A Week in Angels Camp Episode 5: Calaveras Big Trees State Park

On April 16, 2021, we drove to Calaveras Big Trees State Park to see the giant sequoias. These redwoods are 2,000 to 3,000 years old and considered the largest trees in the world.

Snow bank under trees at edge of parking lot
There’s still a bit of snow in them thar hills.

The first thing we noted as we pulled into the parking lot were the piles of snow here and there. During a normal precipitation year, I would expect lots of snow at Big Trees in mid-April. Although rain reached less than 40% of normal in the San Francisco Bay Area, at least the Sierra Mountains collected a bit of snow. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to keep the entire State of California out of a drought. Again.

Carving of a bear and her cub
Outside the Jack Knight Hall, which is available to rent for meetings, celebrations, weddings, and other events.

Visitors have two groves of giant sequoias to explore in Big Trees. The North Grove, at the visitor’s center, became a state park in 1931, and the state added South Grove in 1954. The five-mile South Grove trail travels along Big Trees Creek and passes by the Agassiz Tree and Palace Hotel Tree, the two largest trees in the park.

Giant sequoia tree
It’s hard to capture the entire sequoia in one shot

We selected the 1.5-mile self-guided trail in the North Grove to get up close and intimate with these magnificent specimens. For an immersive exploration, be sure to grab a trail guide for a $0.50 donation. Then watch for the markers along the trail. The numbered markers match up to the guide, which provides information about the sites.

Crown of a sequoia tree
Clusters of large branches form the crown of the sequoias. This tree is between 800 and 3,000 years old. Sometimes lightening strikes the tops and then the tree grows another crown.

The trail wound through the forest populated with sugar pines, white fir, incense cedar, and ponderosa pines, along with the Sequoias. Sadly, we were a few weeks early to catch the blooming dogwoods, one of my favorite tree flowers.

We had the right idea when we opted for the 1.5-mile trail over the 5-mile hike at South Grove. The 4,700-foot altitude was enough to steal our breaths, making it difficult to read after walking the few steps between markers on the mostly flat surface.

Although the root system of a giant sequoia is shallow—only six to eight feet underground—compared to its height, roots spread out up to an acre in diameter to provide the support these trees need to reach their height of 164–279 ft (50–85 m). So important to their survival, seedlings first develop a strong root system before expending energy to development above ground.

Root of a sequoia tree
Decomposing root from a fallen tree

The trees below are named the Siamese Twins. They grew so close together, their trunks merged for the first 50 feet, making them look like one tree that branched off into two.

Two sequoias merged at 50 feet above ground
Siamese Twins

The Father of the Forest fell way before 1850 when explorers made their discovery known. The slow process of decomposition continues, providing nutrients for mosses, shrubs, and dogwoods to grow.

Remnants of a fallen sequoia tree

A fire from an earlier time hollowed out the log.

Fallen sequoia tree log
Jon stands at the end of the log on the right-side of the trail
Inside a hollowed out fallen sequoia tree
Looking through the hollowed-out trunk toward the trail break

Early photographers took advantage of the specimen as a brass band, and then a cavalry troop, posed for photos on top of the trunk as did many other people visiting before and after the property became a park.

Old photo of people posing next to Father of the Forest sequoia tree
Woman on horseback, man on ladder and another man standing next to Father of the Forest

The gnarly lump at the foot of the tree below is a burl, which forms when the tree experiences an injury or disease. Injured by fire, the burl grew around the burn scar.

Burl growth on a sequoia
A burl growth on a sequoia
Bark growing over a fire scar
Bark grows around this fire scar to protect the tree from further damage.

Want to feel insignificant? Stand next to one of these trees.

Woman standing at foot of sequoia tree
Like an ant standing next to a rubber tree plant

Now think about the hundreds and thousands of years the tree has grown in that spot, how many fires have raged through the forest, how many unthinking people tried to destroy the trees. Then think about the hundreds and thousands of years it will continue to expand in girth and height after you no longer walk the earth.

