Travels with the Mullallys: Divert to discover

Our typical plan for maximizing spontaneous two-day Eastern Sierra escapes is to get up, pack up and hightail it to Mammoth Lakes through Yosemite National Park over Tioga Pass. It took my husband David only a few tries to snag the required online reservation to enter Yosemite, but the hitch came later in a text message advising us to expect up to three-hour delays due to roadwork. The worldwide life-altering event of spring 2020 taught me that, “all plans are subject to change.”  Annoyance gave way to excitement almost immediately with the realization that we were free to take any route we wanted over the Sierra.

As we headed northeast into the foothills toward Sonora Pass, the Oakdale Cheese & Specialties shop lured us off course.  It was close enough to lunchtime to succumb to squeaky fresh cheese curds, aged handcrafted Gouda (pronounced “howda”) and the fresh European-style sourdough loaf to compliment my stash of juicy peaches. The Dutch family business started in 1983 in an old milk barn where customers left cash for the cheese they took from the refrigerator. The venture has grown into a successful small-batch cheese plant and the grassy picnic grounds with grazing goats help retain its homespun vibe.

The name “Copperopolis” had intrigued us for years, but we had always put the detour off to “next time.”  We decided to let curiosity lead the way over the rolling hills of Calaveras County on State Highway 4 until we found Copperopolis. The town’s manicured spruced-up Copper Valley Square seemed to pop up out of nowhere. The shops, restaurants, hotel and residential loft buildings were designed to honor Copperopolis’s mining heritage with a classic western architectural theme. We were surprised to see a golf course and gated residential communities spreading east of the Square. Copperopolis is listed as a California Historical Landmark and what’s left of its copper mining glory days lives on in the Armory and the Old Corner Saloon further up the road.

  • Mule’s ears’ bright yellow is a harbinger of summer on...

    Mule’s ears’ bright yellow is a harbinger of summer on the Pacific Crest Trail at Sonora Pass. (David Mullally — Special to the Herald)

  • The Gouda wheels at the Oakdale Cheese plant. (David Mullally...

    The Gouda wheels at the Oakdale Cheese plant. (David Mullally — Special to the Herald)

  • The Big Stump is a sad reminder of the day...

    The Big Stump is a sad reminder of the day a majestic 1,244 year young sequoia was felled in 1853. (David Mullally — Special to the Herald)

  • The historic Murphys Hotel is one of the oldest operating...

    The historic Murphys Hotel is one of the oldest operating hotels in California since 1856. (David Mullally — Special to the Herald)

  • Picnic lunch at the Oakdale Cheese plant. (David Mullally --...

    Picnic lunch at the Oakdale Cheese plant. (David Mullally — Special to the Herald)

  • Taking a shady break to order a cool sarsaparilla at...

    Taking a shady break to order a cool sarsaparilla at the St. Charles Saloon in Columbia State Historic Park. (David Mullally — Special to the Herald)

  • Dwarfed by the Sequoia giant in Calaveras Big Trees State...

    Dwarfed by the Sequoia giant in Calaveras Big Trees State Park. (David Mullally — Special to the Herald)

  • Families frolic in the Stanislaus River below Knights Ferry’s historic...

    Families frolic in the Stanislaus River below Knights Ferry’s historic 330-foot long covered bridge. (David Mullally — Special to the Herald)

  • The “Town Square at Copper Valley” in Calaveras County’s Copperopolis....

    The “Town Square at Copper Valley” in Calaveras County’s Copperopolis. (David Mullally — Special to the Herald)

  • Tourists enjoy a stage coach ride around the streets of...

    Tourists enjoy a stage coach ride around the streets of historic Columbia, a State Historic Park since 1945. (David Mullally — Special to the Herald)

  • Back to the wild on the shores of McLeod Lake...

    Back to the wild on the shores of McLeod Lake below the Mammoth Crest. (David Mullally — Special to the Herald)

  • Steam locomotive No. 28 celebrates its 100th birthday with admirers...

