Great State Park Getaways in the Foothills

By Mike Morris June 15, 2013 07:26

Our region’s four state parks combine education and exercise, making them the perfect summer outing for all ages.

Each is like a treasure in our own backyard.

The parks offer glimpses into the past, revealing the lives of Native Americans or perhaps miners
during the California Gold Rush. You can experience a time when steam-powered locomotives ruled the rails, or simply get lost in the beauty of a majestic grove of giant sequoias.

These outings can be affordable as well: Two parks charge modest day-use fees, one sells tickets to ride trains, and the other is free. Plus, they’re so close that you won’t spend too much on gas to drive there.

All of the parks feature flat, easy walking areas and are ideal for outings with grandchildren.

Perhaps most importantly, the parks can teach us all about the area’s rich history, connecting the past with the present.

Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park

Indian Grinding Rock

Mortar holes dot the park’s broad expanse of marbleized limstone

This park, about 11 miles northeast of Jackson, preserves the largest collection of bedrock mortars in North America – 1,185, to be exact.

Thousands of years ago, those holes were used by Miwok women grinding acorns into food for their families.

Created in 1968, the park also features the Chaw’se Regional Indian Museum, two hiking trails, and the largest Native American roundhouse in California.

A roundhouse – or hun’ge, as the Miwok call it – was the center of the ceremonial and social life of each village. Built in 1974 to educate visitors about Miwok history, the park’s 60-foot roundhouse was rebuilt in 1993 and is again closed for repairs. The structures were traditionally built to last for just 20 to 30 years, says park ranger Barry Robertson, “so the teaching could be passed on to the next generation.”

Its door faces east toward the rising sun, and a hole in the center of the roof allows smoke from the fire pit to escape. Each year in late September, the roundhouse is the site of a traditional Native American gathering called Big Time, which takes place just outside when the roundhouse is closed.

On a smaller scale, the 135-acre park also features several U’macha – teepee-like houses of cedar bark. As you walk the grounds, it’s easy to picture a Miwok tribe living there in harmony with the land.

With the help of 30 volunteers, the park welcomes more than 14,000 visitors annually. Its focal point is the Grinding Rock Viewing Platform, which overlooks an expanse of marbleized limestone dotted with mortar holes and etched with more than 300 petroglyphs. These circles, animal tracks, wavy lines and other carvings, thought to be up to 3,000 years old, are becoming difficult to see due to natural weathering.

“Although the meaning of the petroglyphs cannot be fully explained, they do suggest that this was a powerful and important place, a place where many generations worked together on this Chaw’se,” reads a sign in the viewing area.

Chaw’se is the Miwok word for grinding stone.

Robertson says the petroglyphs are his favorite part of the park. The designs are so impressive because “they were carved into rock without using modern tools like we would today,” he says.


Youngsters in the doorway of an U’macha

The petroglyphs are most visible at sunrise and sunset, and sometimes after a rain. “The angle of the sun helps highlight them,” he says.

Near the platform are shaded, easily-accessible picnic tables, so be sure to pack a lunch. Afterward, take a walk along the North Trail, a one-mile roundtrip that starts near the museum and ends near the roundhouse. There you can pick up the half-mile South Trail.

Getting there: From Jackson, drive Highway 88 east eight miles to Pine Grove. Turn left onto Pine Grove-Volcano Road. Drive 1.5 miles and turn left into the park (take the second park entrance; the first is for campgrounds only).

Hours: Sunrise to sunset. Museum, 11am-2:30pm Friday-Monday, open Thursdays for school tours.

Cost: Day-use fee is $8 per vehicle ($7 for 62 and older); camping, 22 sites, $25 per night ($23 for 62 and older).

Wheelchair accessible: Museum, bathrooms, viewing platform, central park path, half of the North Trail.

Dogs: Allowed in campground and meadow area if leashed, but not on trails (unless service dogs).

Contact: (209) 296-7488. Online,

Calaveras Big Trees State Park

Calaveras Big TreesAt an elevation of 4,750 feet, Calaveras Big Trees State Park offers seven hiking trails amid two groves of giant sequoias – the world’s largest trees, native only to the western slopes of California’s Sierra Nevada.

The park’s biggest, the Agassiz Tree, soars 262 feet high and has a 98-foot circumference and a diameter of about 31 feet.

In 2012, more than 165,000 people visited Big Trees and its celebrated groves, protected since 1931 when the state park was created.

The North Grove is home to about 150 giant sequoias, which can be seen from an easy 1.5-mile loop trail. This flat, well-marked path is the park’s most popular destination because it is stroller- and wheelchair-friendly. Shaded rest areas have picnic tables and restrooms nearby. A new $2.7 million visitor center is expected to open in August at the North Grove trailhead.

