The old gold mining area of Calaveras County, CA, is up in the Sierras about midway between Yosemite and Lake Tahoe.
The area is roughly 3 hours from San Jose, CA and the Silicon Valley. The area was originally settled by gold prospectors but now is known for wineries, hiking, and skiing/snowboarding in the winter. We stayed in Arnold, which is a quick 10 minute drive to Calaveras Big Trees State Park.
What to Do: Besides hiking, there are tons of little mountain towns up here to explore, and friendly mountain folk abound. We spent an afternoon in Murphys, a little one-street town whose main street is flanked by winery tasting rooms and little curio shops.
Pro Tip 1: If you’re into beer more than wine, check out Murphys Pourhouse at the near end of town by the highway. It’s a cool little hipster bar with a lot of great craft beers! I think there were 16 beers on tap, plus multiple full coolers of bottled beers from craft breweries all over the States. They also have soups/salads/sandwiches…but designate a driver because a lot of their beers are pretty strong.
Where to Stay: We rented a beautiful cabin in Arnold. It was cozy and the town seems to be right in the middle of the county and is a good jumping off point to explore other towns and state parks in the area. It rained off and on but we did get about 1/2 inch of snow on December 23 but 10 minutes up the road there was significantly more snow, more like a foot, at Big Trees State Park.
How to Get There: The area is mainly clustered around State Route 4 (SR 4–or, as we Californians call it, “the 4”) that runs east-west between the I-80 in the Bay Area almost all the way to Nevada. There is a ton of traffic getting out of the Bay and through the Central Valley but once we got past Stockton we were flying up and down the mountain roads without any traffic. I don’t know when it’s a good time to leave the Bay area because it seems like the roads are gridlocked all the time. But the traffic really lets up once you’re through the valley.
Pro Tip 2: A lot of these roads require chains in the winter, even if you’re driving an awesome Subaru. We did not need them but if we would have ventured farther out we would have needed them. There is good signage that tells you where you need chains and speed limit changes when the roads are icy. The parking lot at Big Trees was slippery with a lot of black ice and folks had trouble getting in and out to the main road.