It was not my first visit to the town of Murphys in Calaveras County, California.
This town known as the “Queen of the Sierra” is now home to good friends and it is an easy day trip out of the capital of the state, Sacramento. However, you will want to spend more than a day. There are numerous vineyards where wine tasting is a popular pastime.
Check out Bodega Del Sur on Algiers Street in Murphys, even if you are not a wine enthusiast. This shop has a magnificent tasting room decorated with unusual glass sculptured lighting fixtures and three giant urns, which form the base of its wine-tasting table.
The Ironstone Vineyards is a seven-story winery and entertainment complex, complete with outdoor amphitheatre and the most exquisite landscaped gardens. The half-barrels, which line the entrance to the vineyards, (and were once filled with wine), are now filled with beautiful blooming flowers.
Still another winery on the outskirts of town commands a breathtaking vista of Murphys and its surrounding mountains. Twisted Oak is a perfect setting for a wedding and therefore many do take place on the grounds of this winery and others around Murphys.
As you wander the quaint town of Murphys, which in the early 1850s was a thriving community with nearly 3,000 residents (the current population is about 2,500), you will find much to see in its charming shops and boutiques.
A new venture, The Spice Tin, offers exotic spices to season your favorite dishes. In addition, you will find a variety of salts, special blends and rubs.
The building in which the business is housed was formerly a circa 1910 tin storage building behind the Sierra Nevada Adventure Company.
When you get hungry, duck into the V Restaurant & Bar on Main Street. The food is a modern interpretations of great standard dishes. The dining room and the cuisine are excellent, which accounts for the popularity of this restaurant by both locals and visitors.
There are peaceful retreats woven among the windy roads that snake up and out of the Sierra Mountains.
There are hidden treasures towns of Sonora, Columbia and Angels Camp (where you can pan for gold).
In Murphys, you can see gold rush lore come to life at Murphys’ Old Timers Museum.
However, in Columbia the gold rush era still exists in a living historic town, which features the state’s largest collection of brick buildings from that heady time.
The authentic mid-19th Century backdrop of Columbia tells the colorful stories of these miners and merchants. When I visited in mid-April, the town was filled with large groups of schoolchildren from all over the state of California. School groups are welcome at any time and there is no charge for admission or parking.
Main streets feature raised boardwalks adding ambiance to the setting. Street musicians played while the blacksmith worked his trade in a nearby stable.
In another building, some of the schoolchildren tried out an early bowling alley.
During Columbia’s Gold Rush Days, docents in period attire lead programs and offer hands-on activities throughout the town and park.
Columbia, once known as the “Gem of the Southern Mines,’’ is a still very much a “living gold rush town,” and definitely a fun place to visit.
Do not miss the Columbia Mercantile store, which has been in business since 1857. The clerks today dress in the style of that era and provide good, old-fashioned service. The general store probably can fill most needs of today’s customers. It provided batteries for my camera and Carla De Martino graciously posed for a picture after I reloaded.
In the area, there are many other places to visit, such as Calaveras Big Trees State Park. Here among the enormous trees you might also glimpse some Bald Eagles.
At the Mercer Caverns, you can view the West Coast version of Ruby Falls. At close range, there are enormous varieties of beautiful and unusual natural crystalline formations of all sizes, shapes and textures. They include stalactites, stalagmites, columns, flowstone and helicitites.
The arts have not been ignored in all this “Mother Lode, Mother Nature” area of Northern California.
The region’s largest professional live theatre, Sierra Repertory Theatre, is open year round. The award-winning non-profit resident company brings outstanding professional artists from all over the country to create their shows at two distinctive venues, East Sonora Theatre and the Historic Fallon House Theatre, with performances every week from February to December.
A highlight of my trip from Murphys to Columbia came when we drove across the Stanislaus River as we entered Tuolumne County.
The setting could not be more enticing and it made the drive up the winding road more than worthwhile.
For more information: Calaveras County Visitors Bureau, www.GoCalveras.travel.