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Sonora and Sierra Weekend
May 30-June 1, 2015
Written June 3+
Dear Diary, Friends, and Families,
In the old days, we could get in the car for a few days and visit a country or two or three, filling each trip with historic churches, castles, and squares. Now, that's not so easy. The distances are large and local history is brief, but ya' deal with the cards ya' have. We decided to take a few days up in the California historic Sierra gold towns and see what we could.
I had recently subscribed to an on-line photography training series, and I prepared for the trip by playing the travel photo video. Of course, the training was set in Paris, perhaps the best travel city in the world, and we were heading to Sonora, California, but I thought the photo guidance might generically apply. In brief, the instructions said:
-- take standard, "post card", pictures first
-- show architecture, overall and details
-- find local, colorful, festivals or markets
-- visit museums and galleries
-- snap a few of your meals
-- include pictures of the local people, preferably in local costume
Now, this sounds great with France in mind, but it proved more of a challenge here in California.
We left Fresno and headed straight north, along rural highways instead of Highway 99, the more direct path. Because this is the route to Yosemite National Park, we have driven and photographed much of this route several times. We even have a standard breakfast stop in Oakhurst, midway toward Yosemite. (Pop's Family Restaurant). The breakfast was good, but I forgot the travel guidance of snapping the standard travel food shot. Just imagine a well-presented omelet.
Just outside of Oakhurst, we tried our first local shopping, kind of like a village market in France. One of the houses up behind town was advertising an estate sale, and we had time to kill, so it was a good match. Shopping itself, however, was not so great. The organizers said all the good stuff was gone two hours earlier. Somehow I'm grateful.
From Oakhurst it was a pleasant foothill drive past dry, yellow hills and almost-empty lakes and reservoirs. The signs of the four-year drought were everywhere, despite a few rains in the last couple of weeks. Last year, parts of Oakhurst burned and I can imagine the locals worry again this year.
Our next stop was the day's "colorful festival" and museum. First the festival: The Mariposa County Fire Safe Rally. Six or eight local fire and emergency agencies had display tents set up to educate folks about the perils of the upcoming summer. We had the entire place almost to ourselves, although I imagine parents will be bringing little kids to see all the fire engines and big red trucks. Sammy would have liked it.
Right next to the Fire Safe Rally (shouldn't that be "safety"?) was the California State Mining and Mineral Museum. This turned out to be a real gem of a museum, although no photos were allowed. (There had been a major burglary of over a million dollars in gold was stolen and the investigation discovered that "tourists" had thoroughly cased the place by taking photos. Hence: no photos.) The displays of local mining operation were simple enough for kids and non-experts. There was even a tunnel reconstruction showing the condition miners worked in back when gold was being extracted by hand. The museum highlight was the Fricot "nugget", a 13.8 pound example of crystallized gold, the largest remaining intact chunk of gold from the 19th Century California mines. No wonder the California gold rush was such a draw!
Nearby, we stopped at our first gold country town: Mariposa. The two or three blocks of downtown were cute restorations/reconstructions of the 19th Century gold town, with plenty of trinket, gift, and antique shops. Over the next three days, we would see enough of these old gold towns that they blended seamlessly. Each had one-story or two-story buildings, normally wooden. Most had an old, two-story, hotel with a balcony. Each had antique stores with ... stuff. Each had candy stores or other kid-friendly shops. Each had not-too-memorable cafes and restaurants. I suppose French or Germany villages also had their own patterns, but that was different.
We reached Sonora before our hotel was ready, so we stopped at Tallulah's Restaurant for a late lunch. We had eaten here before and were impressed and today's meal was just as good. I had pasta and wine, while Marianne had soup, ???, and water (wine is still off her medical regime. Too bad. I miss my sipping partner.) I did remember to bring out the camera, but the pictures did not do justice to the dishes. Several hours later, we came back for desert. No pictures, just good memories of great Italian lemon cake and a chocolate brownie Sunday. It is becoming clear to me why I gained weight this week.
After lunch, it was time to check in at the Bradford Inn B & B. The late 19th Century home lies in the shadow of a modern city office building, but the location is very convenient for downtown strolling. Our experience has been that American B and Bs are often ... special, with the quirks of the owners showing through. The Bradford Inn fit this pattern. Eli, the owner, was friendly and accommodating, but our room and the grounds and hotel generally reminded us of a Berlin hotel we stayed in once that had been characterized in the tour guide as "shabby sheik". Nuff said.
Early Sunday morning I was up to implement some of my tour photography lessons. I remembered early strolls in Paris or Italian villages we had seen in the old days and hope that magic would happen. Not quite, but I had tried.