More than 100 volunteers help maintain the park, welcome visitors and lead tours. Guided hikes through the North Grove begin at 1pm every Saturday year-round. In the winter, snowshoes are used and the park also offers cross-country ski trails and sledding.

At the start of the North Grove Trail is Big Stump, used as a dance floor in the 1850s (a two-lane bowling alley and bar were built on its fallen trunk). There are trail markers at 26 of the trees, with names like Empire State, the Siamese Twins and Father of the Forest.

Near the end of the loop trail is the Pioneer Cabin Tree, a visitor favorite. Cars were once allowed to drive through its tunneled base, now reserved for walkers.

Hikers who want a longer walk with more solitude will find both in the South Grove, home to about 1,000 sequoias. After entering the park, instead of turning right toward the North Grove, go straight along the Walter W. Smith Memorial Parkway.

In 5.6 miles you’ll reach the North Fork of the Stanislaus River, and in 8.3 miles you’ll find the South Grove. Its trail, a five-mile roundtrip, travels along Big Trees Creek and ends at the remarkable Agassiz Tree.

Ranger Jeff Davis says consensus among experts is that some of the park’s trees, the Agassiz included, are more than 2,000 years old. He has worked at the park for a decade and still finds the majestic trees “awe inspiring,” as do visitors.

“People just find it incredible,” he says, “that something grows this big and lives this long.”

Getting there: From Angels Camp, drive 23 miles northeast on Highway 4 through Murphys and Arnold, then turn right to enter the park.

Hours: Sunrise to sunset. The visitor center and museum in summer are open 9am-5pm Sunday-Thursday and 9am-6pm Friday and Saturday.

Cost: Day-use fee $10 per vehicle, $12 on peak holiday weekends ($1 discount for those 62 or older). Two campgrounds offer 129 campsites in all; $35 per night, $40 on holidays ($2 discount for 62 and older). From late May through mid-September, reserve at 1-800-444-7275; rest of year, first-come first-served onsite, same cost.

Wheelchair access: North Grove and Beaver Creek trails, River Picnic Area. The .13-mile rope-guided Three Senses Trail includes braille text markers. More info online at

Dogs: If leashed, allowed in picnic areas, roads, campgrounds and parking lots, but not on trails (service dogs only).

Contact: Ranger station, (209) 795-2334; visitor center, (209) 795-3840. Online,,

Columbia State Historic Park

Columbia Stagecoach

Visitors enjoy a stagecoach ride with driver Bob Anderson and team

This Gold Rush town north of Sonora features activities steeped in history and fun. Here you can pan for gold, ride a stagecoach, make hand-dipped candles and drink ice-cold sarsaparilla.

There’s a blacksmith shop, a quaint teahouse and a historic mercantile store. Street musicians and park docents in period costumes add atmosphere. The park also has more than 100 volunteers who last year put in more than 11,000 hours of work.

Columbia’s history starts with the discovery of gold in 1850. First called Hildreth’s Diggings (after prospector Dr. Thaddeus Hildreth) and then American Camp, Columbia became a tent and shantytown housing nearly 6,000 miners. By the end of 1852, more than 150 stores, saloons and other businesses thrived.

But gold eventually gave out, and the years took their toll. Many of the town’s handsome brick buildings, however, survived, and in the early 1940s Columbia residents James and Geraldine McConnell proposed making it a state park.

Legislation creating the park was signed by Gov. Earl Warren at the McConnell home in 1945. Since then, virtually all of Columbia’s buildings have been reinforced, rebuilt or restored.

Columbia, which receives a half-million visitors annually, features the largest collection of Gold Rush-era structures in the state. The park is open daily and hosts events year-round, including a Big Band Street Dance on July 20, a Poison Oak Show on Sept. 28, and Fiddle and Bango Contest (yes, banjo with a “g,” thanks to an error in an event poster years ago) on Oct. 5.

“Often visitors do not understand that this is a working park and a town,” says Amber Cantisano, an interpretive specialist. “The buildings are preserved by the state, and Columbia’s merchants rent space and create the ambiance of a working Gold Rush town from the 1850s through 1870s.”

The heart of Columbia is Main Street, which is closed to motorized vehicles and affords visitors numerous shops through which to browse.

With free admission, parking and tours by docents, a visit can be both inexpensive and enjoyable. You can enjoy a picnic lunch and bowl free in an antique alley. The Columbia Museum shows a free movie about the town, and children can dress up in bonnets and other period clothing.

For Sonora-area resident Carolyn White, 62, Columbia brings memories of her grandchildren’s visits from Tennessee. “We always go to the park when they visit, and it’s always a good experience,” she says.