Man standing next to a fallen tree
Jon stands next to a fallen tree

Unthinking humans out to make a buck thought it was a good idea to strip The Mother of the Forest of her bark. They stripped it off in eight-foot sections, shipped it east and displayed the reassembled bark at exhibitions in New York City and London. Their senseless act deprived the tree of its natural fire retardant to ward off fire damage and set off a firestorm of protest and an awareness of the need to save the trees.

Burned sequoia after bark removed
Mother of the Forest skinned alive

Skinning this tree alive is as sensible a scheme as skinning

our great men would be to prove their greatness.

—John Muir

There are other more challenging hikes that take off from the visitor’s center. Taking the Grove Overlook Trail can add 1.6 miles to the North Grove Trail. And the River Canyon Trail leads hikers on a 6.7-mile strenuous out and back trek.

Next up: We wrap up our visit to Angels Camp with another hike at New Melones Lake, a walk through the City of Angels Camp historic district, and a visit to the cabin where Mark Twain stayed while visiting the area.

Safe Travels

A Week in Angels Camp Episode 4: Angels Creek Trail and the City of Sutter Creek

The stress from the blown tire while driving to Angels Camp on Sunday and the back-and-forth Jackson drives and explorations on Monday and Tuesday told us we needed a break. So, instead of packing in a full day, we opted for another hike at New Melones Lake and a relaxing afternoon at the trailer.

Angels Creek Trail

The Angels Creek trail was a perfect choice for our second hike in New Melones Lake recreation area. Listed as a 2.5-mile moderate trail, it was a good follow-up after the short one we took the day before.

Hiking trail through shady trees and green grass
Angels Creek Trial

We parked at the Buck Brush Day Use Area and started out on the trail that loops around a partial peninsula. We traveled through woodlands, grasslands, and a small section of wetland pond.

Manzanita tree on side of trail
Love the red bark on the manzanita

I was surprised to see manzanita trees so tall. The ones I’ve seen before were more like a bush and not much higher than my waist. With 105 species and subspecies of the plant, I guess they come in all shapes and sizes depending on the soil and other growing conditions.

Red barked manzanita tree limb against blue sky
Gnarly manzanita limb

It’s good to know that the berries and the leaves make an excellent snack in case I get hungry on a hike. According to Wikipedia, Native Americans made cider with the berries and toothbrushes with the leaves.

Blue wildflowers on slope and river below
Lupine was plentiful on the hills above the lake

Wildflowers were plentiful on this trail too. Lupine blanketed the slopes above the lake and patches of yellow flowers crossed our path.

Hiker walking between yellow wildflowers
JT walks through a yellow patch

It’s hard to comprehend the size of the lake from one or two locations since it spreads out into canyons, arms, and fingers. A map is best to visualize the lake’s size.

Blue skies, forest of trees, S-curve river
The lake snakes its way through canyons
Blue lake seen through tree branches
And spreads out through valleys
Grass and trees in the foreground, blue lake, and blue skies with puffy white clouds
Blue skies, blue lake, green grass and trees. What a perfect day.

From the trail I spied this restroom at the Angels Creek Boat Launch that was closed. It looked like it went a couple of rounds with a windstorm.

Restroom building with roof damage
Windswept roof

After our hike we drove to the Marina and Glory Hole Point Launch area. The normal boat ramp was closed since it ended well above the water surface, so boaters had to drive out on the point to launch their marine toys.

Closed boat lunch, lake, hills in background
Boat launch closed until the water rises

Sutter Creek

The next day we drove north to the City of Sutter Creek. Someone told us Sutter Creek had the best historic downtown, so we had to see for ourselves. On the way there, Jon stopped so I could take a photo of this structure nestled among the trees.

Headframe mining equipment towering over green leafed trees
Headframe above underground mine.

