Tell your golf buddies you’re heading to Graeagle for the weekend and you’ll likely get a quizzical look. One that suggests they’ve heard of it but can’t quite tell you why or exactly where it is.
The area referred to as Graeagle is a golf haven closer to Sacramento than Monterey but called the “Lost Sierra” in the past for a reason. With five quality courses reasonably priced and that you can have relatively to yourself, this is the summer to discover it.
It started with Graeagle Meadows in 1968, followed by Plumas Pines in 1980. Fine vacation-home courses, for sure, but the 1996 arrival of Whitehawk Ranch, its lush checkerboard-pattern fairways framed by native grasses, ratcheted things up. The Dragon at Nakoma, with its outrageous degree of difficulty, turbulent financial history and Frank Lloyd Wright-designed clubhouse, brought a level of mystique when it opened up the hill in 2000. Grizzly Ranch was private after its 2005 debut but has been public for four years and pushes the area over the top as a destination golf mecca.
Proximity is key – no course is more than 13 minutes from another. Don’t be befuddled by a golf guide that lists Graeagle Meadows and Plumas Pines in Graeagle, Whitehawk and Nakoma in Clio, Grizzly Ranch in Portola and Blairsden as home to restaurants and a brewery. Think Carmichael, Fair Oaks, Citrus Heights and Antelope without strip malls or traffic.
Graeagle is in southeastern Plumas County 21/2 hours from downtown Sacramento and its golf courses range in elevation from 4,500 to 5,100 feet in the eastern Sierra Nevada. Take Interstate 80 east and then Highway 89 north. By going 45 minutes past Truckee, it’s as if you’ve gone a thousand miles from everything.
Couples or diehard groups can equally appreciate the place. With the Sierra golf season in full swing and 100-degree Valley temperatures and Memorial Day weekend around the corner, here’s a suggested long-weekend playing and eating Graeagle itinerary.
The serenity of Highway 89 will get you in the right high-desert frame of mind ahead of a noonish tee time at Grizzly Ranch.
Once there, longtime area golf pro and friendly face Van Batchelder happily tells you about his selection of cowboy boots (spikeless) that sit alongside the golf shoes in the golf shop before sending you across the covered bridge to the first tee.
Grizzly Ranch opened as part of a private gated community but quickly felt the pinch of an economic downturn. With just 45 homes built on 350 lots, golfers will feel in a world of their own with the wind whistling through the towering pines as mountain-golf music.
Golf balls seemingly hover on the Kentucky Bluegrass fairways that are thriving after a mild winter. There are a couple of forced carries that might be daunting to short hitters, one in particular on the approach to the scenic par-5 third hole, but nothing unreasonable.
Afterward, you can reflect on your round sitting on the Adirondack chairs at the Lake House adjacent to the 18th green while listening to the waterfall and thinking about the garlic chip pizza at Gumba’s Pizzeria & Grill for dinner.
Chris David, Gumba’s pony-tailed owner/host and champion of all things Graeagle area – particularly the building of a ski lift at Johnsville Historic Ski Bowl to boost winter appeal – says the “chip” refers to how the light and crispy finished product is cut crisscross instead of in traditional pizza slices and can be eaten as an appetizer. Simple yet memorable.
Breakfast on the deck at Graeagle Meadows isn’t just about the panoramic views of the course and the bird’s-eye view of the 90-degree dog-left first hole and couldn’t-be-straighter 10th hole. The menu offers the “Lookout” breakfast plate, which includes meat, eggs, potatoes and pancakes – all the important food groups in one order.
The golf options are three valley courses: Graeagle Meadows, the area’s meat-and-potatoes course that’s home to the biggest local men’s and women’s clubs; Plumas Pines, a pristine short and tight layout that rewards accuracy more than power; and Whitehawk, a breathtaking yet forgiving course where career-best scores are often the source of evening toasts.
There are decisions to be made about dinner as well.
The Brewing Lair makes a tasty Belgian Farmhouse Ale called Incognito and provides a quaint picnic area, barbecues and disc golf outside its 15-barrel brew house but not food in the woods just off Highway 70.
Susan Dunithin, who opened the Brewing Lair two years ago with her husband, Rich, said they just intended to make and distribute beer, and the eating and recreating evolved organically. If you bring the hot dogs or hamburgers, they’ll provide the carbs (available for testing at several locations around Sacramento).
If you’re not inclined to cook, the Iron Door offers steak, seafood and possibly a paranormal experience. A painting of young Macel Moriarty from the early 1900s hangs on the wall at the throw-back restaurant. When the cooks arrive in the morning to find pots on the floor and spoons inside, it’s attributed to the ghost of Macel.
Fun and games are over; it’s time to challenge the Dragon. Two questions persist that head pro Caleb Olsen addressed.
Is the course even open? Yes. It was closed and only minimally maintained while a bankruptcy played out between 2006 and early 2010, but you wouldn’t know that based on the fine conditions.
Is it too difficult to be any fun? No. The course has been softened literally (the fairways are softer so balls will settle instead of springboarding into unplayable areas) and figuratively (the contours of several greens were reduced and scores of trees and bunkers were removed). The course rating – the average score an expert golfer would expect to shoot – was 74.2 when it opened; it’s now 72.0. The “Send Me Your Heroes” motto has been jettisoned.
Developer Dariel Garner, a nongolfer who made his money in computers and farming, wanted the toughest test possible and battled with architect Robin Nelson. Garner prevailed on No. 7 and No. 11, par-5s on which the fairway slopes remain penal. Whoever conceived No. 1, with its spectacular view of snow-capped Eureka Peak in the distance and Wright’s clubhouse above, was a genius.
Whatever you shoot or how many balls you lose – chances are neither will be record numbers – leave time for a meal before heading home. If not for the food, then the architecture.
Wright designed a Native American-themed clubhouse for Nakoma Country Club in Madison, Wis., in 1924 that, despite being called “the most unique building of its kind in America” by one newspaper, was not built because of expense and anti-Wright sentiment prompted by his personal behavior. Garner acquired the blueprints from the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and brought them to life at the Nakoma Golf Resort.
The largest of Wright’s seven octagonal “tepees” is home to the Wigwam Dining Room. At its center is a four-sided stone fireplace that rises 45 feet above the flagstone floor. The furniture embodies Wright’s belief that form and function should merge. The stained-glass windows are magnificent. The entire structure is inspiring.
With a sore back, suntanned extremities, a full stomach and spectacular images burned into your brain, it’s time to depart and start planning a return trip.