By Emma Krasov. Photography by Yuri Krasov.
Calaveras County in Northern California is naturally gorgeous, uncrowded, visitor friendly, and [surprise-surprise!] politically purple, which means that people who walk into a bar here do not expect the entire room to vote exactly the same way they do!
And yet, they all peacefully coexist here… maybe because they have better things to do than preaching to their echo chambers or calling each other names.
First, a little bit of history.
Frog Jump 1. The Calaveras County Fair and Jumping Frog Jubilee
The annual Calaveras County Fair that happens on the third weekend of May, is your typical California massive outdoor celebration of livestock presentations, agricultural exhibits, lots of great local food and drink, and live entertainment. This particular County Fair differs from all the others because of its trademark event, the Jumping Frog Jubilee.
Not many Mark Twain’s fans realize that the great American writer used to stay for a few months in a cabin near Angels Camp (the only incorporated city of the Calaveras County), and that his first published work was titled “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”
The story was based on a tall tale Mark Twain overheard at a local tavern, and in a classic life-imitates-art fashion, the Frog Jump Competition became a real thing starting in 1928. It turned into a staple of the County Fair in the 1930s.
The Frog Jump begins on Thursday, the first day of Calaveras County Fair, and continues on Friday, Saturday and Sunday morning. On Sunday afternoon, the top 50 jumping frogs enter into the International Frog Jump Finals.
By the rules, each frog’s record is measured at three jumps from the starting pad.
This unique Calaveras event attracts professional frog teams (frog jockeys) from all over the state, and more than 40,000 spectators come over to see the Jump.
The competing bullfrogs lead a lavish life at the Fair. Housed at a Frog Spa, they are treated like VIPs or rather VIFs. In 1995, the Board of Directors of the 39th District Agricultural Association adopted the Frog Welfare Policy, and the Fair is committed to the humane treatment of animals.
Frog Jump 2. Mother Nature—Underground Caves and Giant Sequoias
The ancient land of the Gold Country (where the historic Calaveras County is located) is rich in mineral deposits formed here millions of years ago. This is the land of precious gold ore, and the famous 1849 California Gold Rush, but also of deep, mysterious, and endlessly fascinating underground caves, some of them open to the public and offering guided tours year-round.
Mercer Caverns in Murphys is named after its discoverer, Walter J. Mercer, who pioneered the public tours of the vast V-shaped cave back in 1885, conducted with the help of ropes and candles.
Nowadays, it’s a series of gently electrically illuminated walkways and chambers, with 208 steps down and 232 up, among the fantastical shapes of stalactites and stalagmites from smooth and jellyfish-like formations to spiky crystals looking like tiny Christmas trees. Those used to leave myriads of invisible prickly inextricable needles in the early explorers’ fingers. Since then, there’s a strict no-touching rule inside the caves—both for the reason of human safety and to preserve the fragility of this unique and precious natural environment.
At some point during the excursion, a tour guide will turn off the lights to make you understand what complete darkness actually means, and will go into intricate details of early discoveries including 2,000-year-old skeletal remains found in the cave.
Moaning Caverns in Vallecito, inside the Moaning Caverns Adventure Park were in fact used by the prehistoric peoples as burial grounds (or rather undergrounds) as was discovered by archaeologists who researched human bones and ritual artifacts, some dating as far back as 12,000 years.
Known since 1851, but equipped with a long metal spiral staircase only in 1922, this cave presents a single 100-foot descent down 144 stairs. At the very bottom of the cave that could easily conceal the entire Statue of Liberty, a knowledgeable guide will talk about the early miners who discovered it, and their disappointment at the absence of gold here; early expeditions, equipped with ladders and torches; burial remains of the ancients, and the picturesque “sculptures” all around that were formed one drop of water and one grain of sediment at a time in the course of countless millennia.
Calaveras Big Trees State Park, founded in 1931, is a hidden treasure, mostly unknown to the eager crowds searching in other regions of California for the world’s largest trees, giant sequoias. According to John Muir (1838-1914), environmentalist and early wilderness advocate, known as the Father of the National Parks, the Calaveras giants “were the first discovered and are the best known. Thousands of travelers from every country have come to pay them tribute of admiration and praise.”
A mixed-conifer forest, the Park has two massive collections of giant sequoias in the North and South Groves, surrounded by their smaller brethren, like sugar pine, white fir, Ponderosa pine, Pacific yew, incense cedar, mountain dogwood, and hazelnut.
One of the most prominent sites along the 1.5-mile North Grove Trail is the Big Stump, left after the cutting down of the 280-feet tall Discovery Tree, in 1853. The destruction of the sequoia, 1,244 years old as counted by its rings, angered John Muir, who wrote, “The vandals then danced upon the stump!” Indeed, they did—the stump appeared to be 25 feet in diameter.
On this photo, Martin Huberty, Executive Director of the Calaveras Visitors Bureau and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce, a sixth-generation representative of one of the pioneer families, relays the history of the land.
