once a town of 3,000 people, the current population is a fraction of that, although tourists do swell the numbers on weekends.
Not far from Murphys, we came across a winery that had been recommended to us by the local visitor association - Ironstone Vineyards. One of the more colorful California wineries, this 1,150-acre property includes a tasting room, tours and even a museum on site. Catching our attention was a 44-pound gold nugget that was on display with, as you might suspect, plenty of precautions against theft. Ironstone also has an amphitheater on property which looked like the perfect place to enjoy a Sunday concert. Altogether there are 14 wineries in Calaveras County.
Some of the best history in the area actually is in neighboring Tuolumne County, where we visited the town of Sonora. Perhaps the most scenic town in the area, Sonora has a main street of western storefronts even longer than Angels Camp, but also boasts historic homes and a couple of spectacular church steeples that make it great for taking pictures. Again, Sonora is chock-full of antique shops, as well as small, but interesting shops and restaurants.
Near Sonora is the Columbia State Historic Park, a real California gold rush town. This is like the historic parks you hear about on the East Coast where people dress in period costumes to take you back to earlier days. Gold was discovered in 1850 in Columbia, and the town quickly grew into a bustling base for miners seeking their fortunes. Today, the park has a complete Main Street with the original storefronts that actually have real stores and shops inside. There's a blacksmith shop, a couple of saloons, a hotel and a even a stagecoach ride in addition to many other small businesses. When we were there, a local bluegrass group was dressed in period garb, strolling the streets and entertaining visitors.
While we didn't have time to visit, it's not far from Columbia to Railtown 1897 State Historic Park which offers rides on authentic steam trains that have been used in many television shows and movies.
Another historic attraction in the same general area is the Tuolumne Museum, which blends local history from the early Me-Wuk tribes and the Gold Rush period. Open only on weekend afternoons, the museum displays many typical family items from the period, including clothing, health care items and family photos. A scale model of a local railroad and its route are set up in an adjacent room.
On the way back to Angels Camp from Columbia we came across a unique diversion for those who want an unforgettable experience. We stopped off at Moaning Cavern, about four miles east of Angels Camp, where you have the chance to walk 100 feet down a spiral staircase into one of the largest caverns in the state. To local Indians who discovered it, Moaning Cavern was just a mysterious hole in the ground where they would hear a moaning sound coming from the opening. Some would accidentally step into the hole and plunge to their deaths.
When Moaning Cavern was later discovered to be a giant underground cave, many human remains were found. A new opening was cut to allow for the insertion of the staircase and, today, visitors have the choice of taking the staircase or a more adventurous 165-foot rope rappel. If that's still not enough for you, guided tours are offered into the undeveloped and unlighted portions of the cave using lighted helmets and ropes. We chose Option A - the staircase - but there is still something unsettling about being underground in a natural cavern that would be big enough to place the Statue of Liberty inside.
This was just one of the many surprises we found in and near Calaveras County and, like Mark Twain, we had no trouble telling a short story or two when we got back home.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: Calaveras County is in the heart of California's Gold Country and a great inclusion on any Northern California vacation itinerary. It's easily accessed from Highway 99 using west-east highways you can get at various points south of Sacramento. One of the most direct is Highway 4 from Stockton.
WHAT: Calaveras County and several nearby counties make up Gold Country, a historic part of California that retains much of the flavor and charm of the mid-1800's gold rush period. Outdoor recreation is also plentiful here, including several campgrounds and New Melones Reservoir, a haven for boaters. (Check www.houseboats.com for special houseboat vacation packages.)
WHEN: Any time of the year, although there is some mountain driving and most roads are narrow and windy, so spring, summer and fall would be bets. Vacation packages at local motels and lodgings are sometimes available during the shoulder seasons.
WHY: The scenic beauty of the area - hilly, mountainous and forested - is a feast for the eyes, while the history of the area is visible almost everywhere you look.
HOW: To plan a trip to Calaveras County, contact the Calaveras Visitors Bureau at 800-225-3764, or visit www.visitcalaveras.org. For more information on the attractions noted here that are in Tuolumne County, contact the Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau at 800-335-1333 or visit www.thegreatunfenced.com. Check with local lodgings about possible travel packages or last minute travel deals.