Visitors will find drinks and food at the tasting rooms and restaurants that line the street. And shoppers are sure to find something to take home from one of the antique, clothing, and gift stores. I did. An apron and a pair of pants had me pulling out my wallet.

Dark green two story 1800s building with white railings on top floor
Outdoor dinning in Sutter Creek

Sutter Creek started its life around 1848 as a settlement, offering food, drink, and mining equipment. Legally founded on September 4, 1854, the population grew, welcoming Americans, Europeans, Asians and Pacific Islanders. Immigrants from Italy, Yugoslavia, and Cornwall, England, influenced the building methods and architecture.

Man standing in front of an 1800s building waiting to cross the street
Look both ways

After the 1860s, the town became known for the local quartz-mining activities and continued to grow and prosper. Once the mines closed, the city transitioned into a tourist town, attracting visitors from San Francisco, Sacramento, and beyond.

White steeple church and rectory
Methodist Church founded 1862

Here are just a few of the many buildings in the historic downtown region. The use of native stone as a building material and iron doors contributed to the survival of many of the buildings from the 1800s. The town learned early on that stone and iron can prevent fires from taking out an entire town.

Street scene of Sutter Creek
Street Scene facing north

The Sutter Creek Auditorium was built in 1939. The conference and event venue includes a small kitchen and large stage with parking in the back.

White early 1900 building used as Sutter Creek Auditorium
Sutter Creek Auditorium
Creek running between grassy area and buildings on each side and bridge in the background
Sutter Creek runs through town next to the auditorium

A fire in 1865 destroyed the American House, built on this site in 1852, along with most of the town. When rebuilt, it opened as the American Exchange Hotel and enjoyed a long history. Today, Hotel Sutter offers twenty-one guest rooms, a restaurant, bar, and a banquet room for up to 100 people.

Beige 1800s style three story building used as Hotel Sutter with street dining under umbrellas
Hotel Sutter

The J. Monteverde building is a museum with displays of dry goods, hardware, and other products commonly available for purchase during the Gold Rush era. Unfortunately, it was closed during our visit.

White general merchant building from the 1800s with pillars

Built in 1919 for silent films, the Ratto Theatre is one of four art deco theatres constructed by John Ratto in Amador County. This one is the only one that survived over the years.

Art deco theatre painted cream with gold and maroon trim

Visitors needing a comfy bed and a scrumptious meal have the Foxes Inn and the Sutter Creek Inn to choose from. Both properties were built in the 1800s and feature rooms with private baths.

Yellow 1800s style home amid flowering trees and bushes
The Foxes Inn
1800s style home with manicured green grass
Sutter Creek Inn

Here are a few things I’d like to do and see on a return trip to Sutter Creek:

  • Knight Foundry – A water-powered foundry and machine shop that operated from 1873 until the 1960s. Check the website for information on tour days and times.
  • Miner’s Bend – A park with artifacts and replicas of Sutter Creek’s gold rush history.
  • Preston Castle – Opened in 1894 as a reform school for boys, the Preston School of Industry operated until 1960. It was built in the Romanesque Revival style using bricks made in San Quentin and Folsom prisons. Check the website for information about visiting.

So do we think Sutter Creek is the best historic town in the Mother Lode? It’s definitely at the top of the list, but I’m reserving my answer until I’ve seen more. Each of them has their own personality, and I haven’t explored enough to form an opinion. I think we need a few more trips to the Gold Country to investigate towns north of Sutter Creek and south of Angel’s Camp.

On our way back to the trailer, we stopped at this water tower. The Italian Picnic Grounds was founded in 1881. They hold an annual picnic and parade in non-pandemic years. Sounds like fun. Maybe it will come back in 2022.