After breakfast back at the Inn, we headed out to see other towns of the gold rush era. Early on the trip we drove along Stanislaus River, seeing the scars left by 19th Century miners. They used a technique call hydraulic mining, where the gold-containing hillside dirt was washed away by powerful water jets. Gold would be removed in downstream sluices. Nowadays, the river is dammed and water retained in Melones and New Melones Reservoirs, the 4th largest water-storage in California. Reportedly, the current drought has left the reservoir below 20% capacity.
We crossed the river on the Parrots Ferry Bridge. The bridge was built in 1979 using one of the longest prestressed concrete beams ever made in America (640 feet or 195 meters). It sagged two feet in the ten years after construction and had to be reinforced. The engineer in me made me not want to use this structure any more than we had to, especially with the water almost 400 feet below.
Eventually, we made it to Murphys, one of the most popular gold country tourist destinations. Murphys has everything: two-story hotel; candy, antique, and souvenir stores; wine tasting; restaurants. For some reason, it is particularly popular with motorcycle folks too, and this introduced a noisy ambiance we could have done without. (I know these were not the same people as recently caused the commotion in Waco, Texas, but one does think differently now.) We managed to buy nothing more than a taco and hamburger lunch. I consider that a success.
We continued on up the gold town road, through Mokelumne Hill, Jackson, and finally to Sutter Creek. I found that I had stopped taking pictures, maybe because the towns looked so similar and, unfortunately, unremarkable. I know it's unfair, but one quaint gold town could substitute for most of the others.
So, how was our full day of gold-country touring? Honestly, we were disappointed and out of sorts by the time we got back to Sonora. Too much sameness. Too little real art work, perhaps (Chaos aside). All "old" buildings were late 19th Century, wood-frame, rustic, pioneer shops and houses. I know we were spoiled, but our own 300-person village back in Franconia had more history, art, food, and architecture than all these towns put together. We still need to find some magic in our new country.
For our last full day, we could not face another quaint mining town, so we decided to simply drive a bit, east to Sonora Pass. Before the day was over, we had driven east through Sonora Pass and come back via Ebbetts Pass and had seen some of the most beautiful parts of our new home, California.
Our first stop was Pinecrest Campground, run by the US Forest Service in the Stanislaus National Forest. Although the website warns of a fully-booked campgrounds during summer months, we saw plenty of space among the nicely laid out camps. I have not been camping in many decades, but the setting reminded me of my childhood family trips in Eastern Washington, Idaho, and Montana. It almost made me want to buy a tent and give it a try. Almost.
A short drive later, we detoured to the Donnells Vista, hoping that "Vista" meant something useful. It did. The sturdy observation point hangs on the edge of a deep canyon, leading down to the Donnells Dam and Reservoir of the Stanislaus River. (Good story of a 2001 hike in to the lake.) The view was spectacular. The spring wildflowers were giving a show at our feet and the gray-walled rock canyon drew our gaze far below to the river. I took far more pictures that we could ever need!
Farther along the Sonora Pass road (aka CA 108), we passed warning signs indicating a 26% grade. That's steep, but for now it was uphill, so it didn't seem too dramatic. We had taken our little Audi Q3 for its first real road trip and it seemed to manage OK, although I'll admit that I missed the Jeep's diesel engine torque and fuel economy.
In any event, we passed through more and more spectacular mountains. More pictures!
Eventually we made it down into the Topaz Lake valley, north on CA 395, and then left on CA 89, the road through Ebbetts Pass. This road was significantly smaller than the Sonora Pass road and the surrounding mountains seemed not quite so rugged. The drive was uneventful, except for the moment when we found ourselves facing a huge red truck hauling a very long and large load. I squeezed the Q3 as far to the right as I could and the monster roared past us. I can not imagine what we would have done had we encountered him in one of the zillion narrow switchbacks.
Near the pass, we stopped for a picture of Kinney Reservoir, with Ebbetts Peak in the background. The Sierras are truly magical in locations like this.
However, by now, Marianne had car sickness and I was just plain tired from a full day of mountain driving. We stopped by Murphys for a quick bite and then it was home to the Bradford Inn. Our cramped room's good bed was a welcome sight.
What did we learn? First, the Sierras themselves are as beautiful as any European mountains, something we'd doubted until now. Second, "California Gold Towns" should be visited no more than once, and maybe just one town at that. Pick one, any one. Their veneer of history is thin, and it was hard to not think we were simply on a movie set -- maybe because many of these towns had appeared in dozens of good and bad movies over the years.
Finally, I think we are over purposeless travel, at least for now. We have often had trips with little or no defined purpose, and generally enjoyed the process, but not now, not here at least. We will see what we do instead.
John and Marianne
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