White was at the park with her grandchildren earlier this year, when they bowled, rode the stagecoach, climbed through a rock maze and visited Nelson’s Candy Kitchen, founded in the late 1800s by a Danish confectioner.

As she and her grandchildren walked down Main Street together, White recalls a special moment: “I told them, ‘This is what I call fun – being with you both in Columbia.’ They looked at me like, wow, this is really special.”

Getting there: From downtown Sonora, drive two miles north on Highway 49, then turn right on Parrotts Ferry Road. Go nearly two miles to any of several parking lots on your right.

Hours: Business hours vary, but park streets never close.

Cost: Free admission and town tours. Fees for some
special activities and events, including ghost tours.

Wheelchair access: Ramps allow access to all Main Street businesses.

Dogs: Permitted on leash.

Contact: (209) 588-9128,

Railtown 1897 State Historic Park

Every weekend from April through October, you can ride a train pulled by a steam locomotive or a vintage diesel switcher. The 45-minute, six-mile round-trip takes passengers into Jamestown’s scenic countryside.

This year for the first time, diesel trains will run at noon and 2pm Wednesdays from July 10 to August 28, says park Superintendent Kim Baker. Railtown is about four miles southwest of Sonora off Highway 108, on Fifth Avenue in Jamestown.

Another main attraction is the roundhouse. Used for storing and maintaining locomotives, it is one of only two continuously operating short-line, steam-locomotive roundhouses in the country (the other is in Pennsylvania). Tours are available daily, and docents lead behind-the-scenes shop tours at 10am Tuesdays.

Railtown rolling stock now includes five steam engines, including No. 3, the famed 122-year-old “Movie Star Locomotive.” Between 2008 and 2010, No. 3 was restored at a cost of more than $1.5 million.

Built from Oakdale to transport lumber and mining materials to the foothills, the Sierra Railway reached Jamestown amid great pomp and ceremony on Nov. 10, 1897. The line was extended to Sonora in 1899, to the West Side Lumber Co. in Tuolumne in 1900 and across the Stanislaus River canyon to Angels Camp in 1902 (the 19-mile Angels branch  was abandoned in 1935).

As the cost of gold mining increased at the start of World War I, the company’s revenues decreased. Better roads, the popularity of the automobile and freight competition from trucks further ate into the Sierra’s profits.

The line’s last regularly scheduled passenger train left Jamestown on Aug. 31, 1938. Freight trains, however, continued to roll and still do today, servicing the Sierra Pacific lumber mill in Standard and other foothill customers.

The Sierra has also proven popular with Hollywood: Its locomotives have been featured in hundreds of film and television productions, including “The Lone Ranger,” “High Noon,” “Petticoat Junction,” “Little House on the Prairie” and “Back to the Future III.”

The Jamestown complex was an excursion-train theme park run by the Sierra Railroad during the 1970s and became a state park in 1982. Today, Railtown – which has an annual visitor count of nearly 50,000 – offers themed train rides, including the Harvest Haunt Express in October and Santa’s Starlight Express in late November. There’s also a gift shop selling rail-themed merchandise.

A few blocks away is Jamestown’s Main Street, which features restaurants, wine-tasting rooms, antique shops, an old-fashioned ice cream parlor and a playground.

There are plenty of picnic tables at Railtown, a popular destination for families and for more than 150 volunteers who together logged 24,000 hours in 2012.

Docent Jeanette Foster drives from her home in Valley Springs to volunteer a few times a week. To her the park is a fun, safe place where families can share an important part of the state’s history together.

“We’ll get two and three generations – the grandmother, the mom, the child,” says Foster, 73, now in her fourth year leading Railtown tours. “That’s what makes the park so reminiscent of old California. The memories are here from generation to generation.”

Getting there: From downtown Sonora, drive 1.5 miles west on Stockton Road, then turn right on Highway 108. Drive two miles, then turn left onto Jamestown’s Fifth Avenue. Go a half-mile to Railtown.

Hours: 9:30am-4:30pm daily, April through October (trains depart hourly 11am-3pm weekends), and 10am-3pm November through March (special holiday trains only). Diesel trains run each Wednesday at noon and 2pm, July 10 to August 28.

Cost: $5 for adults, $3 for children 6-17, includes museum, tours. Regular train tickets, which include park admission, $15 for adults (no senior discounts), $8 for children 6-17, free for 5 and under.

Wheelchair access: Wheelchair lift is available to help with train boarding. Other park areas generally accessible; help may be required with steep ramps or raised flooring.

Dogs: Must be leashed and, if well-behaved, can ride trains.

Contact: (209) 984-3953,

 © 2013 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

By Mike Morris June 15, 2013 07:26
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