Italian Picnic Grounds green, white and red striped water tower on a hill with green bushes and brown grass.
Italian Picnic Grounds looked like a fun place

That’s it for now. Coming up next: Big Trees State Park

Safe Travels

A Week in Angels Camp Episode 3: New Melones Lake, Norwegian Gulch Trail, and Columbia State Historic Park

Columbia State Historical Park looked like an interesting place to explore on a Tuesday morning, April 13, 2021. On our way, a few miles south of Angels Camp, the New Melones Lake Visitor Center came into view. So we stopped to see if we could pick up maps and pamphlets. The center and museum were closed, being that it was a Tuesday. Fortunately, a ranger came out with a pamphlet that listed all the New Melones Lake hikes, and then he directed us to the Norwegian Gulch Trail behind the building.

Norwegian Gulch Trail

Switchbacks led the way toward the lake on the ½-mile trail through shady trees and fields of blooming wildflowers. We felt lucky to have timed our visit when the wildflowers were at their peak.

Norwegian Gulch Trail

The poppy (eschscholzia californica) is California’s official state flower. It grows in grassy and open areas from sea level to 6,500 feet throughout California and is also present in Oregon, southern Washington, Arizona, New Mexico, and Sonora, Mexico, and Baja California. It’s illegal to pick the poppies, and no, these poppies do not contain opium making properties.

California poppies galore

The silver lupine is another wildflower prevalent around New Melones Lake and has a similar growing area as the California poppy.

Silver lupine

Sunflowers were another common sight.

Sunflowers

New Melones Lake

Native Americans inhabited much of California before Spanish missionaries, miners and early settlers arrived. It’s estimated that about 9,000 Me-Wuk (or Mi-wok) Indians once lived in the central valley and Sierra Nevada Mountains. The indigenous population declined significantly and by 1910 the census recorded only 670 Me-Wuk. Archeological evidence shows the Me-Wuk were careful stewards of the environment, employing harvesting, management, and cultivation techniques that protected and stimulated the natural resources. The missionaries, miners and settlers could have learned a thing or two from the Me-Wuk had gold fever not taken over.

On May 10, 2021, Governor Newsom declared a drought emergency for 41 of the 58 counties in the state. The low level of this reservoir is one reason he made that declaration.

Although congress authorized construction of the New Melones Dam in 1944, it took 22 years for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to begin construction. The new dam replaced the old one built in 1926. The lake’s surface area is 12,500 acres, has a capacity of 2.4 million acre feet of water, and 100 miles of shoreline, and is the state’s third largest reservoir. It stands at less than 58% capacity as of May 16, 2021. Recreational activities at New Melones include boating, fishing, skiing, swimming, hiking and camping among others.

After our little hike, we drove to Columbia State Historical Park.

Columbia State Historical Park

Columbia preserves an old miner’s town founded in 1850 by Dr. Thaddeus Hildreth, his brother George, John Walker, and others who found gold there on March 27, 1850. Originally named Hildreth’s Diggings, they renamed the town Columbia on April 29, 1850.

Not much happening on a Tuesday in Columbia
A dad, his kids, and a dog stroll down the street

Within two years stores, shops, saloons, and other businesses had sprung up, followed by churches, a meeting hall, and a masonic lodge. Gold fever attracted not only U.S. citizens, but immigrants from China, France, Ireland, Italy, and Germany. By 1853, the town had grown to 25,000 to 30,000 people.

Parrott’s Blacksmith Shop is an authentic Gold Rush era business with a coal forge for all your custom iron needs

Gold taken from the Columbia area helped finance the US Government and Union Army during the Civil War. Between 1850 and the early 1900s, the mines dug out approximately $150 million in gold.

These boulders were once underground. Miners exposed them using shovels, pickaxes, and jets of water until stopped by the townspeople.

On July 6, 1933, California listed Columbia as State Landmark No. 123. It wasn’t until July 15, 1945, that Governor Earl Warren created the old business district as a state park and the state began purchasing the properties.

Johnson’s Livery. The only building not an original or reproduction. A film crew built it for “The Young Riders” TV series and donated it to the State Park.

