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Enjoy the South Lake Tahoe area, and explore California cities like Placerville, Jackson, Lodi, Stockton, Manteca, Modesto, Turlock, Merced, and Mariposa – plus the unforgettable Yosemite National Park.
Day 1 & 2: South Lake Tahoe
Heavenly Ski Area Tram, (775) 586-7000, Highway 50 & Ski Run Blvd., operates year round. Ride it to the top of Freel Peak, 10,881 feet, for an awesome view of Lake Tahoe. In the winter, Heavenly’s runs offer world class skiing. The area has excellent snowmobiling and sleigh ride locations. Take the 72-mile “Most Beautiful Drive in America” around the lake’s shoreline. A guide is available at Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority, two miles east of US 50 and 89, (530) 544-5050.
Any outdoor type of recreation you enjoy can most likely be experienced at Lake Tahoe. Designated mountain bike trails are plentiful. Trail maps and bikes are available from local rental shops. More than 13 golf courses exist around the lake. Ask your Best Western host about access. Hot air ballooning is a favorite experience over the lake in all seasons. Cruise the lake during the day or at sunset with dinner on board the Tahoe Queen from the marina at Ski Run Blvd., (530) 541-3364 or 800-238-2463. Kayaks are available from Kayak Tahoe at Camp Richardson Marina, (530) 544-2011. Wind surfing is big on the lake.
Out of Zephyr Cove, Woodwind Sailing Cruises offers excursions, (775) 588-3000. For a historic perspective of Tahoe visit Lake Tahoe Historical Museum, 3058 Lake Tahoe Blvd., (530) 541-5458. The evenings are fun as well, with big name entertainers performing at the casinos.
Day 3: Placerville
Depart on US 50, Echo Summit Scenic Highway, to historic Placerville, “Old Hangtown.” From Tahoe Valley, you climb over the granite peaks of Echo Summit, 7,382 feet, and wind along the American River as it makes its way through the deep canyons and thick groves of the El Dorado National Forest. This route was followed by the Pony Express and Overland Mail Service. It is incredibly beautiful country.
Opposite Pollock Pines is the turnoff to Sly Park Recreation Area and Jenkinson Lake, five miles, (530) 644-2545, part of the Central Valley Project. It offers excellent fishing, hiking and boating and was on the historic Mormon Wagon Road, discovered in 1848. The history is told at the Park’s James Calvin Sly Museum. At Camino begins the Apple Hill/El Dorado Farm Trail of over 100 fruit ranches, wineries and tree farms with all kinds of fresh fruits and homemade goodies.
Placerville was a rowdy mining town in 1849. The Hangman’s Tree Bar, 305 Main Street, has the Oak tree stump in the cellar as a reminder of days when justice was mob style. Other sites to take in are the Fountain & Tallman Soda Factory Museum, 524 Main Street, (530) 626-0773, El Dorado County Historical Museum, (530) 621-5865, at the fair grounds, the Placerville News Company building on Main Street and the city-owned Gold Bug Mine in Bedford Park, a mile north of Main on Bedford, (530) 642-5238. Self-guided, audio tours of the mine are available. The park, open from May to September daily, and weekends during other months, includes over 200 old mines. Over $17 million in gold was removed from these mines in their prime. Gold Country Prospecting, 3119 Turner Street, 95667, (916) 622-2484, offers a three-hour excursion to pan for gold on a nearby river or creek.
Six miles north on 49 is Coloma, site of John Sutter’s Sawmill on the American River where John Marshall found the first gold nuggets in 1848 and started the California Gold Rush. A replica of the mill is part of the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, (530) 622-3470, that includes a Gold Discovery Museum. The American River is also a favorite rafting waterway in the Sierras. O.A.R.S. in Angel Camp, 800-346-6277, will take you on an unforgettable ride. In Cameron Park, experience Sam’s Town, a 30,000-square-foot family fun complex of early western memorabilia. It’s a hoot!
