Numerous roads run from the Sacramento area into the Calaveras County foothills—map out your own route, depending on your starting point. We began in Folsom, cruising out through El Dorado Hills on Latrobe Road to Highway 16, then onto Highway 49 through Jackson (bypassing cute Sutter Creek) for a twisty ride into frog-jumping country.
Mark Twain drew fame to the area in 1865 when he wrote about “the celebrated jumping frog of Calaveras County.” Today, the Jumping Frog Jubilee at the county fair brings thousands of visitors to the fairgrounds—also known as Frogtown—every May. But these foothills promise more than just bulgy-eyed amphibians. Pass through rickety towns rife with history, cross lakes with tendrils reaching around flower-dotted hillsides, and keep your eyes open for amusing oddities that remind you that this is the backwoods.
Explore the shops in historic downtown (don’t miss Angels Camp World Mercantile) or catch a flick at the Angels Theatre, almost worth the price of movie admission just to see the hand-painted Gold Rush-era murals within. If you do nothing else, pop into the Angels Camp Museum to admire the replicas of mining camps and the carriage house, which will make you really thankful Henry Ford invented the automobile. Stop for a sandwich at The Pickle Barrel, then get adventurous and head over to Moaning Cavern Park, where you can rappel 165 feet down the limestone walls inside the cave or ride the new outdoor zip line. Back on Highway 49, pass New Melones Lake, a beautiful reservoir created by the dammed up Stanislaus River. Make a note to dust off your water skis and fishing poles and return the first warm weekend this spring. The lake is a hot houseboating spot. (about 25 miles from Jackson, Highway 49)
Columbia State Historic Park
In this working town preserved in Gold Rush style, prices are modern day, but everything else harkens back to the 1850s. Taste hand-dipped chocolates or make a candle, take tea at Columbia Kate’s, meander down to the two-story brick schoolhouse or the cemetery (it’s always sobering to see the graves of toddlers and realize how far medicine has come), or grab a quick bite in one of the restaurants. Ride a stagecoach—fair-weather weekends only—or listen to music over ice cold beer or sarsaparilla at the Jack Douglass Saloon. Slip into fancy dresses and goofy hats for a photo op, and wonder how the people who work in this little outpost stand putting on costumes day after day—they dress like it’s 1850. To really learn the ins and outs, take a free, docent-led, one-hour town tour weekends at 11 a.m. (about 14 miles from Angels Camp, Highway 49)
This town, the seat of Tuolumne County, truly feels like the wild, wild West, with its main street antiques shops, historic churches and circa-1850s architecture at every turn. Arts and culture abound: You’ll find museums and art galleries, and cool old places to see live theater. Admire the gorgeous Red Church, as the St. James Episcopal Church is called by locals. Wander into the Tuolumne County Courthouse, still in use in all its historic splendor, and you’ll notice the courtroom seats have hat racks beneath them. A few blocks beyond the courthouse, the Tuolumne County Museum and History Center keeps a good-size gold collection and shows you what jail cells looked like back in the day. If you’re a dog lover, be sure to pop into Jake & Lulu’s Pet Boutique on Washington Street (the main drag) for a treat, then—dog lover or not—wander across the street for an ice cream cone or some old-fashioned penny candy from The Candy Vault. Grab a burger at Diamondback Grill—with a side of sweet potato fries, you won’t be hungry the rest of the day. All around Sonora, keep your eye open for the panhandling horse. We saw the horse hitched up at Taco Bell on Highway 108—blanketed, with a sign and a bucket for spare change. (about four miles from Columbia State Historic Park, Highway 49)
Heading east on Highway 108 out of Sonora, you should run into snow in about 30 minutes. Just before you reach Strawberry, traffic slows and parked cars line the highway (beside “No Parking” signs, of all things). Look to the right and see the Sno-Park, a winter wonderland of snowman creators and wild-riding sledders, tobogganers and saucer-coasters. Watch for moms re-dressing wet, grumpy kids behind SUVs, and look out for loose dogs running wild while the car door’s open and everyone else is distracted. For more excitement in the snow, continue on Highway 108 and take the fork in the road toward Dodge Ridge Ski Resort, where 10 lifts will take you up the mountain and three terrain parks lure you in for some freestyle snowboarding fun. If the formal ski or Sno-Park experience doesn’t appeal, just pull into the Pioneer Trail campground just outside Dodge Ridge to play in the snow. Build a snowman, let your dog frolic, find a little hill to saucer down. It’s free—and restrooms await if you want someplace more private than your tailgate to change out of your wet jeans. (Highway 108 out of Sonora to Pinecrest)
Winter Games—Dodge Ridge holds the California Senior Olympic Games March 11–13. Come out and watch men and women 50 years and older compete in downhill, Nordic and cross-country skiing—and snowboarding—events. The games include a winter carnival and culminate in an Olympics-style medal ceremony.
Named for the copper discovered here before the Civil War, Copperopolis lies in Calaveras County off O’Byrnes Ferry Road. Cross Lake Tulloch—another pretty lake that draws boaters in the summertime—and cast a puzzled frown toward the imposing flat-top ridge that rises beyond the lake. It’s Table Mountain, a 50-mile length of flat-topped rock. As you enter Copperopolis, don’t blink—you will miss it. Perhaps best known for the Saddle Creek Resort and its award-winning public golf course, the tiny hamlet added another destination a couple of years ago: Copperopolis Town Square. A pedestrian-oriented mixed-use center—that means restaurants, shops, galleries and some residential lofts accessible by sidewalks built around a grassy park—the town square feels a bit like El Dorado Hills Town Center. Stop in for dinner at Panini’s (order the linguini and clams or the catch of the day with a side of pine nut-studded risotto), wander through Fancy Pans to admire cook-ware and kitchen gadgets, or linger over a drink at Snaps Coffee House & Wine Bar. (about 50 miles from Dodge Ridge, via Highway 108 to O’Byrnes Ferry Road)
We made a big daylong loop that took us from Folsom out Latrobe Road in El Dorado Hills to Highway 16, on to Highway 49 past Jackson, through Angels Camp, Columbia and Sonora, up Highway 108 to Dodge Ridge, back Highway 108 through Sonora, down to O’Byrnes Ferry Road to Copperopolis, into Stockton via Highway 4, and home on highways 99 and 50 through Sacramento.