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Combined TR - 2 trips - Sonora, Columbia, Mariposa, Yosemite

San Francisco
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Combined TR – 2 trips – Sonora, Columbia, Mariposa, Yosemite

The TR is overdue for my Thanksgiving week Yosemite and Mother Lode getaway, which covered several places in the western foothills. I'll start it on the Sonora forum and maybe later put it on the Yosemite and Columbia forums since it also covers those places. The trip had been planned a week or two ahead, even as time got closer and I heard forecasts of rain and snow for a good part of my time frame and itinerary.

In fact, I had been in Columbia earlier in November during Veterans' Day week, and we had heavy rain in town on two days on end, with snow along Hwy 108 from just above Twain Harte and enough to crunch around in at Pinecrest. That was just a quick escape and I never did a TR, so I'll roll these two trips into one. It'll be in installments.

PART 1

For the Veterans' Day week trip, I left about 5:00 p.m. from an earlier commitment in Oakland. As usual, traffic stunk on 580, 205, and 120 to Manteca (a lyrical way of saying "lard"), but I got through Oakdale and Sonora in good time. I did not have a reservation, but figured that on a November night I could find a vacancy at the Columbia Inn Motel where I've been staying for years, for better or worse, because it is just a few steps from the historic Gold Rush town.

It was past dusk when I arrived, but the office was staffed (not always the case in the past) by Rob, the owner who had taken over since my last visit. I told him I'd been staying for years through several management changes, including some who let the place go and the last owners who made some improvements before selling to Rob last year. He has been remodeling rooms, sprucing up the grounds, and opened a mining apparatus shop in a store room and space once occupied by a couch littered with shed hairs from the prior owners’ dog.

As always, I spent some time enjoying Columbia's historic setting, shops, and living history. Because of the rain, the stagecoach was not running. Several shops have closed including the fancy dry goods, haberdasher, and seemingly the Pioneer Emporium which sold nice kitchen and other household items. Hopefully new tenants will be found soon. The St. Charles Saloon is now Bixel's but was closed, as was the grocery in the historic building across from it. One night I had dinner (garlic shrimp with the customary Mexican dinner fixings) at El Jardin just outside the historic town, one of a small local chain. They serve both corn and flour tortilla chips, not just the usual corn, and a pickled cabbage relish with the salsa. I like El Jardin, but wish Columbia had more dinner or late lunch options. The void left from the closing of Lickskillet Café, the 2013 torching of the Columbia House by an emotionally disturbed local, and the City Hotel's paring down to a lunch and bar snack menu, still needs filling.

It was on this visit that I learned of the plan for a Dollar General store about ¼ mile from the historic town, which would impact Columbia's rural 19th century ambience along with adding more traffic and possibly safety problems at the nearby school. That is the subject of my "Columbia's quiet 19th century atmosphere" thread on the Columbia forum.

In church on Sunday in east Sonora, where I'd been before, one of the locals told me about Natural Bridges on the way to Angels Camp near the Melones Reservoir bridge. She described an open-ended cave that usually contains water, often enough to require swimming. On Monday while deciding what to do, I vetoed the cave because of the weather. We'd had heavy rain in Columbia, so I drove up 108 to see if there was snow. Patches started appearing around 5000 feet, just above Twain Harte. At Long Barn and Pinecrest (a few miles west of the road closure), I found up to 3-4 inches on the ground in undisturbed spots. There was little activity, and since Dodge Ridge ski resort does not make snow, it would be awhile before it could open. But with Thanksgiving coming, I could foresee the area getting busy if it stayed cold and another storm or two blew in.

Afterward, I went to the charming Sonora main drag. There are a few chain stores, but most are local and many sell antiques or items of regional interest. Where I had lamented the closing of Sonora Music & Creative Learning last year is an indie store selling a little of everything – clothing, toiletries, books, home décor, and more. I was glad to see that a local business was able to move into this big space. Mountain Home sells clothing, books, household and travel accessories, most with Yosemite and Gold Country themes. Within the walls of a former Gold Rush era basement, next to Mi Pueblo Restaurant is an underground park. Steps lead down from street level and Sonora Creek runs next to it. In San Francisco, such a place would become a public safety and health problem, but towns like Sonora CAN have nice things, and this park is a pleasant sitting area.