Frog Jump 3. Hospitality—Wine, Food, and Lodging
Strictly speaking, Calaveras is considered a sub-region to the Sierra Foothills AVA, but as one of California’s original counties, established in 1850, it has a long history of successful winemaking based on plentiful vineyards on the hills above the town of Murphys as well as side-by-side tasting rooms along its Main Street.
Ironstone Vineyards not only produces excellent classic, reserve, and limited release wines, but also boasts a sizable, well-maintained territory with green lawns, shady groves and gardens, and bodies of water; a large tasting room, a cave-like wine cellar, and even a museum!
There are plenty of Gold Rush artifacts at the Ironstone Heritage Museum & Gallery, including a huge crystalline leaf gold specimen, and plenty of humorous depictions of… you guessed it, frogs! As of 2004, Ironstone has been listed as the 17th-largest winery in the United States, where multiple music concerts, weddings, and other public and private events take part on most weekends.
Wildflowers and their cultivated cousins at Ironstone deserve a special mention. Just walking around the estate is a treat!
Boyle MacDonald Wines tasting room in Murphys presents wonderful food and wine pairings, and quite a few European-style varietals from a husband-and-wife team, Craig MacDonald and Kate Boyle MacDonald (remarkably, one of the not-so-many female winemakers in the industry).
Besides the multiple wineries, Calaveras has a new and very special craft distillery, Hinterhaus Distilling,in the town of Arnold, owned and operated by Nate and Bonnie Randall. For their aromatic and tasty mountainous gin, vodka, bourbon whiskeys and liqueurs the spouses use Sierra Nevada’s native plants and casks from local vintners. They dedicate a lot of effort to reaching the highest quality of their small-batch spirits, and take extra care of artful bottling, their cozy tasting room, and even letting the first responders know how much they are appreciated here.
With all the Calaveras’s outstanding libations, you’ll be right to expect an equally enticing food scene. As an example of a glorious synthesis of local food and wine, this reporter won’t soon forget a lavish dinner at Verona 18 Cucina Italiana in Copperopolis, with upscale ambiance and serene golf course views from every window.
Sandra Hess, Executive Director for Calaveras Winegrape Alliance, presented a rich and diverse winemaking landscape of estate vineyards, hand-crafted wines, and family-run tasting rooms. “We’re not competing with anyone,” said Hess. “We’re working together to bring our sustainable mom-and-pop businesses, created and maintained by our hard working people, and their excellent product to the wider wine market.”
Chef Jaime Alderete created a charcuterie board of prosciutto, cheeses, dried fruit, nuts, and crostini to be paired with Sauvignon Blanc from Newsome Harlow, introduced by the winery co-owner, Scott Klann.
Spring salad of assorted greens, feta cheese, strawberries, and almonds with balsamic vinaigrette was paired with Grenache Blanc “Stepping Stones” from Prospect 772 Wine Company (“purveyors of artisan Rhone style wines”) presented by Ron Pieretti, the company founder.
A finger-licking rare (in more than one sense) Tomahawk ribeye steak, grilled and topped with garlic butter, found its match in a highly original delicious Prospect 772 “Browler” Syrah/Viognier Blend. According to Pieretti, this wine, 94% Syrah and 6% Viognier, is “field-fermented,” when the grapes of different verities grow together, and are harvested on the same day.
A succulent Parmesan-crusted Alaskan halibut with leek risotto, grilled asparagus, and dill aioli was perfectly paired with Petite Sirah Rose from Val du Vino, brought about by the winery’s co-owner, Mark Hoover.
For dessert, a classic French lemon crème-brûlée made a great pairing with Val du Vino “Red Dragon” Zinfandel (50%) blend with Merlot (25%) and Cabernet Franc (25%).
Murphys Hotel Saloon Restaurant, a boisterous and rather busy eatery inside a historic hotel, serves prime rib, filet mignon, pork chops, fried chicken, and other American classics, with some interesting vegetarian options, like mushroom Wellington.
In Copperopolis there’s Baldi’s at Copper Valley—a family-run restaurant, very popular with weekend breakfast crowds, also serving lunch and dinner of various salads, sandwiches, burgers, bowls, and specialties in a casual and friendly atmosphere. Located across the manicured Town Square from Gateway Hotel Copper Valley, this all-day eatery is a natural choice for the hotel guests.
A new, sparkling-clean, very comfortable, and exemplarily maintained (General Manager Bill Babis) Gateway Hotel is an ideal home-away-from-home lodging, with quiet quarters, efficient service, great attention to detail, and pleasantly modern décor. A short walk will take you to an open-air swimming pool with fire pits and bucolic views of the surrounding green hills and vineyards.
While in Calaveras, you can safely leave your car at the hotel parking lot, and indulge in wine tasting and all kinds of adventures with very informative tours and super comfy transportation from the Gold Rush Tour Company based in Angels Camp. The family owners/operators offer wine tours, historic tours, adventure tours, and customized routes with pick-ups in several locations throughout Calaveras County as well as transportation for weddings, parties, and private events.
To plan your summer trip, visit Calaveras Visitors Bureau website at: https://www.gocalaveras.com/
To book Gateway Hotel Copper Valley go to: https://coppervalley.com/