Those, long and winding country roads, which in high summer are as golden as the precious metal once found in the soil, are reason enough to make haste to the Gold Country.
It’s long been a haven for wine lovers, who cozy up in bed and breakfast establishments tucked into well-preserved Gold Rush-era downtowns. But there’s more to the Gold Country than just vino. It’s a region steeped in history, from Mark Twain to Black Bart, a geologic marvel with caves and deep canyons, and, farther along, the lesser-known but still-gorgeous Hetch Hetchy section of Yosemite National Park.
Moaning Cavern (Vallecito)
Listen closely once you enter the dark, cool and dank inner-sanctum of Moaning Caverns, and you’ll hear a faint but eerie moaning. No worries: We’re told it comes from the sound of water dripping against the flowstone.
But you may be moaning from acute anxiety once you’ve been strapped into a harness and told to rappel down a slick but glittery cavern, at first narrow, then wide open.
Be sure to look down and around and absorb the jutting calcite deposits and multi-hued walls slick with water. Don’t fret, the pulleys and ropes will hold you. Enjoy. In minutes, you’re at the observation floor 165 feet below, where you’re unstrapped and can listen to a presentation about the cave’s geologic history. Bolder types can sign up for an additional spelunking excursion, which is fun not just because you get to say “spelunking” a lot, but because you can crawl and slither around tight spaces wearing a head lamp.
There also are walking tours down to the bottom. You descend a spiral staircase with safety handrails. No matter which way you’ve gotten down, the way up is to walk. That’s quite a workout, like doing 20 minutes on a StairMaster. For those that like to stay above ground, or even higher, Moaning Caverns also offers zipline runs.
The National Hotel (Jackson)
The 161-year-old National Hotel, which rises like a fortress at the base of Main Street in downtown Jackson, is called the “Old Grand Dame.”
We must say, she looks fabulous, not a day over 150.
In its time, the National has hosted presidents (Garfield and Hoover), senators (Alan Cranston was a regular), Hollywood types (John Wayne and director John Ford once staged an epic $50,000 poker game there), mob figures (Mickey Cohen’s “associates”) and generations of ladies who lunch and ladies who, uh, mostly worked evenings.
If not for Stan Lukowicz and family, the National might just be another Gold Rush relic. Instead, Lukowicz and his two sons, Stan Jr. and Dan, in 2010 bought the dilapidated historic husk and pumped $4 million of his own money into what he dubbed a renovation, not a preservation.
The result is a stunning place for a weekend getaway, with a lively bar, a fine restaurant and comfortable rooms in a 28,500-square-foot space. Lukowicz’s vision for the hotel was a mix of tradition and modern luxury, resulting in such changes as moving the bar away from the front doors and adding a wine cellar next to the restaurant (Stanley’s Steakhouse). But they kept the mid-1800s look of the place, says interior designer Angela Mastagni.
“Everything I picked had today taste but old-time feel, but (didn’t) go over-the-top with heavy drapes and dark walls,” she said.
She made use of century-old chandeliers and a lamp in the lobby that originally ran on kerosene and had to be wired for electricity. She lined the lobby ceiling with distressed copper, covered the downstairs walls with tastefully ornate silver wallpaper and painted the 36 rooms a muted greenish-gray.
She put a large oil painting of the original National, with horse-drawn carriages parked out front, on the stairwell heading down to the restaurant. The painting had been moldering for decades on the wall and was so damaged from decades of smoke and dust that, before it was restored, you could barely recognize the National’s distinctive white facade.
Railtown 1897 State Historical Park (Jamestown)
Parts of the movie “High Noon,” were filmed here. Reason enough to stop at Railtown. OK, so you weren’t born when the Gary Cooper classic hit the silver screen. How about “The Unforgiven” or “Back to the Future III?” They also were filmed in Jamestown using Railtown’s resident star engine, ol’ No. 3.
The engine, docents say, has been featured in more than 100 movies and scores of TV shows. You, too, get to pose for a selfie with this celebrity when touring the round house, where the trains are kept.
Here’s some railyard gossip: It seems No. 3, like many Hollywood stars, has had some work done: a complete restoration, to the tune of $1.5 million (all in donations), four years ago.
Check the Railtown website for the schedule of train rides that the park offers in the summer. You can also watch the railroad workers in action in the round house, getting the engines ready to go. “We try to make everything as accessible to the public as possible, “ Ranger Kimberly Baker said.
Ironstone Vineyards (Murphys)
Yeah, you have to make a wine stop if you’re haunting the Gold Country. Hey, call it hydration, not indulging. And Ironstone Vineyards certainly is a wine-tasting mecca in the Shenandoah Valley.
But you can be a teetotaler to enjoy your visit. There’s a lush garden and nature tour – yes, even in a drought – but the big attraction is the museum/gift shop. Store manager Chris Gomez says the star attraction is the huge gold nugget – even larger than the diamond basketball star Kobe Bryant bought his wife after his infidelity – ensconced in a display case inside a vault.
It’s the Kautz specimen. They call it “the Crown Jewel,” and for good reason. It contains 44 pounds of gold, said to be the largest crystalline specimen in the world.
It’s not pure gold, mind you; there are layers of quartz, clay, decomposed shale and pyrite mixed in with the leaf gold. It was unearthed in 1992 and the brochure says it all: “It is priceless in value.” But you can buy a piece of Gold Country history, since the gift shop sells Gold-in-Quartz, “Natural nugget” jewelry from the area.
Evergreen Lodge, Hetch Hetchy (Yosemite National Park)
A 22-acre lodge, cabin and tent-cabin facility, thankfully spared during last summer’s wildfire that scorched much of the region to the West, Evergreen is a great starting point to venture out into this segment of Yosemite. It has a back-to-nature vibe, but also boasts a high-end restaurant, handsome oak-paneled tavern, pool, spa, bocce courts, foosball and many other diversions, like the nightly s’mores roast, the weekly movie night and, yes, bingo. Call it a blend of the ritzy with the rustic.
Built in 1921 for dam construction workers and turned into a lodge in the 1950s, Evergreen doesn’t let tourists forget they are a mere 1.5 miles from the Yosemite entrance. The lodge offers an array of guided outdoor recreation options for guests without experience or the gumption to venture into the park by themselves.
There’s the eight-hour “Naturalist Tour, “ led by, of course, a naturalist, that hits nearly all the highlights, such as waterfalls, rock formations and includes a hike and picnic lunch ($115) and a private fly-fishing trip with guides who won’t yell at you if you hook them on your cast. And, in season, you can raft on the Tuolumne and Merced rivers.
Lest you think you’re not roughing it at Evergreen, do note this great, great sacrifice: no cell service and spotty Wi-Fi. Good thing Twain had a cabin of his own to write “Roughing It, “ because it might have been impossible here.
Then again, he might never have left the hot tub.
One side effect from the fire is that it’s cut back on hiking options. But you can still visit the natural wonder that is Wapama Falls. It’s a 5-mile round trip to the falls. On the return trip, you get a peek of O’Shaughnessy Dam from a distance, and it sends you into a reverie about what Muir saw back before the dam project construction was started to give thirsty San Franciscans their water.
Until this spring, when a massive rock slide hit and buried the trail, you could’ve opted for the 13.5-mile option and get to see Rancheria Falls, as well as some gorgeous sights of the reservoir, with sheer granite cliffs not 5 feet from the single-track trail. The park service is working to re-open the trail.
But for those wanting lots of climbing, you still can do to the 13-mile Smith Peak trail, away from the reservoir. At the top (elevation: 7,750) you can take in the entire reservoir.