A drenching rain began during my shopping excursion, making me glad I'd chosen to hang out in town and not tackle the water-filled cave. It reminded me of another recent trip to Sonora when it had also rained heavily but I had popped into the local shoe store and found what is now one of my favorite pairs of shoes. With my wallet slightly thinner, I headed back to Columbia for the night. Before turning in, I went for a walk in the historic section and saw the Fallon Theatre's marquee for a Gold Rush themed production of Dickens' classic "A Christmas Carol," which would open in a few days. So I decided then to return to see it in a couple of weeks.

(to be continued)

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San Francisco...
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1. Re: Combined TR – 2 trips – Sonora, Columbia, Mariposa, Yosemite

Nice very nice. Need to do Gold Country again. Thanks for sharing .. Happy Holidays

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2. Re: Combined TR – 2 trips – Sonora, Columbia, Mariposa, Yosemite

PART 2

The day I left Columbia was clear, dry and pleasant. I took Hwy 49 through Jamestown to Chinese Camp, where I hadn't stopped to look around in several years. It is not a state historic site and most properties are privately owned, so it is very quiet and gets few destination visitors. There are no tourist amenities other than a gas station convenience store and what might be a motel; at least there are motel signs by the roadside. With Sonora or Groveland so close (not to mention Yosemite), anyone staying there has to either be a true ghost town enthusiast or be totally unfamiliar with the area and have no idea what is just up or down the road.

I went into the main part of the old town on the west side of 49 and walked around the deserted streets looking at the old buildings. Most of the 19th century sites are vacant, boarded up, and posted as private property. I took the few pictures possible from the street. There are occupied houses in this part of town, but I saw almost no people. This is as close to a ghost town as a place with living residents could be – abandoned, decrepit, and overgrown enough that it would be easy to think of as haunted, especially at night. I didn't go to the historic church or other areas east of Hwy 49 this time.

The next settlement is Moccasin, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission town that exists to service the Hetch Hetchy Water and Power System. I had been there several times, including a recent full Hetch Hetchy system tour given by the City. So there was no need to linger, and I went on to Coulterville. If you are interested in driving all of Hwy 49, be aware that just north and south of Coulterville are some narrow, twisty stretches with long, sheer dropoffs and views that are beautiful but might not be enough of a reward for acrophobics. This is another town that has suffered economically, since a fire last year closed the Hotel Jeffery. We talked about this on the Coulterville forum. Miraculously, in a remote area where all fire protection comes from State forestry and rural volunteer departments, this Gold Rush era wooden relic was saved. But the restoration is still going on. Other shops and restaurants are open and I saw visitors, but everyone must be eagerly waiting for the Jeffery to reopen.

I had never been on Hwy 132, so I took it west from Coulterville to the area south of Don Pedro Reservoir and through a totally rural part of Merced County that I'd never seen before. I bought gas at the "metropolis" of the area, Snelling, a tiny town of brick storefronts that looks like it hasn't changed since 1950 or so, then took Hwy 59 to Merced. Traffic was atrocious in town and I didn't see anything of interest, and was delighted to get onto Hwy 140 and then 152. It was getting late in the day, so rather than press on to get home, I treated myself to a stop at another favorite spot, Casa de Fruta. The RV park had several dozen occupants, but it appeared that I was the only guest in the 14-room inn. I enjoyed a dinner of rib-eye steak with fixings, a walk in the natural setting, a good night's sleep, a breakfast of chicken fried steak, scrambled eggs, and fruit, and shopping at the gigantic produce market, gourmet and gift shop. From Casa de Fruta, it's an easy couple of hours back to San Francisco.

