Just northeast of California's Gold Country, the roadways heading toward Lake Tahoe reveal a wonderland of outdoor scenery and recreational opportunities. Closed to cross-mountain travel in winter, Highway 4 opens in summer to connect with Highway 89, completing a mountain-lover's route to remember.
This route will take you from the well-known Gold Country destination of Angels Camp through the charming town of Murphys, right by Calaveras Big Trees State Park, the recreation-oriented town of Arnold and then up through heavily wooded mountain areas where you'll find Bear Valley Ski Area, the quaint little berg of Markleeville and then another world of recreational possibilities in Hope Valley.
It's a lot to see for a Sunday drive, so the first bit of planning is to set up accommodations along the way. We've enjoyed two different kinds of lodgings in this area – a modern, well-furnished and luxurious vacation home near Arnold, and the simpler, more rustic small cabins offered by Sorensen's Resort in Hope Valley.
The route begins in Angels Camp, in the heart of Gold Country, where the Old West historic downtown is worth spending an hour or two just exploring. One of several Gold Rush towns, there were as many as 4,000 miners who once mined the surface gold, while hardrock mining accounted for even more miners and a series of tunnels all over the area. The downtown area now has a number of quaint shops, a few restaurants and a historical feel that is inescapable.
About 10 miles northeast on Highway 4, you come to Murphys, another historic town known for its art galleries, eclectic shops and Victorian architecture. Today there are 2,000 residents, although on a summer day the tourists no doubt outnumber the locals as travelers find the town the perfect place for a stroll through history. Many Gold Rush era buildings are still in use today, including the Murphys Historic Hotel and Lodge that once hosted General Ulysses S. Grant, Horatio Alger, "Black Bart" and Mark Twain. Completing the picture are the towering Elm trees along Main Street that contribute mightily to the town's ambience.
Another 10 miles up Highway 4 and you reach Arnold, a cluster of businesses just off Highway 4 that is probably best known for the nearby recreational attractions of Calaveras Big Trees State Park and the Bear Valley ski area. It's also home to hundreds of vacation homes that offer excellent proximity to both winter and summer mountain recreational activities.
Calaveras Big Trees State Park is about three miles north of Arnold and, as you might suspect, has a lot of "big trees." These giant Sequoias can reach a height of 325 feet and a diameter of 33 feet and have been around since the time of the dinosaurs. The forest is thick in this part of the mountains with not only the sequoias but a mix of ponderosa pines, sugar pines, incense cedars and white fir.
This state park offers camping but also self-guided trails that take visitors to some of the biggest trees and to the Stanislaus River where you'll find an especially scenic view overlooking the canyon. We're forest-lovers and enjoyed hours in the park – a great place to get your fix of trees, wildlife and natural surroundings.
It also was in this general area that we rented a vacation home for the night from Sierra Vacation Rentals. We stopped in Arnold to pick up our keys and map and then drove a few miles into a development of luxury vacation homes, each built among the trees with extensive acreage. While we were just stopping over for the night, it was apparent that these homes would be especially well-suited to the family who would like to spend a week or two in the woods, but leave absolutely none of the comforts of home behind.
Our vacation home had an outdoors feel with liberal use of wood, wide decks, a brick fireplace and a hot tub outdoors under the trees. Snowshoes were on the wall of the living room with a fun fake bear rug in front of the fireplace and a stuffed animal doubling as a deer head with antlers protruding from the bricks above the fireplace. The private owners of this home obviously have a great sense of humor.
They also put a lot of emphasis on games and recreation with a spacious game room, with pool table, adjacent to the open, modern kitchen. The stove top and sink were built right into the island, and there was plenty of room for meal preparation for the largest of families. And there was also plenty of room for the family to sleep – four bedrooms altogether.
Just northeast from Arnold is the Bear Valley Ski Area. While not on a par with Squaw Valley or Heavenly, the Bear Valley ski area is still a prime candidate for a weekend or even an extended skiing vacation. We sampled the area one time and found that Bear Valley offers a surprisingly complete ski vacation experience.
Further up Highway 4, you'll connect with Highway 89, which will take you to the many recreation areas just south of Lake Tahoe. Be sure to stop by the historic town of Markleeville and nearby Grover Hot Springs State Park. Markleeville is the seat of Alpine County, the least populated county in California and, although tiny, this town is a fun stroll – especially if you enjoy historic buildings. The state park is a few miles out of town and offers a hot springs pool where adults can enjoy the effects of a soak in hot mineral water. The water is 104 degrees, but nearby you can also take a plunge into cooler water in a large swimming pool.
It's not too much further to another place where we have found the accmmodations extra-special – Sorensen's Resort. Out here where the mountains are high and the stress is low, Sorensen's Resort sells what owner John Brissenden describes as "the magic of the surrounding wilderness area." In fact, this wilderness is like staying in a national park without the bumper-to-bumper RVs. A network of trails and lakes are just minutes away in any direction, with the Carson mountain range always close at hand, just waiting to provide the perfect backdrop for your next family photo.
Just in case you big-city types suffer serious withdrawal, South Lake Tahoe is just a short scenic drive away – 16 miles to be precise. You can pop into town, get a fix of glitz at one of the major casinos and be back just in time to watch the deer feeding as you enjoy a quite glass of wine and a wilderness sunset.
When we arrived after dark, our cabin was already unlocked, the lights on to welcome us and an incredibly comfortable, fluffy bed was beckoning these weary travelers to a quiet, restful sleep in the woods. After all, that really is the Sorensen's calling card: the "cabin in the woods" experience that just happens to have a few extra amenities – such as gourmet dining.
At daybreak, we got a little better look at Sorensen's, and our awe-inspiring natural surroundings. The only resort in the Hope Valley, Sorensen's was built adjacent to the Carson River, a favorite for anglers. Out back of our cabin, boulders of all sizes were strewn along the sloping mountainside providing a tempting, woodsy area to explore and climb to our heart's content.
We were staying in a simple, but modern log cabin with a loft and bathroom area. The kitchen, complete with microwave, two-burner stove and a small refrigerator, was along one wall of the main cabin area. Nearby, a queen bed was covered with charming home-made quilts. The main room also included a sitting area and a dining area, as well as a free-standing wood stove with plenty of wood at the ready even though it was not needed this warm summer night.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: This Sierra-Nevada drive starts in Angel's Camp, about 134 miles east of San Francisco and a half-hour drive east from Stockton and Interstate 5 on Highway 4.
WHAT: This stretch of Highway 4 and Highway 89 offers some of California's best mountain scenery and most interesting attractions.
WHEN: This is a summertime trip – Highway 4 is closed east of Bear Valley ski area in winter.
WHY: The drive is a fix for mountain-lovers and history buffs, with ample attractions for both.
HOW: For information on Sorensen's Resort, visit www.sorensensresort.com or phone 800-423-9949. To plan a trip to Calaveras County, contact the Calaveras Visitors Bureau at 800-225-3764, or visit www.gocalaveras.com
Photos, from top: Charming town of Murphys; ultra-luxurious vacation home near Arnold; cabin offered by Sorensen's Resort; Hope Valley scenery
Photos by Cary and Sandi Ordway