Scenic Mother Lode: Strike it rich on three Gold Country drives that take you off the beaten path
"They were the first discovered and are the best known," John Muir wrote of the giant sequoias at today's Calaveras Big Trees State Park. "Thousands of travelers from every country have come to pay them tribute."
These big trees are still worthy of tribute and make a fine destination for a backroads drive. Start off on State 4, which enters Calaveras County just east of Stockton, a handy back door into the Gold Country from the Central Valley.
Rolling first through grassy, oak-studded foothills, you'll pass swaths of poppies, goldfields, and buttercups bordering the road near tiny Copperopolis. Fast-growing Angels Camp is well worth a stop for its restaurants, shops, and sidewalk markers celebrating leggy champions―like Rosie the Ribbiter―from past competitions of the frog-jumping contest inspired by Mark Twain's famous story. From here you can detour south on State 49 to New Melones Lake to camp, hike, or rent a boat for fishing (bass, trout, kokanee) or waterskiing.
Continue east on State 4, and the highway skirts the wine country sprouting around Murphys. Chatom Vineyards is right on the highway and is a good stop for picnicking and tasting some estate-grown Zinfandel.
The highway continues to climb, and by the time you hit the giant sequoias in Calaveras Big Trees State Park, the altitude is high enough that patches of snow may remain along the trails that wind through the Sierra redwood giants. The most popular walk is the interpretive trail into the North Grove to the massive Empire State tree, with its base circumference of 30 feet. The 6,000-acre park has six picnic areas and 129 campsites.
Schedule your return so you hit Angels Camp in time for an early dinner. There's traditional and contemporary Italian fare at Crusco's Ristorante, in a 150-year-old stone building, but catching the sunset from the veranda at Camps Restaurant over a meal of, say, seared ahi tuna is the perfect way to end the day.