Day 4: Jackson
Heading south on 49 to Jackson, you pass through historic mining towns like Plymouth, Drytown, Amador City, and Sutter Creek, the “Golden Heart of the Mother Lode” where half of the lode’s gold was extracted. Historic buildings still stand in the towns. Replacing gold mining has been the growing of grapes. Several popular wineries are in the county, including D’Agostini Winery, northeast of Plymouth, (209) 245-6554. Many of these local wineries have produced award winning Zinfandels.
East on 16 a short distance is Fiddletown, at one time the largest Chinese community outside of San Francisco. Some older buildings still exist on Oleta Road. Since Amador City is only one block long, it doesn’t take long to sightsee here, but there are some good options for eating. Sutter Creek has 19th century homes and plenty of antiques to see. Jackson has been the more stable of the mining towns in the area and is home to the historic Kennedy and Argonaut hard rock (quartz) gold mines. With shafts reaching nearly a mile down, Kennedy was the deepest mine in the world. Together, they produced $70 million in gold during their active years. Guided and self guided tours are available of the mine’s surface buildings, foundations and artifacts through the Kennedy Mine Foundation, (209) 223-9542, open weekends mid-March through October, call for hours of operation, fee.
The Kennedy Tailing Wheels, 58-foot diameter wheels that moved 500 tons of ore each day from the mines, can be seen from the property. Due to the town’s terrain, it is suggested you walk it. Maps available at the Amador County Chamber of Commerce, Highway 49 & 88, 800-649-4988 or (209) 223-0350. Make a short side trip east on 88 past Volcano, once California’s riches town, to Chaw’Se Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park to see hundreds of petroglyphs (ancient Native inscriptions scratched in stone) and a slab of limestone 173 feet by 82 feet indented with a thousand mortar holes. Evidence that a lot of meals were prepared here by Miwok Natives. Mokelumne Hill and San Andreas are two other historic mining towns just south of Jackson on 49 to visit.
East of San Andreas at Mountain Ranch/Cave City is California Caverns, (209) 736-2708, the state’s first show cavern, it opened in 1850. East of Angels Camp outside of Vallecito is Moaning Cavern, (209) 736-2708. Moaning Cavern has a 14-foot long stalactite and a 100 foot spiral staircase into the main chamber. You can choose to rappel down a rope 180 feet to reach it. They supply the equipment. Both caverns are awesome. Return to Jackson.
Day 5: Lodi / Stockton / Manteca
Depart on 88 to the Stockton area. An interesting and fun trip is driving the California Delta. Several islands north and south are accessible by car allowing you to see this incredible waterway and its wildlife. Ask your Best Western host about a Delta map.
Day 6: Modesto / Turlock / Merced / Mariposa
Heading south on 99 to Modesto, Turlock, and Merced brings you into the heart of “California’s Salad Bowl,” the San Joaquin Valley. If you love almonds, stop at the Blue Diamond store in Salida, (209) 545-3222. In Salida, take 219 (Kiernan Ave.) to 108 (McHenry Ave.) and follow it north to Oakdale and the Hershey Chocolate Factory, (209) 848-8126, for a tour.
Return to Modesto on McHenry Ave. to 906 15th Street and visit the McHenry Mansion & Museum, (209) 577-5341, an 1883 restored home belonging to an early settler. The well-known Gallo Winery is also here. In Merced, stop at Castle Air Museum, (209) 723-2178, with an excellent collection of vintage military aircraft and memorabilia from several periods. It’s next to the old Castle Air Force Base on Santa Fe Drive, east of 99.
Head east on 140 to Mariposa. Visit the incredible California State Mining & Mineral Museum, (209) 742-7625, at the Mariposa County Fairgrounds, two miles south of town on Highway 49. Displays of gold and other amazing minerals and a mining tunnel. Proceed on 140 to the Yosemite area.
