ARNOLD — Calaveras County is a big deal in winter as in big snow, big trees, and the big outdoors.
It doesn’t get much better for a winter day trip than heading up Highway 4 to take in the 209’s majestic backyard.
There are four highways in the 209 that can get you high in the Sierra before seasonal closures due to snow block your progress. While Highway 120 takes you to the magic that is Yosemite National Park, your best bet for a full-packed day with everything from snow play, easy hiking, lunch or dinner and wine tasting all along one ribbon of asphalt is Highway 4.
The highway itself is 197 miles long starting near the edge of San Pablo Bay in Hercules, passing through the Delta and Stockton on up and over Ebbetts Pass at 8,730 feet then ending at the junction of Highway 89 in Markleeville. The pass is not plowed in the winter. Given this year’s snowfall it is like to stay closed until at least late April.
The farthest you can now go is a half mile past the junction of Highway 207 that leads to the Bear Valley Ski Resort.
If you’re into skiing obviously driving Highway 4 is about getting there.
But if you want to just enjoy looking at the snow from the warmth of your car or in short excursions from along the road then there are plenty of options.
The most enjoyable for kids young and old are the three Sno-Parks between Arnold and Bear Valley Ski Resort. They are ideal for riding saucers down snow banks, making snow angels in fresh powder, creating a snowman, enjoying low-key snowball fights or whatever the snow inspires you to do in a safe locale.
The Sno-Parks are at the Spicer Meadow Road turnoff, another at the end of the plowed highway near Lake Alpine, and at Round Valley off Highway 207 leading to the Bear Valley Ski Resort. The Sno-Parks have toilets and parking — something you will not find along other stretches of Highway 4.
Round Valley Sno-Park is the newest. While snowmobiling is not allowed at Round Valley there is a slope that’s a big draw for tubes, toboggans, saucers, and such. As with other Sno-Parks, you can take off and do cross-country skiing. Snowmobiling is allowed at the other two Sno-Parks.
You do need a permit. They can be purchased in Bear Valley past Spicer Meadow Road turnoff at Bear Valley Snowmobile or Bear Valley Cross Country. The daily $5 permits or seasonal permits that cost $25 can be purchased by going online to ohv.parks.ca.gov.?page_id+1233 by using major credit cards. Each permit has a $1.95 handling fee.
You can opt to play in the snow at Bear Valley Cross Country instead. It offers more than just cross country trails that are ideal for skiing and snowshoeing. It also features sledding and tubing hills with inclines ranging from gentle to moderate. The base is located directly across Highway 4 to the Bear Valley Village entrance.
They provide the tubes and sleds. The regular-peak cost is $15-$25 per person for sleds and $25-$35 per person for tubes. Non-sledding access is $5-$10 per person. Parents or guardians need to accompany children. The area is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information call 209-753-2834.
It is pure magic to visit the Calaveras Big Trees State Park especially when snow is on the ground. The 10-square-mile park has arguably the easiest access to giant sequoias in the Sierra.
There are more than 1,000 mature giant sequoias including the Empire State tree that measures 30 feet at the ground level and can be found in the North Grove. The South Grove has the park’s tallest tree. The Louis Agassiz Tree is 250 feet tall and 25 feet in diameter at the ground.
When there is snow on the ground at the park that’s at 5,000 feet in elevation the guided 3.5-mile free hikes on Saturdays at 1 p.m. become guided snowshoe hikes. It takes about 90 minutes. Snowshoes are provided free on a first come-first served basis, and different sizes are available for adults and children. No dogs are allowed. You can also rent snow shoes in nearby Arnold.
No reservations are allowed so visitors are encouraged to check in to the warming hut no later than 12:30 p.m. to make sure they can take part.
Speaking of the warming hut, it is open every Saturday and Sunday in the winter from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. near the visitor’s center and the hiking trail starting point for the North Grove trail. Volunteers serve free cider, tea, coffee or hot chocolate while you warm up by the fire.
Snow play is also allowed in the North Grove area.
Calaveras Big Trees is open from dawn to dusk.
Day use fees are $10 per vehicle Monday through Friday and $12 on weekend days or holidays.
For more information call 209-795-3840 or 209-795-1196.
Arnold is just above 4,000 feet and is home to a few shops and dining options such as Snowshoe Brewing Co. and Giant Burger.
Stopping in Murphys — the self-proclaimed “The Next Napa” — on your way back down the hill will hit the spot if you are a wine lover.
There are 21 wineries in the Murphys area including world-renown Ironstone Vineyards.