Calaveras County mines for tourists in Gold Country
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Calaveras County in the Sierra Nevada foothills gets its name from the Spanish word for skulls. Early Spanish explorers reported seeing skulls of Native Americans along what is now called the Calaveras River. But it was gold, not skulls that would put the region on the map. The area's population exploded following the 1849 California Gold Rush.
Now one of Calaveras County's biggest cash cows is tourism, which was kept afloat during the COVID pandemic mostly by Bay Area residents who were looking for a getaway within easy driving distance. At about a 2.5-hour drive from San Francisco, Calaveras County fits the bill. The Calaveras County Visitors Bureau estimates that about a million tourists a year visit the county, which has a population of only 45,000. That translates into support for jobs that employ 2,400 people and nearly $6 million in state and local taxes.
The county, like much of rural California, has long had a live-and-let-live attitude toward LGBTQ rights. It also could soon elect its first openly gay member of the Board of Supervisors. Martin Huberty is running for the District 3 seat, looked upon as the most liberal district in the otherwise deep-red county. The election is June 7.
Huberty grew up in Sacramento but his ancestors emigrated from Luxembourg and Ireland to Calaveras County during the gold rush. He moved back to his family's roots with his partner, Grant Armstrong, and currently works as the executive director for the Calaveras County Visitors Bureau and is CEO of the Calaveras Chamber of Commerce.
"There is a strong lesbian community here," Huberty said. "I wish it was the same with gay men."
The Tri-County LGBT Alliance representing Amador, Calaveras, and Tuolumne counties maintains a Facebook page with LGBTQ events and support groups.
The Alliance this year plans a Pride in the Park day in Murphys September 3. The Alliance is also organizing the #Out4MentalHealth Tri-County Picnic and Skill Share event on June 19 in Sutter Creek. Also coming up is the Safe Space Art Show celebrating "rural queer identity and artists" that includes all three of the tri-counties. Art is due May 23 for the May 29 opening and reception at Rosebud's Cafe in Jackson.
Calaveras Big Trees State Park in Arnold is the biggest draw for tourists to the county. The park's northern grove of giant sequoias first became a tourist attraction in the 1850s and is one of the longest, continuously operating tourist attractions in California. It has been a state park since 1931.
The town of Murphys is a magnet for tourists. It is home to art galleries, live theater, eclectic shops, restaurants, wine tastings, and charming hotels and bed and breakfasts. Boyle MacDonald Wines on Main Street includes live music Fridays. Among the most popular performers you may see there and at other venues in Murphys is lesbian vocalist Jill Warren. She has performed around the country and worked as a guitarist in the Las Vegas mega-show "Peepshow" as well as for touring companies of "Grease" and "Cats." She now calls Murphys home.
The Murphys Historic Hotel in the heart of downtown features fine dining and a separate saloon with casual bar food. It has been in business since 1856 and former president Ulysses S. Grant, banker J.P. Morgan, and writer Mark Twain are among those who have slept there.
Be sure to check out the Red Apple, an apple stand about 10 minutes north of Murphys, along Highway 4. It's on the way to Big Trees park. It is famous for its fresh-made apple doughnuts and pie, and, of course, fresh-picked apples.
Ironstone Vineyards in Murphys features wine tastings and great food at the Gold Leaf Bistro. The vineyard's bucolic grounds include a large amphitheater concert space that attracts big name musicians. The restaurant gets its name from the world's largest crystalline gold piece that is on display in a vault at the vineyard's gift shop and museum. It was unearthed in nearby Jamestown in 1992. Ironstone founder John Kautz purchased the piece two years later for an undisclosed sum, but it was appraised at the time for $3.5 million.
If you have had your fill of wine tastings, Hinterhaus Distilling in Arnold offers vodka, gin, whiskey, and liqueur tastings. Husband and wife team Nate and Bonnie Randall, hands-on owners, opened for business in 2020. Arnold is 4,000 feet above sea level. The higher elevation translates into a lower temperature boiling point and some say that results in better flavors.
Calaveras County could be renamed Cavernous County, with three huge caves open for touring. Mercer Caverns was discovered by Walter Mercer in 1885 and has been a tourist attraction ever since. Early tourists had to rappel down the cave with ropes and candlelight. Mercer Caverns is about a mile north of Murphys. Moaning Caverns Adventure Park is about a 15-minute drive south of Mercer Caverns and features the largest single cave chamber in California. A 10-story spiral staircase leads to the cave's floor. The other cave, California Cavern State Historic Landmark, is a little out of the way, about 40 minutes from Murphys, but if you can make it there you will be treated to the state's longest cavern system. It is also California's first "showcave," opening to tourists in 1850.
Copperopolis is a town that is hard to pronounce but easy to visit. It is just off of Highway 4. The town dates back to 1860 and gets its name from copper mining. While most of the old town was destroyed in fires, a brand-new Copperopolis sprung up about 16 years ago. It is designed to look like an old gold rush town. The centerpiece of Copperopolis is the upscale Gateway Hotel. Many have said that it looks like the courthouse in the movie "Back to the Future." A picturesque plaza with quaint shops and restaurants surround it. The Gateway's sister property, the Golf Club at Copper Valley, offers two-bedroom bungalow accommodations and the property's restaurant, Vine18, is known for fine dining; the Vine18 Bar attracts a crowd for its 2 to 5 p.m. happy hour Monday-Friday.
The aforementioned Twain is believed to have penned the short story "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" while staying in Copperopolis, but the story is about the frog jumping contest in nearby Angels Camp. The Calaveras County Fair & Jumping Frog Jubilee happens on the third weekend of May (19-22 this year) in Angels Camp and focuses worldwide attention on Calaveras County every year.
You will need a car to get up to Calaveras County, but once you are there, a good way to go if you are wine tasting is to take an organized tour from the Gold Rush Tour Company. The company combines wine tasting with a guided walk of Murphys, and another of their tours combines wine tastings with tours inside wine caves that stay cool even during the hottest summer day.
For more information, check out the county's official tourism site at Gocalaveras.com.
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