It’s back. The “refrigerator weather” that the 209 is notorious for when fog returns to the valley floor.
It’s akin to being inside a refrigerator where the light is struggling to stay on. There’s little or no wind movement. The temperatures stay cool rarely moving beyond a 15-degree swing from just before dawn to the peak of the afternoon under thick Tule fog that gives way to a sky shivering in a solid light gray with nary a ray of sunshine breaking through.
Long-time valley residents will recall the winter of 1991 when Mother Nature outdid itself and went 32 straight days with the sun never shining and the temperature swing even narrower down to a band of 10 or less degrees in a 24-hour period.
Those who commuted westward over the Altamont Pass broke out of the socked in valley into the warm winter sunshine. But if you were stuck in the valley and wanted to get the chill out of your bones and not go stir crazy nor get your pressure pumped by battling Bay Area freeway traffic there was only one solution — head for the hills.
The fog and cloud cover that descends on the 209 this time of year such as is happening this weekend is a perfect excuse for a quick day trip to the Gold Country above the 1,000-foot level. It doesn’t have to be a full blown excursion to Yosemite Valley, Jackson Rancheria or other casinos, a ski trip, a round of golf, hiking, taking in a stage production or exploring caves and other attractions.
All it needs to be is a low key drive to take in the scenery, browse a few stores, maybe hit a winery or two and enjoy lunch or an early dinner before heading back down into the valley.
It is amazing how when you get near the 1,000-foot mark you’ll typically pop out of the grayness and into the sunshine. Often, but not always, the temperatures will often be warmer at the higher elevation than the valley floor that is enjoying refrigeration weather.
Just seeing the sunshine does wonders.
If you are into just the drive the best option is Highway 140 out of Merced. Most of the drive across the valley is pure country. And while fog and low cloud cover is a little annoying the fact the highway isn’t littered with ranchettes or country driveways gives you a unique feeling of solitude. There’s also the small town of Mariposa to spend some time exploring and enjoying a meal. You can make a loop of it by heading north toward Highway 120 swinging through Coulterville via Highway 49 before joining Highway 120 at Lake Don Pedro. There’s not a lot of civilization per se on this option meaning the charming stores for browsing and meal options are a bit thinner.
Highway 120, especially if you head up toward Pine Mountain Lake or Yosemite quite a bit, can seem a little too familiar to get your mind off the winter blahs plus the traffic is more robust. That said heading east to visit Groveland can be a treat.
There’s not an awful lot of stores to stretch your legs while checking them out but there is the Iron Door Saloon right on Highway 120. It’s the oldest continuously operating saloon in California dating back to the 1850s according to the Clampers who installed a plaque attesting to the fact. It now has American-style pub fare for lunch and dinner.
You also can’t go wrong with killing time at the Priest Station restaurant perched at the top of Priest Grade with its commanding view of the 1,000 plus gain travelers take on Old Priest Grade Road — the shortest and steepest way up — or today’s Highway 120 that is the “New Priest Grade.”
If you opt for Old Priest Grade you may be a bit taken back by the horses under the hood straining but it is nothing compared to the vehicles a century ago that toughed it out moving material to build the O’Shaughnessy Dam in Hetch Hetchy Valley.
My favorite place for winter browsing is Jackson. Instead of taking Highway 88 all the way I prefer to head east out of Manteca on Highway 120 and then swing north on Jack Tone Road to join Highway 99 in Lockeford.
Jack Tone Road is the longest north-south road in San Joaquin County. It offers a sweeping repertoire of farming activity including the relatively heavily wooded Jack Tone Ranch along Little John Creek. It’s the oldest continuously operating horse ranch in California having been founded in 1849.
Lockeford is home of the widely popular Lockeford Sausage of street fair fame. There are a handful of antique shops while Clements just up the road a mile or so has an honest-to-goodness saddlery and a chocolate/candy factory.
Jackson, however, is the destination. The four block stretch of Historic Downtown Jackson is a browsers’ paradise. There’s everything from a kitchen gadget place and specialty clothing stores to art galleries, bookstores and knick knacks. There are plenty of restaurants — you can’t go wrong with any of them — and a large old-style candy store that has a selection that will practically just about fill your sweet tooth.
Calaveras County further north gives Jackson a run for the money in the form of Angels Camp, Murphys, and Copperopolis.
Angels Camp at 1,400 feet is named after Henry Angel who opened a trading post in 1848. The Gold Rush era resonates in Angels Camp through unique downtown shops and dining spots.
Murphys — dubbed “Queen of the Sierra” — is also a picturesque Gold Rush era town. Murphys is a mix of historic and refurbished newer buildings that reflect Gold Rush architecture. Boutique shops along with restaurants form the streets along with more than 23 wine tasting rooms for a vibrant downtown.
Ironstone Vineyards is just outside of Murphys. Attractions include wine production, ageing caverns, tasting room and gourmet delicatessen featuring the monumental 42-foot stone fireplace and historic oak bar, music room with the restored Alhambra Theatre Pipe Organ, and culinary exhibition center for community banquets and events. The heritage museum and jewelry shop showcase fine jewelry and objects d’art, intertwined with a collection of Gold Rush treasures. The museum is the spectacular setting for the magnificent forty-four pound crystalline gold leaf nugget—the largest in the world. All around Ironstone are beautiful landscaped grounds with several park settings, picnic areas, a duck lake for casual strolling or solitary pondering. Topping off Ironstone is the Outdoor Amphitheatre, which can accommodate 6,000 guests.
Copperopolis, once a thriving 1800s copper mining town, has a town square that has a blend of specialty boutique shops, restaurants and residential lofts. The highlight is a traditional, pedestrian-friendly town square.