In 1854, George Morgan bought a brick building and a one-story wooden structure for his Morgan’s City Hotel. He purchased adjacent lots and incorporated them into his property. The structure housed Morgan and his family. An auction house, a theatre, music hall, bar, and restaurant occupied other parts of the building over the years. The state renovated the structure in 1975 and today guests can reserve one of the ten rooms decorated in a 19th century style.

City Hotel

Built in 1899, the Brady Building was operated as the Pioneer Emporium for decades under various concessionaires. Today its named Columbia Clothiers & Emporium. It doesn’t look like much from outside, but inside we saw 1800s western-style clothing and antiques.

Columbia Clothiers & Emporium

The Tibbits House arrived when Lyman C. Tibbitts moved his family’s home onto the corner lot in 1887. The Columbia docents use the home for living-history demonstrations. (Tibbits with only one T at the end is not a typo. Not sure why the spelling is different.)

Tibbits House

Charles Alberding built the next brick structure in 1856 and owned it until 1871. Since then the property changed hands several times with various businesses, mostly bars, occupying it over the years. Today the St. Charles Saloon is a popular place for beer and build-your-own pizza. Pizza lovers will like the long list of ingredients to choose from.

St. Charles Saloon

William Daegener completed this brick building in 1858 after two previously wooden-built structures burned. Daegener used the first floor for a Wells Fargo office, where he served as an agent. His family lived upstairs. A store occupied the single-story structure. The Stage Coach Office occupies that space today. After several ownership and agent changes, Wells Fargo closed the Columbia office in 1914.

Daegener Building

The photo below depicts the Jack Douglass Saloon. We highly recommend the saloon for one of the best hamburgers we have ever eaten. Jack Douglass rented the corner building built in 1857-58 and ran a saloon until he moved to Stockton in 1869. The property changed hands and names many times until the state purchased the property in 1952. In 1968, the state restored and reopened the building as the Jack Douglass Saloon.

Good eats at Jack Douglass Saloon

Other activities of interest while in Columbia include:

  • Take a class at Yankee Hill Winery and Cooking School
  • Purchase handmade candies at Nelson’s Columbia Candy Kitchen
  • Browse through Columbia Booksellers & Variety Store
  • Ride the Stagecoach
  • Pan for gold at the Matelot Gulch Mining Company

Next up: Angels Creek Trail at New Melones Lake

Safe Travels

A Week in Angels Camp Episode 2: Historic Jackson, California

First came the Gold Rush when on January 24, 1848, James W. Marshall announced he found gold at Sutter’s Mill. Then came the 300,000 people with dreams of harvesting nuggets from the ground. Naturally, towns mushroomed along Highway 49, providing housing, food, mining equipment, and various services to the miners.

View of California Poppies on the way to Jackson, California

Jackson, the county seat of Calaveras County and one of many mining spots, served the local communities as a supply and transportation hub. In 1853, Jackson became the county seat for the newly formed Amador County.

The primary purpose for our visit to Jackson was to get a new tire. Fortunately, we had added the road hazard insurance when we the bought the set four years before. Can’t beat $20.00 for a new tire.

After taking care of tire business, we searched for things to do in Jackson. The historic downtown seemed like a good place to start. On the way, a cemetery came into view. Yes, time to stop and pull out the camera.

Entrance to Catholic Cemetery

The Catholic Cemetery and Jackson City Pioneer cemeteries are next to one another. The graves, laid out on what looked like family plots atop a hill, flows down into a valley.

Many of the burials appear to be mostly above ground and encased in concrete and/or covered in gravel.
There are a few mausoleums on the property
Closer view of a mausoleum
Besides headstones, various statuary also mark the gravesites
I liked the cape design at the top of this headstone.
The trinkets people decorate or leave at the graves must reveal something about the person. I wondered what a blue carved bird had in common with a golf hat or a metal red bug.
Erosion is a problem with some brick structures.

One of the worst gold mine disasters in the United States occurred on August 7, 1922, when the local Argonaut mine caught fire. Forty-seven men died in the fire, many of them buried in the cemetery.

