Sometimes the most unique getaways are off the beaten path a bit, and take a little extra effort to find. Such is the case with the Lazy Z Resort, a place well known by the families who have been visiting the resort since it opened in the 1940's, but not such a household name for most people.
The Lazy Z is located in the Sierra Nevada foothills – Mark Twain country – where interestingly enough a small town was named after a couple of well-known writers: Twain and Brett Harte. The town is called Twain Harte and it's a quiet little berg hidden among the trees northeast of historic Sonora. The folks who travel the 108 highway in these parts of Northern California are generally headed for the mountains where the snow piles high each winter and the streams run deep with run-off in the spring.
All of this is only about 140 miles east of San Francisco so, with about a three-hour drive, you change time zones from the 21st Century back to the 19th. Reminders of the old Gold Rush days are everywhere in these parts – from a replica of Mark Twain's cabin to the historic main streets of towns like Sonora and Angels Camp. Church steeples and Victorian homes are everywhere you look, and one can almost imagine the downtown patrons tying up their horses along the dirt roadway before paying their weekly visit to the Mercantile.
About 11 miles from Sonora, Twain Harte is where you start to see the signs for the Lazy Z Resort. There are a couple of different ways to get there, but we went through the town and followed the signs through the forest and a smattering of homes and cabins until we found the Lazy Z property. Set apart from everything else in the area, the Lazy Z is a group of about a dozen cabins spaced nicely around several dozen acres of trees and trails. There is a main resort area with a clubhouse, lots of games, reading materials and a pool with spectacular rock landscaping to make it seem like it's really part of a mountain stream.
And everywhere there are trees. The trees and topography make the resort feel much more remote than it actually is, and provide ample separation between the cabins. If you are looking for the "cabin in the woods" experience, this is it – many of the cabins feel like they're out on their own, yet they are only a short walk from pool and other guests.
Our cabin was just like a small vacation home – not the five-star variety, mind you, but a cabin like many people can actually afford. The cabin was nicely furnished with a couch, love seat, oversized chair, all adjacent to a large stone fireplace. Also in the Great Room were a dining table and a bar. The cabin also had a kitchen, refrigerator and enough counter space for light meal preparation. There were two bedrooms and two bathrooms, but the part we loved the most was the giant, expansive deck where you could sit among the trees and really feel like you're in the woods.
But just in case you weren't sure, you can also hike the property's nature trails which are every bit as interesting as most trails you find in the wilderness. Wildlife is abundant and we came across several deer as well as squirrels and other creatures. The Lazy Z property is so big that you can hike for half an hour and not revisit anyplace you've already been. This is perfect for large families where you want to take the small kids out to enjoy Mother Nature, but don't want to get too far from your base of operations.
The property was originally built as the Lazy Z Guest Ranch in 1946 and was owned by the current owners' grandparents, Harold and Mildred Zelinsky. Back then there were 100 acres altogether, including stables with horseback riding. After the grandparents retired in the early 70's and sold the property, the resort fell into disrepair and, for a time, was used as a boys' home. That's when the Zelinskys' son, Ken, stepped in to buy the property back and sent his oldest son Steve to begin re-building this resort that had meant so much to the grandchildren while they were growing up. Today, the Lazy Z is run by Steve and his sister and brother, Lari and Matt.
The Lazy Z still retains some of that guest ranch heritage and Steve will often host barbecues down at Zeke's Cantina, an Old West style barn where large groups can get together and enjoy tasty beef and pork hot off the grill and party in a place reminiscent of a western saloon.
The Old West also lives on, they say, through Farmer John. It's rumored that a ghost exists on the property and he's been seen by several housekeepers, guests, previous tenants and some of the Lazy Z owners themselves. He's believed to be living in a house that is 100 years old and occasionally will wander the resort and play tricks on housekeepers and guests. He's been described as being over six feet tall, wearing a floppy straw hat, denim coveralls, carrying a shovel. But don't worry – he's said to be a friendly ghost who just wanders the property protecting his gold find that he never got to spend before his untimely demise 100 years ago.
If you want to get an idea of what life was like back then, then drive 15 miles or so to Columbia State Historic Park, a fun historical park that is ideal for families. Columbia's Main Street looks like an Old West movie set except that the downtown stores are not just storefronts but actual historical buildings. There are about 40 brick buildings and 10 wooden structures all built back in the day when thousands of miners would come into town to get their supplies before returning to gold claims that ultimately produced $67 million worth of gold between 1850 and 1870. That may not be impressive using today's price of gold, but when you consider that gold sold back then for just $20 an ounce, you start to realize that this area's gold production was massive.
Columbia got its start in 1850 when a group of prospectors were caught in a rain storm and, while drying out their gear, John Walker – no, not that John Walker – decided to look for gold. He found so much that, within six weeks, thousands of miners had descended on the area in search of their fortunes. By 1852, more than 150 stores, shops, saloons and other businesses were operating in Columbia. By 1853, as many as 30,000 people lived there.
Columbia is just one example of the rich historical heritage you find in this part of California. When you combine that with a comfortable "cabin in the woods," the area near Sonora and Twain Harte offers the perfect opportunity to escape for a few days from your everyday modern life.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: The Lazy Z Ranch is about four miles outside of Twain Harte, a small town northeast of better-known Sonora in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. The ranch is just off Highway 108, an east-west route connecting the Central Valley with Highway 395 on the eastern side of the mountains.
WHAT: Lazy Z is a quiet resort, best suited to couples and families who enjoy being in the outdoors, and who want a good base of operations for exploring nearby Gold Country.
WHEN: Anytime of the year, although Twain Harte's elevation of 3,600 feet means it will have ample snowfall in winter.
WHY: The Lazy Z is off the beaten path and offers an experience that seems even more remote than it actually is. While roads in this area are a little confusing, it's fairly easy to find your way to Sonora, Angels Camp, Columbia and many other points of interest in this historic region.
HOW: For more information on the Lazy Z Ranch, phone 800-585-1238 or visit www.lazyz.com.