Sacramento, Sutter Creek, Volcano, Mokelumne Hill, Columbia SHP, Calaveras Big Trees, Bodie and Mono Lake in three days
24.08.2011 - 26.08.2011 35 °C
Of course we could not leave the Napa Valley without getting Jim to sell us three bottles of their delicious Zinfandel. My name is M, and I am a Zinfandelholic. But with two weeks to go and Death Valley still firmly on our list, we wanted to make sure we were prepared for all eventualities. Our next destination - the Gold Country.
This time, The Duke was in charge of navigating. Based on our past experience, we set off early to allow plenty of time for unplanned ‘scenic detours’. My studious significant other has been known to demurely pour over information leaflets, brochures and travel guide, failing to observe approaching junctions. As a result, we often found ourselves in previously unbeknown to us places although to his defense, more often than not, they turned out to be worth visiting.
Before deep diving into the 1850’s gold rush, our first stop was Sacramento. Both of us were interested to see what the capital city of California feels like. The State Capitol building, whilst still used as a seat of parliament and the governor, is also a museum. We really enjoyed the way the museum exhibitions are distributed throughout the Capitol, giving you the opportunity to freely walk through most of the building. One can even go to the gallery of the State Senate Chamber during sessions. We were not so lucky as to see one in progress but the impressive hall suggested this must be quite an experience. The Capitol was patrolled by a number of knowledgeable staff who seemed happy to volunteer information about the building itself or the history of the furniture and people who used it. One such lady, originally from Greece, was nice enough to have us explain to her our planned route and gave us an excellent map of Californian National Parks, which we used extensively over the upcoming weeks. To the point of it literally falling apart. Another interesting aspect of the Capitol was the low key security, apart from an airport type scanner at the entrance. When compared to, for example, the Houses of Parliament in London, or pretty much all fenced off, over-the-top heavy artillery guarded US government buildings around the world, this was quite a pleasant experience.
Despite the exhibits within Capitol covering early Californian history, Sacramento is a through and through modern American city with a fast paced, convenience-driven feel to it. We were keen to sneak a peek into what Sacramento was like during its beginnings and so our path turned towards the river to ‘Old Sacramento’. Unfortunately we were not impressed.
Old Sacramento extends six blocks between a river and spaghetti of highway junctions. It includes houses mainly from the 1860s and 1870s, most of them used as tourist shops. Despite this being very small area, it is not pedestrianised and we found the never ending stream of traffic and parking lots lining both sides of the streets to be a complete nuisance. To add to this, major highway runs pretty much above one side of the Old town, making it very noisy. Lack of pedestrianisation proved to be a major problem in quite a few other ‘historical’ places in the US but in a small place like this, we felt it would make a huge difference. However, we were determined to leave Sacramento on a high note and placed our hopes in Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park.
When we arrived at the Fort, a friendly cashier informed us if we waited fifteen minutes until 4.30pm, the admission would be free (they were closing at 5pm). Always fans of good bargain, especially if it is free, we took a thick brochure about the Fort to a little park at the back of the building and spent the short waiting time reading up on the place. Established by a German born guy who liked to call himself Swiss, John Sutter, Sutter’s Fort was one of the best sites we visited during our holiday. During its heyday, it was an extremely populous settlement with a wide variety of resident trades and crafts often imported by European immigrants, making it one of the most popular cultural and economical centres of early California. John Sutter was an entrepreneurial idealist who would selflessly accept anyone who came to him to ask for help or shelter.Although the fort was equipped to deter armed attack, its defenses were never tested due to Sutter’s persistent efforts in maintaining good relationships between the Native American Indians and immigrants. He was, however, also a great business man and thanks to his vision, Sutter’s Fort was extremely profitable, making Sutter a very rich man. His luck was rather fickle though as in 1848, it was his employee James Marshall who discovered gold at Sutter’s mill, which kicked off the great gold rush and within weeks his land was swamped by thousands of prospectors from all over the US and the World. Sadly, when John Sutter died, he was a virtually a poor man.
Needless to say, this visit more than made up for the disappointment of Old Sacramento and we were once again ready to rumble. Our goal for the rest of the day was to get deep into the Gold Country before dark, to set us up for the next day. One thing we noticed in California though, was the sun starting to set much earlier than in north Germany. When we arrived in Sutter Creek, east of Sacramento, it was around eight o’clock and by the time we checked-in to our motel, it was dark. Initially, we wanted to try our luck at staying in one of the picturesque lodges around the main street, but none of them seemed to be open ‘that late’. Eventually, we ended up in one of these chain motels, walking distance to the centre of the town. And what a bargain! We didn’t even mind there were no places to eat after 9 o’clock. Instead, one of our champagne bottles fell victim to the town’s early closing times.
With morning sunshine, we took a short walk to the Sutter Creek high street. In comparison to the Sacramento Old town, this was a lovely gold country town with pretty, well maintained houses full of café’s, antique shops and restaurants. Loads of antique shops. Our travel guide suggested a short drive of 12 miles from Sutter Creek was a mining ghost town Volcano. Short drive is a very relative term though, especially when you drive through the World’s waviest country roads. An hour later, we finally made it to Volcano. The first thing you see when you enter Volcano is the village limit sign post. Each town / village / hole in California has a sign giving the name, altitude and population of the place. We rather liked this and even more so, when the sign was manually updated to reflect any recent additions to the town’s population, like it was the case with 3% increase in Volcano to grand total of 103.
During its time, Volcano was one of the most sophisticated towns in the gold country with library, theatre, school and even astronomical observatory. Nowadays, its past glory is hard to see, although we quite enjoyed taking a walk around the back streets, where we found a number of plagues with information about the town and some of its remaining original sites.
Not too far from Volcano was supposed to be the Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park. This being one of the largest and most complete Native American sites in California, we were keen to pay it a visit. However, upon our departure from Volcano, The Duke decided to ignore my recommendation to turn back to one of the earlier junctions and confidently set off, direction Nevada. Only when we were dangerously close to crossing the border did he accept we might be heading the wrong way. Whilst we eventually got back on track, it cost us a couple of hours (and great deal of nerves) and by the time we got back to Sutter Creek we gave up on the idea altogether. Instead, we headed for the local ‘Sutter Gold Mine’.
When we arrived, the next tour was scheduled to start in less than an hour. We used this opportunity to see a 40 minutes video about the beginnings of gold mining’s and its impacts on California. This was a really good film. Whilst 45 minutes might seem quite long, it was definitely worth the time.
Unlike many other mines founded during the gold rush, Sutter Gold Mine is still used today. It offers tours given by some of the miners themselves and we were lucky to have a guide, whose family gold mining tradition goes many generations back. Not only did we find out about the gold rush and evolution of mining techniques, he also added personal stories into the mix. One of these was about his great granddad.
Back in the day, mining was, and to large extent still is, a very dangerous and hard job. Many miners had a dream of making it big and providing good living for their families. When working as employees in mines, many were trying to steal golden nuggets to afford the life style they aspired to and hoped for. But only some succeeded to get through the rigorous checks at the end of each shift. Our guide’s great granddad used his buttered sandwiches to stack away gold dust and carry it back above the ground. He would leave a corner of his sandwich bread uneaten, make a little hole, fill it with gold and spread butter over it. Throwing this back into the lunch box looking like unfinished lunch, it would get unnoticed by the guards.
Other popular way of stealing gold from the mines was wrapping it in sticky guee and hiding it in the miner’s beard. The savier the checks the more creative the miners became. It was common to use thread, tie it to a tooth or a tongue with the gold at one end and swallow. Many would even swallow without the threat and wait…. Nowadays, body scanner and metal detector are apparently rather popular so the miners no longer swallow.
Another interesting story was about the origin of the term ‘Gold Digger’. One of the first drills used in the mines lacked water flashing system, releasing tiny particles of silica dust into the air. Breathing these in would eventually destroy the driller’s lungs and after 3-4 years, he would die. The drill was called the ‘Widow Maker’. Due to this high occupational hazard, drillers were paid $7 per day and sometimes even more, which was twice as much as normal miner and many times more than average wage at the time. These men were understandably very popular with the ladies and the saying ‘Gold Digger’ was born.
The less than safe environment of the mines was also apparent when it came to using dynamite. 8-11 years old boys were used to transport the dynamite into the mine. Each would have to whistle when at work. Dynamite contains glycerin, which is absorbed through the skin into the body and causes paralysis, starting with the head. When the boy stopped whistling, everyone knew there was only few seconds time before he would faint and drop the dynamite he was holding, potentially causing an explosion. A man, generally the boy’s father (talking about incentivizing employees), was in charge of the boy and as soon as the whistling stopped, he would grab the boy before he passed out and carry him above the ground. Once on the fresh air, the glycerin would slowly leave the body and the boy would be ready to go back underground. This took place around 3-4 times a day.
Even without the extras, the tour was excellent. One thing we did not see yet though was a real gold mining ghost town and for that, we would have to wait little bit longer. Instead, from Sutter Creek we headed to what is a cemetery, established in one of these old gold mining towns, Mokelumne Hill. With women greatly outnumbered and the mining towns being a melting pot of cultures and nationalities, many such places had a violent past. Shoot outs were not unusual and opportunities were plenty. Back in the day, Mokelumne Hill was such a place. The cemetery is a great example of the diversity gold mining attracted with still legible tomb stones written in multiple languages. It was slightly bizarre though to be able to drive around the cemetery! I really think they should do something about cars being allowed everywhere…
From Mokelumne Hill, we continued south towards the Columbia State Historic Park. In contrary to majority of goldmining towns abandoned as soon as the gold ran out, Columbia was maintained by its remaining residents until 1945, when it became a State Historic Park. This place had everything we were looking for. To start with, it was pedestrianised! Its original buildings were either arranged as museum showcases of gold rush Wells Fargo office, Fire brigade coach store, dentist practice, or they were opened to visitors as saloon, blacksmith workshop, carpenter store, sweet shop etc. We could even try our luck at panning for gold in wooden water shaft full of rock and gravel. This place was definitely worth the slight detour south.
With plenty of interesting gold mining places behind us, we were ready for a little change of scenery. Having missed the John Muir Redwoods park, The Duke wanted to visit the Calaveras Big Trees State Park, and if possible, also the gold mining ghost town Bodie.
When we arrived at the Calaveras Park, it was already six o’clock. The ranger, recognizing we only had another hour or so to walk around, gave The Duke pensioner discount (grand total of $1 but still good) and waved us through. This was also when we started to learn about the very intriguing giant sequoia trees. The park could be explored via a round trip with plenty of massive trees along the path, often with interesting stories attached to them. Right the first stop was at the Discovery Stump.
When Augustus Dowd stumbled upon this Discovery Tree in 1852, the area started attracting lots of attention. So much so, that some clever heads decided to promote the existence of these giants to openly skeptical New Yorkers, by cutting down the very Discovery Tree and displaying a section of it in New York. Despite protests, the tree was cut down but the exhibition was very much unsuccessful. People from the east found it hard to believe the tree was genuine. However, more trees were destroyed before Californians finally realized best way to show them off to the world is by preserving them alive.
The walk around had at times the feel of a theme park when we walked through a long tunnel inside a fallen Father of the Forest tree or went underneath a huge fallen sequoia.
Mother of the Forest is another victim of human stupidity. Once again, to show off the greatness of these giants and no doubt, cash in on it, an American businessman George Gale decided to strip the bark of this tree to reassemble it in different places around the World. Also this tree died unnecessarily. The show bombed due to general disbelieve that the bark is genuine and wide-spread outrage at cutting down a tree that at the time was believed to be the largest one in the World.
As we were walking through the park, we found it really hard to appreciate the great size of these trees. It is impossible to comprehend the scale without having a familiar object next to the tree. And even then it is still not possible to assess how high these trees are. The closest one gets is seeing one fallen down, which is not that common. Although with the extremely shallow and very wide root structure, falling is a real risk to them. Interestingly enough, so is lack of fire. Contrary to the original believe of those who wanted to ‘protect’ these trees from harm, sequoias need fire to reproduce. Fire clears the ground and allows the sun to reach their tiny seeds that can then take a root. Sequoias shoot up tall and slim within the first 600 years or so (shoot up is used rather loosely here). Then they spend the remaining hundreds and often thousands of years chunking-up and getting their characteristic conical shape.
This park was a fantastic end to our already full day and with the sun starting to set, we were ready to find a place for the night. Bodie, near the border with Nevada, was moved to the next day although we were still determined to cross the High Sierras that evening to save us some driving in the morning. Those of you privy to the knowledge of driving in High Sierras are probably laughing right now. What we absolutely underestimated was the time it takes to get from Calaveras Big Trees to Bodie, or anywhere near it. After two hours of wavy mountain roads and admittedly some fantastic scenery, we arrived in Bridgeport. It was 9 o’clock and we were, once again, starving.
The thing we learnt fairly early on in California was the complete absence of places outside the coastal area serving food after 8pm. Bridgeport was not an exception. After a couple of unsuccessful attempts we were lucky to stumble upon the last open food place in town, the Sports Bar. Our day was packed with fascinating places and information but not so much with food. Luckily for us, our Romanian server delivered our juicy BBQ burgers before we could say ‘Calaveras Big Trees National State Park’. To top it all off, after the dinner The Duke confidently challenged me to a couple of games of pool, at which we actually drew so happiness all around. The only minor disappointment of the night was the bar staff failing to ask me for ID. Oh well, can’t have it all….
Although we woke up quite early, we were one of the last people to leave the motel. We attributed it to the close proximity to the Yosemite Park. The roads were fairly empty and we set off to Bodie. To get there, we took a partially tarmacced road that later became a dirt track, winding through the pretty plains and hills with great views of snowcapped mountains. Whilst the sign suggests you need 4x4, we found the track to be in very good condition and easily passable with low-clearance car.
Unlike all the other places we visited, Bodie was a true ghost town without tourist shops and cars parked around the streets. The only people still living in Bodie are park rangers and volunteers who guard this fragile historical site throughout the year. The town is very hard to describe except it is quite surreal. Much larger than any other ‘ghost town’ we so far visited, a total of 170 original buildings are being kept in a state of ‘arrested decay’. This means, they are prevented from falling down but other than that, are left alone. The exception is the handful of buildings used as housing for rangers.
Upon arrival, we got a brochure with very detailed overview of Bodie, all of its buildings and story of its early days and gradual decline. Each day, a number of free tours are given by the rangers and given the time of our arrival, we took part in a 10am walk to the summit of Bodie. What a fantastic tour! Once again, it was the local stories from the past and present that made it. It was hard to believe the present Bodie is mere 5% of the original town that had 10k people and 65 saloons. This lent itself to a question about ‘Where did the remaining 95% go?’. The answer, applicable to quite a few other places around California, was ‘fire’. Or rather a couple of them. One was caused by a little boy playing with matches (how unoriginal) and one started in a kitchen in Chinatown. As the source of gold was slowly but surely drying up by then, many didn’t bother rebuilding their houses and left. Those whose houses survived followed shortly after and given the high cost of shipping, many left majority of their possessions behind. This provided for an eerie feel of the remaining buildings as many were fully furnished with curtains and often wheel barrows and other equipment still parked outside.
Whilst almost the entire town is freely accessible to visitors on self guided walks and provided reading materials are great, the Ranger walk took us to a fenced off area on top of the hill above the town. The views from there were quite spectacular, with snow capped mountains in the background, and it was interesting to hear the Ranger talking about actually living in Bodie. Despite its high altitude and long snowy winters, Bodie is open to public all year round, although in winter you have to come on ski or snowmobile.Apparently this did not put off one French family last year. Somehow they ended up with their campervan in the closed off area above the town, stuck in snow and freezing to death. To save themselves, they broke into one of the historical houses and started ripping out floor boards to make fire. Fortunately, the rangers found them during one of their daily errands and got them back to civilization. Their campervan was not so lucky though, and it took another 3 months (and not very amused rental company, I would imagine) for the snow to melt, before they could get it back to San Francisco.
Since we were so impressed with the stories ‘our’ Ranger conveyed to us, I decided to share some with you:
The founders: S.W. Body and his friend Black Taylor originally discovered gold here when most gold mines in California were already declining. As they made the finding late summer, they had two choices. They could go back to town for the winter and try to get back in spring when the snow started to melt. This would carry the risk of someone else beating them to it. Or, they could spend the winter there to guard their discovery. They chose the latter. But unfortunately, Body was never able to enjoy the benefits if this great find. When returning from last trip to town to stock-up with food for the winter, Body and Black Taylor were surprised by the first snowfall of the season. Being high up in the mountains, the snow reached great height and eventually exhausted, Body could not continue on his way. Black, summing up his last energy, promised he would go to their hut, pick up blankets and a sledge and come back to collect Body. Unfortunately, the snowstorm did not get better and Black never got back for his friend. Two versions of this story exist. One is, Black Taylor knew if he tried to find Body in these conditions they would both die, and decided to stay inside. The other is, Black spent ages looking for Body but never found him and eventually returned. Either way, even though Black Taylor established the mine they planned together with Body, the loss of his best friend was too great. Unable to enjoy the benefits of their joint find he eventually left Bodie.
The name of the town, Bodie, was obviously based on its founder. However, the spelling is incorrect. Rumor has it, the mistake was made by an illiterate sign maker. Others disagree and suggest, this was an intentional move to ensure the name is pronounced correctly and thus was written phonetically. You decide, but I prefer the first version.
And one more story before we move on. The last resident of Bodie was an old gold miner called Bobby Bell. When the Bodie Historical Park was founded in 1962, Bobby Bell was key in shaping this site by working closely together with the rangers transferring his invaluable knowledge of the place and helping to preserve it for future generations. In parallel, he maintained a number of small working gold mines. Bobby was a popular character and well liked by the Park rangers. Until his death in 2003, he apparently liked to come back to Bodie to share his stories of the days gone by and entertain the rangers and guests alike. When he died, four golden bricks were found in his freezer and a box of dynamite under his bed. However, although Bobby had a family, the golden bricks went missing and have never been found. The dynamite was, on the other hand, accounted for. When I asked who found the bricks, our Ranger volunteered it were the government officials. I might be too quick to judge but we might have just solved this great mystery of disappeared gold. As the last resident of Bodie, Bobby Bell was also the last person buried at the Bodie cemetery, a short walk from the town where he can be found today.
Having spent the previous two days touring around the Gold Country, The Duke and I had some doubts whether this detour to Bodie was indeed necessary. Our doubts disappeared as soon as we saw Bodie on the horizon, but having absolved the Ranger tour and spent another hour walking around the town, we became massive advocates of this place and would strongly recommend visiting to anyone who founds themselves in the area. Quite often this type of remote place falls victim to time pressures and convenience, but more often than not, they are unpolished gems with oodles of character and interesting stories to tell. Bodie is one of these places and we were glad we made it.
The thing about Bodie, or rather its location, is that to get there, one also needs to take the same way back. Generally not something we like to do. So we deployed our detective powers and with a little help of a friendly ranger found a dirt track we could cut across the mountains to get to Mono Lake, our next planned stop. We were told this was unlikely to save us any time, which was just fine with us. What we wanted was unspoiled scenery and new views. And that’s what we got. Only accessible with 4x4, we met just one other car which happened to be low clearance Toyota. When I say met, I mean ‘drove past’ it whilst a young couple tried to change the tire. Our offer to help was not accepted (we assumed they were still at the stage in the relationship when he wanted to impress his lady with manly deeds) so we wished them good luck and continued on our way.
Mono Lake is a curious place not only thanks to its appearance but also the story behind it. Bought by the city of Los Angeles in 1941 to supply water to the south, its content is three times saltier than the sea and its boundary has been massively receding until a restore order was passed in 1994. Coming from Bodie, we first reached the North Tufa. Luckily for us, this side of the lake had a beautifully green picnic site, which was just as well as we were starving. We used this opportunity to find a shadowy spot on the grass and tack into our supplies of picnic nibbles. After this little break we were ready to explore the area.
A raised wooden walk led from the car park to the edge of the Lake, with historical water level markers long stretches apart and information boards with the fauna and flora of Mono lining the path. The area previously under water was covered in flowering plants and grasses and the closer we got to the edge of the water, we started to see large tufa towers.
Tufa, as we learnt, are limestone formations formed by underwater springs rich in calcium mixing with the lake water rich in carbonates. As the description suggests, Tufa can only form under water and the amount of Tufas decorating the shores of Mono Lake or sticking above the water level is quite alarming. Still, they provide for spectacular sight and definitely add to the visual quality of the landscape. Volunteers man the lake and a nice lady with binoculars let us observe the bird life on the lake and around the shores, before we decided to head back and drive to the south side of the lake, which was supposed to be the prettier sister of the north.
We were quite surprised to find the south side being a lot further than we expected. When we finally got there, it was clear why majority of visitors prefer this side. To start with, the tufa towers are plentiful and come in all different shapes and sizes. Secondly, unlike on the north side, we could walk directly to the beach and even in the water. The water tasted very salty but we knew it would. What we did not know was we would find here our old friends ‘Alkali Flies’. We saw them once before when in the great Salt Lake in Utah but fortunately for us, here they were much less ‘friendly’. It was quite bizarre being so close to the towers and from close up, they looked really fragile.
Before we left, we wanted to find out if the restoration act passed almost twenty years ago made any difference. Although the decline of the water happened in rocket speed compared to the restoration, we were pleased to see a chart shown to us by the ranger with visible signs of the water level rising once again. Both, Bodie and Mono Lake are on the east side of the Yosemite Park and many forfeit this trip in favor of an extra day in Yosemite. Despite the extra mileage, we would strongly recommend to anyone to make the effort and see for themselves what both of these unique sites have to offer. We were not disappointed.
By the time we left Mono Lake, it was mid afternoon and there was nothing standing between us and the Yosemite Park. Satisfied we managed to see a variety of what the Gold Country has to offer, we set off towards the Tuolumne Meadows, ready to find out for ourselves what is this Yosemite hype about.