Gold mining ended in California during October 1942 when the War Production Board issued Limitation Order L-208. The World War II war effort needed copper more than gold, and of course plenty of men to fight. As a result, the Argonaut and Kennedy mines closed in 1942.

The wreath and plaque at this grave site honors the forty-seven men who died in the Argonaut mine fire in 1922. Additional graves are in the Pioneer cemetery.
A Raiders birdhouse? What is it doing up in a tree at the cemetery?

Jon pulled me away before I filled my memory card with grave sites. It was time to see the historic downtown. From the fine examples of mid-1800s to early 1900s architecture, it’s easy to see why the area is listed in the National Register.

Main Street view looking north

Many of the restaurants and stores in the towns along Highway 49 were closed from Monday to Wednesday. That wasn’t a burden for us. We prefer fewer crowds and don’t buy much because of the lack of storage. But I was a little worried about where we would eat if all the restaurants were closed. Fortunately, Mother Lode Deli was open for business, and we enjoyed a delicious chicken salad sandwich on a croissant. The food was outstanding, the people were friendly, and the place was clean with plenty of space between tables.

Mother Lode Deli curbed our hunger

The National Hotel had a closed sign on its front door, and their website is no longer online. Although the hotel booking sites still have the property listed, reservations are not available. Had the owners not received the all clear from the health department yet? Had the pandemic and closure decimated the owners’ finances? The most recent information I could find was on the Mercury News website published on August 2, 2019. The article described the hotel as charming with “plenty of 21st-century comfort” and a steakhouse downstairs.

The National Hotel sits strategically on the curve of Main and Water Streets

From the downtown tour pamphlet, we learned the Louisiana House was the name of the original building built in 1850. That building burned in 1862, and when rebuilt in the brick style, the owners renamed it the National Hotel, a more politically correct name during the civil war. A major renovation in 2014 revived the hotel to its current state. I hope they come back when the county lifts the pandemic restrictions. The National gets top ratings from their guests, and I would love a peek inside.

St. Patrick Catholic Church and Italianate rectory, built in 1867, replaced the building destroyed in the 1862 fire. The church added a gable in 1887, and in 1894 a cupola and cross replaced a belfry tower and cross when the wind blew it off.

The first two stories of the Globe Hotel building date back to 1858.

The art déco architecture of the Amador County Courthouse caught my eye at the top of a street off Main Street. The building was originally two: a courthouse built in 1864 and the Hall of Records built in 1893. In 1939, the art déco exterior combined the two buildings.

Historic Amador County Courthouse

Although the county abandoned the building for newer and larger space, it hasn’t reached the eyesore stage, yet. It sure would be nice if someone restored the building as a museum or for another purpose.

Water fountain outside

And here is a look at a few more buildings, some dating from the 1800s and a few from early 1900s.

The cozy Fargo Club
Books, movies, games, and antiques galore in the 1931 Krabbenhoft building
The Biggest Little Kitchen Store is chock-full of pots, pans, knives, and gadgets

Other things to do in and around Jackson include:

  • Enjoy a picnic and short walk to the Kennedy Mine Tailing Wheels at Kennedy Tailing Wheels Park. There’s a kiosk with historical photos and information on the engineering and operation of the wheels.
  • Take a tour of the Kennedy Goldmine. They offer guided and self-guided tours on weekends.
  • Visit the Amador County Museum Fridays through Sunday.
  • If hiking is more to your liking, check out the Mokelumne Wilderness.
  • Prefer to gamble? Jackson Rancheria Casino Resort would love to take your money.

Oh, and don’t forget to take a gander at the Butte Store ruin 3 miles south of Jackson. It is California Historical Landmark No. 39, the only remaining structure of Butte City. The building dates back to 1854.

Butte Store State Historical Landmark

Next up: A nature hike from the New Melones Lake Visitor Center and a stroll through Columbia State Historic Park.

Stay Safe