Until recently, the only thing I knew about Calaveras County was there’s a short story written by Mark Twain with frogs and Calaveras in the title. I had no idea how beautiful and rustic it is. Plus, it’s wine country! I know this now, because we recently toured this largely undiscovered region while exploring the Gold Rush Trail.
Though the pleasant towns of Angels Camp and Murphys along Highway 4 still evoke the boom times of the Gold Rush, they’re quieter now than they were in the 1850s. A visitor can sample hearty wines, go spelunking, nose around art galleries and antique shops, even hoop-it-up in the same saloons where gold miners eased their thirst over 150 years ago.
You can go white-water rafting down the Stanislaus River or hike among the giant sequoias in Calaveras Big Trees State Park. There’s ample lodging, ranging from B&Bs to campsites, and eateries for all budgets.
It’s nine miles up Highway 4 from Angels Camp to the neighboring gold rush town of Murphys. Once a hodgepodge of miners’ tents and lean-tos, Murphys has aged well. From the moment we pulled into this picturesque village, I fell in love with the quaint and historic town. The main street, aptly called Main Street, is lined with nearly two dozen tasting rooms and an assortment of tempting restaurants.
A stroll down tree-lined Main Street transports visitors back to the mid-1800s with buildings bearing thick stoned walls, iron shutters, and pastoral gardens. Its leafy streets are lined with white picket fences, oaks and sycamores, eateries, and wine tasting rooms.
The Sperry & Perry Hotel—now known as Murphys Historic Hotel & Lodge—opened to guests in 1855. Ulysses S. Grant slept here; so did Mark Twain, Horatio Alger, and Charles Bolton, aka Black Bart, the poetry-writing bandit who successfully robbed 28 Wells Fargo stagecoaches before his arrest in 1883. Locals line up along the saloon’s bar.
Unique from any other wine region, you can literally do wine country on foot in Murphys. There are over 25 wineries here and 20 of them have tasting rooms within walking distance from one another along Murphy’s historic downtown. Picturesque vineyards and destination wineries are nestled in the nearby rolling hills.
Outside of town, the pastoral landscape gets rugged with massive granite mountains and miles of underground caverns. In fact, Calaveras has more public caves than any other county in California.
On the outskirts of Murphys, Ironstone Vineyards offers visitors a varied experience that only begins with its approachable wines. Ironstone was founded in 1989 by the Gail and John Kautz family, and remains family owned and operated to this day.
A visit to the winery and visitor’s center gives guests ample opportunities to learn more about Sierra foothills history. The wine aging caverns, which served as Ironstone’s first tasting room, were literally carved out of limestone and Calaveras schist rock. The compelling Heritage Museum displays 19th century mining maps, artifacts, photos, letters, and a 44-pound crystalline gold leaf specimen of the largest in the world discovered just 15 miles from the winery.
Outdoors, 14 acres of beautiful gardens wait to be explored. Each March, they burst with more than 300,000 daffodils and continue to dazzle guests all year long. The gracious grounds provide plenty of wonderful places to picnic with items from the winery’s gourmet deli: alongside a natural lake, under a shady tree, or on a grassy knoll.
Through the winery’s grand tasting room doors, guests find a massive oak tasting bar that originated as a saloon bar in new York. Behind it awaits Ironstone’s biggest treat: a plethora of wonderful wines to sample. Ironstone prides itself on its portfolio of exceptional wines of unparalleled quality and outstanding value. There is something to please the palate and pocketbook of every guest. With world-class wines and world-class hospitality, Ironstone Vineyards is the quintessential Sierra foothills wine country experience.
Two roads diverged in a wood, and
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
— Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken