Eight Great Day Outings

By Mike Morris June 15, 2011 11:30

Chris McKenzie walks Table Mountain trail with her grandson

One of the greatest benefits of living in the Mother Lode is the natural beauty that surrounds us.

And there’s no better way to enjoy the great outdoors than with family – both young and old.

Below are eight one-day outings, suitable for  both grandparents and children. Most are free, or at least low cost, and can include walks, picnics and photo outings. We’ve included directions from Sonora and mileage from both Sonora and Angels Camp.

Our list includes trips that appeal to avid hikers as well as to those who are less active or simply looking for a scenic drive with a few short stops.

That said, the list is hardly comprehensive – it’s just a sampling of what Calaveras and Tuolumne County have to offer. Dozens of day trips in all corners of the area wait discovery by the energetic and adventurous.

So set aside a summer day for a multigenerational adventure. Get out there and explore:


1. Table Mountain

Frequented by hikers of all ages, Table Mountain is visible from Highway 108 near Jamestown. It’s a long, flat lava flow that’s popular for viewing spring wildflowers.

At the top, hikers can see New Melones Reservoir on one side and the Sierra Nevada mountains on the other. On a clear day, you can even see snowcapped peaks in the distance.

The 1.5-mile roundtrip trail, maintained by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, is considered challenging as it’s steep and rocky toward the top. Allow about an hour for the trip up and back.

Sturdy boots and hiking poles are recommended, as is water – particularly in the summer, when temperatures on the un-shaded trail can be extremely hot. A restroom is near the trailhead. Dogs must be leashed.

How to get there: From Sonora (6.4 miles, 10.5 from Angels), take Highway 108 west, turn right on Rawhide Road in Jamestown, and follow it for about three miles. Turn left on Shell Road and stay to the left. Visitors can park at the first cattle gate and walk a mile-long path to the beginning of the trail up the mountain. Or, those with high-clearance 4WD vehicles can drive the rugged road to the trailhead. Please close both cattle gates behind you.

Also check out: After your hike, shop the historic stores in downtown Jamestown or, on the weekends, ride a steam train at Railtown 1897 State Historic Park (984-3953, railtown1897.org).

Info: Call the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Sonora-area office at 536-9094.

Extra Tip: Remember that walking from the gates will add time to your hike. Also, don’t forget to close those gates behind you.

2. Westside Railroad Grade

This grade, a mile east of downtown Tuolumne, was once plied by logging trains and is the perfect walk for all ages. Not only is it easy, but it offers spectacular views of the North Fork of the Tuolumne River, and has two picnic tables and benches along the trail.

The first section of the trail is part of the Tuolumne Parks and Recreation District. It then crosses some Bureau of Land Management property before entering the Stanislaus National Forest’s Mi-Wok Ranger District. A March landslide closed the seven-mile trail – which leads to River Ranch Campground – 2.3 miles in, so the round-trip walk is now about 4.6 miles until repairs are completed.

The trail is wide enough to bike or push a stroller. It’s also popular for walking dogs.

How to get there: The trailhead is 10.5 miles from Sonora and 26 from Angels Camp. From Sonora, take Tuolumne Road until it ends at Carter Street in Tuolumne. Turn left onto Carter, then make a right onto Buchanan Road. A parking turnoff can be found shortly on the left, and the trailhead is posted.

Also check out: If the kids still have energy after the walk, stop by the new Tot Lot in Tuolumne; its entrance is near the library on Main Street. Or drive northeast along Tuolumne Road North up to Twain Harte’s Eproson Park (about 5½ miles), which features one of the nicest playgrounds in Tuolumne County.

Info: Mi-Wok Ranger District, 586-3234.

Extra Tip: This trail is best in the fall and spring, when wildflowers are in bloom. Winter brings mud and the summer is scorching in the river canyon (not to mention the trail can be overrun with prickly yellow star thistle). During warm weather, go early or later in the day. As always when hiking in the foothills, watch for rattlesnakes.

3. Pinecrest

Pinecrest Lake – at 5,600 feet – features hiking, swimming, boating and a day-use area perfect for an afternoon picnic. The lake, part of the Stanislaus National Forest’s Summit Ranger District, is owned by PG&E.

Starting at the Pinecrest Marina, there’s a four-mile trail that loops around the lake. The trail can be rocky, and granite areas slippery at times, so it may not be the best walk for young children or the elderly.

Afterward, relax in the shade of the towering pines at the picnic area, where many of the tables have grills nearby. There’s also a sandy beach area and a roped-off swimming section where boats can’t go.

Dogs are not allowed in the day-use picnic area from May 15-Sept. 15. Outside of that area, they are allowed on a leash.

How to get there: Take Highway 108 about 30 miles east of Sonora to the Summit Ranger Station, where you’ll turn off the highway to the right and travel down Pinecrest Lake Road for about a mile. Mileage from Angels Camp is 46.

Also check out: Pinecrest Lake Resort (965-3411, pinecrestlakeresort.com) offers a full-service marina, restaurant, coffee bar, ice cream shack, bicycle rentals and a sport shop that sells fishing licenses.

Info: Summit Ranger District, 965-3434.

Extra Tip: Stay until the evening to catch a movie under the stars. During the summer, family-themed outdoor movies are shown at the Pinecrest Theater near the lake. For movie schedules, visit pinecresttheater.com.

4. Highway 108 High Country

Continuing east on Highway 108 from Pinecrest will take you to many treasures of the Stanislaus National Forest.

Among them is Donnell Vista, a well-known overlook and picnic area that provides sweeping views of the Middle Fork of the Stanislaus River, Donnell Reservoir and the Dardanelles.

A new handicapped-accessible trail is expected to open this summer. The new trail will allow those wheelchairs to go from the parking lot to the lookout, forest officials say.

Donnell Vista is ideal for all ages as it combines a short walk with amazing photo opportunities and a picnic area with restrooms. Leashed pets are allowed on the quarter-mile trail.

Donnell is 46 miles from Sonora and 62 from Angels Camp.

Farther east on Highway 108 will bring you to Columns of the Giants, accessed by an easy half-mile trail. Awaiting hikers is a striking rock formation similar to Devils Postpile National Monument near Mammoth Lakes. The columns were formed by a volcano and sculpted by glaciers thousands of years ago.

Kennedy Meadows Resort and Pack Station – just three miles farther east on Highway 108 – is a gateway into the Emigrant Wilderness, either by foot or horseback. The high-country resort also has a general store, saloon and restaurant. Call 965-3900 or visit kennedymeadows.com.

How to get there: Donnell Vista is 16 miles east of Pinecrest along Highway 108. The trail to Columns of the Giants is eight miles farther east along Highway 108, next to the Pigeon Flat Campground.

Also check out: Enjoying the drive? Continue east on Highway 108 to 9,624-foot Sonora Pass, where a parking area with restrooms provides access to the Pacific Crest Trail, running from Mexico to Canada.

Info: Summit Ranger District, 965-3434.

Extra Tip: Fill up on gas before venturing to the high country, where gas stations are sparse and fuel much more costly.

5. Yosemite National Park

This world-renowned park is known for its towering granite cliffs and booming waterfalls. It’s also the ultimate day outing: abeautiful drive, plenty of places to soak up the scenery, and potential photos just about everywhere you look.

Yosemite features all types of hikes – ranging from difficult, such as Half Dome and Upper Yosemite Fall, to easy walks, including those to Bridalveil Fall and the Lower Yosemite Fall Loop Trail.

A paved trail leads from the Bridalveil Fall parking area to the waterfall’s base. Leashed dogs are allowed on this short, easy walk. Lower Yosemite Fall Loop Trail is a mile-long paved path that gives incredible views of both Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls. It’s also open to leashed dogs.

Across from Yosemite Falls, there’s a wheelchair-accessible wooden boardwalk at Cook’s Meadow as well as at Stoneman Meadow near Curry Village.

How to get there: Drive east on Highway 120 through Groveland and to the park’s Big Oak Flat Entrance Station. From there, it’s about a 40-minute drive to Yosemite Valley (72 miles from Sonora and 82 from Angels Camp).

Also check out: For those wanting to avoid the summertime crowds of Yosemite Valley, drive to breathtaking Tuolumne Meadows and the Tioga Pass area of the park instead.

Info: A weeklong vehicle pass to enter Yosemite costs $20. An unlimited annual pass costs $40. For those 62 and older, a $10 national parks’ lifetime pass is available at the entrance station. Free park entry will be offered June 21 (the first day of summer), Sept. 24 (National Public Lands Day) and Nov. 11-13 (Veterans Day weekend). For more information, call 372-0200 or visit www.nps.gov/yose.

Extra Tip: Stop in Groveland on the way to or from Yosemite. Groveland’s Mary Laveroni Community Park, along Highway 120, is a great place to let the kids play or use the restroom. Visit nearby Groveland Yosemite Gateway Museum to learn about the area’s history and wildlife; kids will enjoy the “please pet” display of animal pelts.


6. Natural Bridges

Kristen Gilbert relaxes at Natural Bridges

This summertime hot spot near the Tuolumne-Calaveras county line rewards hikers with a swim in ice-cold water through limestone and marble caves.

Just 10 miles from Sonora (nine from Angels Camp), Natural Bridges gives the experience of being in an exotic locale, with dripping waterfalls and moss-covered rocks.

The round-trip hike to and from the popular swimming hole is only 1.4 miles. Once at the bottom of the canyon, hikers are rewarded with a refreshing dip in Coyote Creek. The walk is considered moderately difficult because heading back, it’s all uphill. Pets and bicycles are not permitted.

Picnic tables are near the creek, but on crowded days they can be snatched up quickly. A restroom is near the trailhead off Parrotts Ferry Road.

How to get there: From Sonora, take Parrotts Ferry Road through Columbia and across New Melones Reservoir toward Vallecito. Shortly after entering Calaveras County there will be a Natural Bridges sign and parking to the left.

Also check out: On the way to Natural Bridges, stop at Columbia State Historic Park, which has a variety of shops and charming Gold Rush era displays. On the Calaveras side, visit Murphys for wine tasting (without kids) or take the kids to Murphys Community Park, which has a great playground, charming gazebo and Murphys Creek running through.

Info: Natural Bridges is under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The bureau’s Sonora-area office can be reached at 536-9094.

Extra Tip: Those who may find the water temps too chilly — kids and adults alike — should bring a float or raft to guide through the cave.

7. Calaveras Big Trees State Park

What makes this 6,500-acre park remarkable are the majestic trees for which it’s named.

Big Trees offers five hiking trails, including walks through two groves of giant sequoias.  The heavily traveled North Grove trail is an easy 1.5-mile loop, while the more remote South Grove offers a more isolated experience.

Guided hikes of the North Grove start at 1pm every Saturday year-round (in the winter, free snowshoes are available on a first-come, first-served basis).

The park, with elevations ranging from 4,000 to 5,000 feet, has shaded picnic areas and a visitor center with a museum and gift shop. Leashed dogs are allowed in developed areas like picnic and camp sites, but not on trails.

How to get there: The park is off Highway 4, 37 miles from Sonora and 30 from Angels Camp.

Also check out: Arnold features shopping, dining and golfing. White Pines Lake, a mile off Highway 4 in Arnold, offers fishing, swimming and boating. Restrooms are close by, along with a beautiful new children’s playground and an exercise area.

Info: Big Trees’ day-use fee – from sunrise to sunset – is $8 per vehicle ($7 for drivers 62 and over). Park information is available at 795-2334, 795-3840 (visitor center) or www.parks.ca.gov.

Extra Tip: Make sure to get your picture at two of the most photographed spots in the park. They both happen to be on the North Grove trail: a huge tree-stump platform at the beginning of the trail, and the Pioneer Cabin Tree, which you can walk through, toward the end of the trail.

8. Lake Alpine

Jerry Snyder and granddaughter Emma at Utica Reservoir, with dog Rafe.

From Arnold east over Ebbetts Pass and to Highway 89 near Markleeville, Highway 4 is a National Scenic Byway.

The U.S. Federal Highway Administration gave this 56-mile stretch of highway such a designation for a reason: The narrow road curves through magnificent scenery ranging from valleys and canyons to peaks and rugged ridges.

One of the highlights is Lake Alpine, just east of Bear Valley in western Alpine County.  Like Pinecrest, Lake Alpine offers hiking, swimming, boating and fishing. A good resource to check out before heading there is lakealpine.com.

Lake Alpine is within the Stanislaus National Forest’s Calaveras Ranger District, with headquarters in Hathaway Pines (between Murphys and Arnold). Stop by the ranger station to pick up free information about the Lake Alpine area.

How to get there: Lake Alpine is 50 miles from Angels Camp and 58 from Sonora, via Parrotts Ferry Road.

Also check out: Keep going east on Highway 4 to 8,730-foot Ebbetts Pass — a much different mountain pass than Sonora Pass, but just as spectacular.

Info: Calaveras Ranger District, 795-1381.

Extra Tip: What better way to explore the lake than by canoe, kayak or boat? Lake Alpine Resort (753-6350, lakealpineresort.com) has all of those and more, including a restaurant, general store and bar. Kayakers will also enjoy a paddle on Spicer or Utica reservoirs, just six miles south of Alpine.

© 2011 Friends and Neighbors

By Mike Morris June 15, 2011 11:30