MURPHYS, Calif. — Not all the treasures of the Gold Rush Era are found along California 49, the Mother Lode Highway. There are other back-country riches off the scenic side roads in the western Sierra.
Just a few miles northeast of the Forty-Niner route is Murphys Hotel, which welcomed its first guests in 1856. Visitors sometimes will find a horse tied up at the front door while its rider is having a beer in the hotel's saloon.
Across the street is the Old-Timers Museum, with photos and memorabilia. On an exterior wall are plaques of the Ancient Order of E Clampus Vitus, a group established in 1857 as a spoof on the popular fraternal organizations of those rough-and-ready times.
Outside town are two deep limestone caverns with fascinating stalagmite and stalactite formations. Most visitors take the stairs, but at Moaning Cavern you can climb down a 180-foot rope into the main chamber.
A few miles beyond are two groves of giant sequoias at Calaveras Big Trees State Park, a beautiful place to picnic or camp.
Begin your detour from California 49 at Angels Camp, which was made famous by Mark Twain's "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County." A statue of Twain honors the author; also look along the highway for another monument to the frog. (Angels Camp's annual Jumping Frog Jubilee is held during the third week of May.)
Former Mexican Town
At the junction with California 4, drive east to Murphys. En route at Vallecito, once a Mexican mining town, you can turn south on Parrots Ferry Road to Moaning Cavern. The cavern was first explored in 1851 by gold miners who lowered themselves on ropes into the cave.
Guided tours take 45 minutes (spelunkers can take an optional three-hour exploration) and cost $5; children 6 to 12 years, $2.50. Summer hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.
Continue on California 4 to Murphys and bear left on tree-shaded Main Street to Murphys Hotel, where nine rustic rooms (bath down the hall) are available. The rooms are named for previous guests, including former President Ulysses S. Grant and John Jacob Astor.
Rooms rent for $48 to $55 double and include a continental breakfast. For reservations, call (209) 728-3444.
The most attractive place to spend the night, however, is Dunbar House on Jones Street. Barbara and Bob Costa turned their 1880s home into a bed and breakfast inn last year. The peaceful lodging's five rooms cost from $60 to $70 a night, including a full country breakfast. Phone (209) 728-2897.
Around the small town (population: 1,200) are other 19th-Century buildings that are gift, art and antique shops. Murphys General Store sells everything from gold panning equipment to pipe tobacco, fossils and vintage clothing.
Just north of Murphys via San Domingo Road are the underground chambers at Mercer Caverns, discovered by a gold prospector in 1885. Many of its crystalline formations have been named for what they resemble, such as angel's wings and the organ loft. Open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in summer. Admission is $4.50 for adults, $2.25 for youths 5 to 11 years.
Rejoin California 4, designated a state scenic highway, and continue northeast to the Sierra foothills, where you'll find the giant sequoias and redwoods in Calaveras Big Trees State Park, a 6,000-acre preserve. Although not as well known, they are as spectacular as the groves in Yosemite and Sequoia.
One option for visitors is an hour walk on a one-mile trail through popular North Grove. It has about 150 sequoias.
Look for Discovery Tree, the first sequoia seen by a hunter who was chasing a grizzly bear when he found the grove in 1852. The tree was cut down for a traveling exhibit; its base is known as the Big Stump and was formerly used as a dance floor.
A description of the sequoias in North Grove is available in a self-guiding brochure at the trail head.
The woods and their tall trees seem more pristine and primeval when you tour the less-visited South Grove. To reach its self-guiding loop trail, walk about a mile from the end of the paved park road.
Supplies for a picnic in the park are available in the nearby town of Arnold.
The two campgrounds at Calaveras Big Trees State Park, North Grove and Oak Hollow, have 129 sites, with hot showers but no hookups. They can be reserved through Mistix. The fee is $10 a night. Call toll-free (800) 444-7275.
Return to Angels Camp on California 4, then continue west to Stockton to rejoin Interstate 5 back to Los Angeles. Or drive through more of the Mother Lode on California 49 to Mariposa, and head west on California 140 to pick up California 99 or Interstate 5.
Round trip from Los Angeles to Murphys is 796 miles.