(to be continued)

San Francisco
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3. Re: Combined TR – 2 trips – Sonora, Columbia, Mariposa, Yosemite

PART 3

The rest of this thread will be about my trip to the same general area over the Thanksgiving period. It included Mariposa, Yosemite Valley, and Columbia. Since it was a holiday week, I made reservations at the Mariposa Lodge for four nights.

I left San Francisco in mid-morning Tuesday to slip between the Bay Area commute and early afternoon getaway traffic in towns I would pass through. To avoid the San Leandro-Castro Valley-Pleasanton-Livermore-Tracy corridor, one of my big pet peeve roads, I took Hwy 152 through Los Baños and went up to Hwy 99, bypassed Merced, and took county roads to Hwy 140 for Mariposa. When I arrived, the temperature was in the 40s with rain forecast.

After unpacking, I took my umbrella and walked to the Sugar Pine Café, a cute retro diner, for late lunch (deep-dish baked tamale pie and a lovely fresh salad). They do their own baking, so I bought fresh molasses cookies to go. During my stay, I would have two other meals there – spaghetti with meatballs and basil tomato sauce, and New York steak with zucchini and baked potato. As I finished lunch a steady downpour began, and I heard locals talk about the prospect of snow overnight.

In the morning, with snacks, water, camera, hat, scarf, and gloves in my pack, I took YARTS from the Midtown Mariposa stop, next to the motel where my car would rest for the day. There was no snow; it may have been 35ºF when I met the bus just before 8:00 a.m. YARTS is a good winter option for folks who 1) have rental cars with chain prohibitions, or just don't want to mess with chains; or 2) have been to Yosemite enough so staying in the park is not a must. For people staying in town, it makes sense to keep your car at the motel where it might be a mite more secure and walk to one of the three bus stops. For those driving in specifically to take YARTS, the park-n-ride is a well-lighted lot next to a major road and near a CVS pharmacy and other businesses.

On the way up, fallen snow started appearing on the road around Midpines, elevation just under 3000 feet. More appeared as we went higher, then it began to snow just as we approached the Arch Rock entrance to Yosemite.

It would snow almost continually Wednesday, never heavy but light and steady enough to produce a beautiful coat on the ground. It remained at or a degree or two below freezing, never unbearably cold. This was my first day in Yosemite in two years, so I spent a lot of time just riding the shuttle bus around the Valley, revisiting the Visitor Center, Indian village, historic graveyard, and other central Valley places, and taking some short to moderate walks. For much of the time, the overcast obscured the views of Yosemite Falls. I took a late afternoon bus back to Mariposa.

On Thanksgiving Day I didn't go to the park, but explored nearby areas, some of which I had seen before. The first leg was west on Hwy 140 to Cathey's Valley, a wide spot in the road with a few small businesses. This is a stop on the YARTS 140 route, but I am not sure it actually has any lodging or other true visitor services. YARTS is also a commuter line used by locals who work in neighboring towns or Yosemite visitor facilities, so it stops at places visitors might not know.

From there I took County Road J16 north to Hornitos, a Gold Rush town where I'd been before. There are many 19th century buildings, some with interpretive plaques. A few of them contain businesses or residences. There are some old dilapidated wooden houses that would make ideal Halloween "haunted houses." I walked up the hill to St. Catherine's Catholic Church, which has a graveyard like most 19th century Mother Lode churches, but unlike most has a locked gate to keep the deceased from having visitors. On this quiet Thanksgiving Day, a civic-minded family was cleaning up the little town park. A resident was feeding a flock of alpacas in his yard and let me take pictures of the critters.

From Hornitos, I took The Old Toll Road that comes out on Hwy 49 north of Mariposa. I checked out the hamlet of Mt. Bullion, location of the Mariposa-Yosemite Airport and a Department of Corrections adult forestry camp (correctional facility for minimum security inmates who provide fire crews under supervision of the Cal Dept of Forestry and do other emergency and routine conservation and land projects). As far as I could tell, there are more horses and other hoofstock than people living in the area bordered by Hwy 140, Road J16, and Hwy 49.