    Steam locomotive No. 28 celebrates its 100th birthday with admirers in Railtown 1897 State Historic Park. (David Mullally — Special to the Herald)

The best find of the day was the gold rush town of Murphys, just a block off Highway 4. This tree-lined gem with its strand of outdoor dining patios and wine tasting rooms boasted historic buildings housing small inns and eclectic shops. I was amused by the Man Cave’s inventory, from suspenders and pine and bourbon scented candles to silver flasks and hair thickening shampoos.

Calaveras Big Trees State Park was another highlight. The North Grove’s 1.5-mile interpretive loop protects colossal specimens of giant sequoias, also known as Sierra redwoods. My heart swells with awe every time I stand in the shadow of the world’s largest living thing and I can’t help being overwhelmed in the presence of this superior life form.

Highway 4 continued to unveil small communities with mountain camps and lodges. Lake Alpine’s granite basin was the beginning of sweeping views across to glacially-carved crags and icy peaks above the Stanislaus River Canyon.  We slalomed down the dramatically narrow Ebbetts Pass National Scenic Byway from 8,730 feet to US Route 395 and the Owens Valley floor on the last stretch of a 13-hour trek to the Snowcreek Resort.

The next two euphoric days in Mammoth revived our minds, body and soul as we retreated into the Eastern Sierra’s pristine raw nature bloated with stream-laced meadows, snow-patched lakeshores and endless panoramas of distant jagged ranges.

Highway 4 had unleashed our appetite for discovery, so we bypassed Tioga Pass on the return to Monterey and set our sights on State Highway 108 to Sonora Pass, the second-highest Sierra pass (9,624 feet) after Tioga Pass (9,943 feet). We climbed into the idyllic realm of lush meadows cradled by a stadium of granite peaks and pine-studded slopes draped in cascading creeks and plummeting waterfalls. The Pacific Crest Trail at the highway summit called us out of the truck for a morning hike. We lived vicariously through the several hikers we met on their way to Canada from Mexico along the famous 2,653-mile National Scenic Trail. One backpacker, Sidd, an IT engineer and search and rescue volunteer from the Bay Area, was hitchhiking back to his car after a three-night training excursion.  We squeezed him and his gear in the truck and shared our thoughts about Indian culture over the next few miles.

Dropping down the west side, we drove into Twain Harte, a mildly interesting mountain town named after Mark Twain and Bret Harte.  Both famous authors spent time in California. I had no idea there was more to Sonora besides Highway 108 strip malls until we found ourselves driving through downtown Sonora’s vibrant gold rush character on the way to the Columbia State Historic Park. Columbia, “Gem of the Southern Mines” was pure time travel along the town’s dusty boardwalks. Once known for its bonanza of gold between the 1850s and 1870s, the superbly well-preserved early mining community was buzzing with tourist activity. We peeked in a few shops before soaking up the nostalgia with a cold sarsaparilla outside the St. Charles Saloon.

Back on Highway 108, Jamestown, another significant mining outpost during the 1850s, was a picturesque treat. Several of Main Street’s attractive buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places.  We continued to Railtown 1897, a state historic park that preserves a steam locomotive repair and maintenance yard.  Attractions include an interpretive center and weekend excursions aboard vintage coaches pulled by authentic steam or diesel locomotives. Train buffs can sign up for guided tours of the roundhouse and movie fans will be excited to know that Railtown continues to be a favorite Hollywood location. Classics like “The Virginian” and “High Noon” were filmed here as well as Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven”.

The journey home was quickly ramping up to another 13-hour day and we debated checking out “Knights Ferry”, as the sign disappeared in our rearview mirror.  I gave David the “let’s do it” nod and we made a U-turn to the turnoff. The historic community was the site of an actual ferryboat established by Dr. William Knight in 1849.  The Stanislaus River ferry was replaced by a toll bridge in 1852. The covered bridge was rebuilt after the flood of 1862 and has been closed to vehicles since 1981. Walking across the longest covered bridge west of the Mississippi and admiring the 330-foot span of planks and timbers, I felt a surge of satisfaction thinking of all we had discovered because we had dared to divert.

Linda B. Mullally and her husband David share their passion for travel, outdoor recreation and dogs through articles, hiking books and photography at www.lindabmullally.com, Falcon.com and Facebook

Contributed by local news sources

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