Day 7 & 8: Yosemite
Yosemite National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is unlike any other place on the planet. If you enjoy the outdoors, a lifetime is not enough to explore and absorb all of its beauty and geological wonders. “Wonders” not to miss: Glacier Point, Half Dome, El Capitan, Sentinel Rock, Vernal Fall, Nevada Fall, Mist Trail, Yosemite Fall, Bridalveil Fall, and Mariposa Grove. Miwok tribe members, called Ahwahneeche, were here dating to 100 B. C. For information call (209) 372-0200 (recorded) or (209) 372-0265 (live.)
Take 140 into Yosemite Village, (209) 372-1240, passing through the Arch Rock Entrance Station. Entrance fee per car (good for seven days) and receive park information. If touring the park, drive to Curry Village and park in any day-use lots (other lots in Valley are only for short-term parking), then catch free shuttles to the Visitors Center, (209) 372-0299 at the west end of the mall. Pick up a free copy of Yosemite Magazine for park information and pictorial map. The magazine lists guided tour options available.
If time permits take the full-day Grand Tour covering Glacier Point and Mariposa Grove with a stop for lunch at Wawona and a Moonlight tour of the Valley Floor. Adventures into the High Sierra backcountry can be taken on mountain bikes, hiking or horseback. Village rental shops have bikes and trail maps. Call (209) 372-8348 for saddle trips from Yosemite Valley to: Mirror Lake, two hours, Vernal and Nevada falls, half day, and Glacier Point or Half Dome, all-day. The Museum Gallery & Indian Cultural Museum are next to the Visitors Center.
Winter activities such as snowshoe-hiking, skiing (downhill and cross-country) and ice skating are also enjoyed in the park. For less crowds, visit spring, fall or winter. Connect with 120, Tioga Road, at Tuolumne Grove and head east over Tioga Pass to Lee Vining. This road is closed in winter. The Grove, containing 20 huge sequoia trees and the Dead Giant stump, is accessible by a short hike from the parking lot. To the northwest is Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, created by the dam on the Tuolumne River built in 1919. It covers a valley that was considered just as beautiful as Yosemite. There are some breath-taking views along the Tioga Road. Stop at Olmsted Point for an incredible one of the Sierras from over 9,900 feet.
Tenaya Lake is just down the road and was formed when the Tuolumne Glacier gouged out a depression. At 8,600 feet is Tuolumne Meadows, through which passes the John Muir (211 miles in California) and Pacific Crest Trails (2,350 miles) from Canada to Mexico. A Visitor Center is here.
Tioga Pass, at 9,945 feet, is the highest in the California highway system. There are awesome views as the highway winds along Lee Vining Canyon, descending to US 395 and Lee Vining on the western shore of Mono Lake. Take US 395 north and stop at the Lake’s Visitor Center, (760) 647-3044, on the north end of town to get geological and historical low-down on “The Lake of the Flies,” that has existed for 700,000 years. The limestone formations formed under water over centuries of time and emerged as the lake evaporated – it has no outlets – and its water level continued to drop, as source streams were diverted to the Los Angeles Aqueduct.
The “South Tufa Area”, a chance to see the formations up close, is south of town on 395, then east on 120. Close by is the Panum Crater, formed 640 years ago and the northernmost of 21 volcanic cones that run south from here. Continue north on 395 about 18 miles and take 270 east to Bodie, a large mining ghost town that is now Bodie State Historic Park, (760) 647-6445.
Return to 395, taking it to Bridgeport. Visit Mono County Historical Museum, (760) 932-5281, in Bridgeport Park. The Mono County Historic Courthouse is second oldest in the state still in continuous use. Turn left on Twin Lakes Road for a scenic 13-mile drive through Bridgeport Valley to Lower and Upper Twin Lakes. Ranger Station, south of town on 395, (760) 932-7070, has maps. The area is great for fishing, hiking, boating and wildlife. Back on US 395, follow it to Topaz and take 89 north through Markleeville back into South Lake Tahoe.