After my rural exploration, I returned to Mariposa and had dinner at the Miner's Inn, which I had learned in advance would be open on Thanksgiving – probably because it is part of a motel. No other restaurants appeared to be open that day, although the big Pioneer Supermarket did stay open at least until mid-afternoon. The rest of the evening was spent in some exercise walking (Mariposa is a hilly town), looking around downtown Mariposa, which was largely shuttered for the holiday, and doing some indoor reading and writing.

(to be continued)

Nevada
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4. Re: Combined TR – 2 trips – Sonora, Columbia, Mariposa, Yosemite

RoadRunner,

Am loving your trip reports!

About that lower level park in downtown Sonora covered with wisteria vines, yep it is beautiful. Hubby and I were eating at Mi Pueblo Restaurant there I guess it was a couple of months ago. We were seated on the deck overlooking the creek. I had the view of the creek as it came through the brick tunnel that makes the bridge for the main drag through historic downtown (Washington Street). While we were waiting for our food to arrive and still munching on chips and salsa, it occurred to me that there was no graffiti on the old bricks -- none! And there had never been any graffiti -- ever! There was no trash in the creek. Well, I take that back -- I did see one glass bottle that someone had thoughtlessly thrown. I wondered what it would take to get a hold of that glass bottle and recycle it. But we soon turned our attention to breaking small bits of our tortilla chips and throwing them down into the creek and watching the swarms of colorful gold fish rush over and happily devour what they could! Yep, this is just a normal day in what is part of *God's Country*. So glad you could experience it.

Have you ever visited *Legends* directly across the street from *Mi Pueblo*? There you will see the creek coming through the basement of the store. The owner has done a fantastic job of re-creating a gold rush panning site there in the basement.

Edited: 15 December 2015, 05:27
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5. Re: Combined TR – 2 trips – Sonora, Columbia, Mariposa, Yosemite

Yes, Copper, I have been to Legends, and the atmosphere there is so “real.” I didn’t go this time, however, so it’ll be time for a return visit on my next trip to the area. I had thought about trying to get in touch with you, but hadn’t heard from you after our exchange of PMs. Maybe next time, since I get up there a couple times a year. Do you live in or near your screen namesake town? I don’t get there too often because I usually take 108 – not much of interest to me on the other road.

I’m working on the next TR installment, which will be Yosemite on the day after Thanksgiving and then another day in Columbia for “A Columbia Christmas Carol” at the Fallon. If anyone is reading this, it’s a delightful family-friendly show with a Gold Rush motif that will run through Dec. 20. It’s almost sold out for the remaining days, so order your tickets right this minute.

http://www.sierrarep.org/

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6. Re: Combined TR – 2 trips – Sonora, Columbia, Mariposa, Yosemite

PART 4

On Friday after Thanksgiving, I went back to Yosemite Valley on YARTS. It had snowed some more, and there were more patches on the ground as we went up the hill beyond Mariposa. I’ve noticed over several wintertime trips on the Hwy 140 route that no one ever gets on or off at Midpines KOA, which runs only March to October, so I wonder why that stop is maintained through the winter. For folks who might use the KOA stop in winter, Midpines Park-n-Ride a couple hundred yards away would work – though I personally would not use it because it is totally isolated in the woods and anything might happen to a vehicle or a person with no one knowing for hours. When the bus pulls in after nightfall, it’s spooky. Anyone with wheels to get to that stop can get to Midpines Post Office, which is at least in an inhabited area.

On this route is Yosemite Bug, a hostel popular with budget, student, and international visitors. Over 30 young people were waiting at this stop who turned out to be all of the above – students on the UC Santa Barbara International Student Org’s Thanksgiving trip. Something had gone awry with the notifications about their group discount fare. The driver spoke with the group leader and then said he would call his supervisor because he was unaware of any arrangements that were supposedly made. He asked the rest of us if we minded a slight delay while he figured it out, which of course no one did. After making his calls, he let them on, advising them they would need to return as a group with the same number of bodies or anyone who took another bus would have to pay an individual full fare. We ran about a half hour late, but everyone was happy and those kids from around the world got to see one of America’s treasures. I hope someone from the club sent a thank-you to YARTS, but if not, a thumbs-up to the driver on eastbound Run #3 on Friday, Nov. 27. And kudos along with a mild thumbs-down to a few of the students on their learning aptitude and adjustment to American culture, as shown by their fluency with American vulgar language.

When we arrived in the Valley, the student group was going to head for the Visitor Center, but the YARTS driver pointed out Curry Village and told them the coolest people hang out there, and folks choose it for the same reason they choose Yosemite Bug.

On this day, I again took the park shuttle to get around. Out of curiosity, since I’d never seen it, I went to see the U.S. District Court. Yes, there is a national park with enough law enforcement issues that it needs a federal courthouse of its own, but it doesn’t look like the imposing temples of justice in big cities. It is a small nondescript building dwarfed by the surrounding trees, tucked away behind the park concessioner (Delaware North Corp.) maintenance facilities.

I forgot to mention in my last post that on Wednesday, when fog and overcast had obscured Yosemite Falls, the rush of water made it obvious there was a healthy flow coming down. I did walk to the view area at the base of Lower Fall and saw several people, and a visitor from India and I took pictures for each other. We could vaguely see the falls, but my pictures show a gray-white wedge at the top of the frame where the falls would show up in clear weather. On Friday, it was clear enough early in the day to provide gorgeous views, but overcast later in the day would again obscure the falls, and there would be light snow in the afternoon.

I did the Happy Isles and Mirror Lake hikes on Friday. Happy Isles has a nature center that closes in winter, but the trails and bridges over the Merced River (and the restrooms) are open and anyone is welcome to walk around. Some of the leaves on deciduous trees still had their fall colors – a nice contrast with the fresh snow. I didn’t see any big critters except for a few other people. At the USGS-NOAA gauging station, the thermometer read 31ºF (about 0.60 ºC).

The Mirror Lake trail had more visitors. Parts of it were icy and I saw more than one person come close to falling on their butt, especially on the slopes; on such stretches, I kept to the edge where the snow was less disturbed, so it hadn’t thawed and refrozen repeatedly and had better traction. More alarming than falling on one's can was people playing or rockhopping in the creek, which could knock them into the frigid water and put them on the path to hypothermia. Mirror Lake was not full, of course, but it still had beautiful reflections.

Instead of returning to the Mirror Lake shuttle stop, I took the trail past the backpacker and North Pines campgrounds and walked to the Ahwahnee Hotel. I went inside mainly to use the restroom, but also to look around, and it was a zoo. Vehicles were clustered at the entrance, guests mobbed the check-in desk, there were hordes around the lobby, shops, and dining facilities (this was afternoon, not “lunch hour”), and the din was amazing. In earlier times, within my own memory, children were taught to recognize that some places are better suited to noise and cavorting than others, and they do not include fine restaurants, live performances, movie theatres, church, and the public spaces of a grand hotel. From observing families an the Ahwahnee, it’s clear that this tradition is now considered obsolete, archaic, and probably repressive.

My feet had gotten wet and fatigued from all the walking in the snow, so I took the park shuttle back to the Village where the Visitor Center, stores, etc. are, and took it easy for awhile before catching the YARTS bus back to Mariposa. One other note: in the afternoon, the park shuttles were crammed; everyone in California must have decided to spend the day after Thanksgiving in Yosemite! For the last part of my day, buses looked like BART or Muni during commute hours except that the park riders were in a better mood and nicer than many urban commuters.

Back in town, I freshened up and went out to walk around downtown. On most days, shops close at 5:00 or 6:00, but many were open late for Black Friday and the historic blocks were lit up and festive looking. All the more tempting to make a few purchases for gifts and for me too. Dinner was again at the delightful Sugar Pine Café. In the morning I would sleep in for awhile and take my time getting ready to leave, since my next destination was a mere 60 scenic miles away.

(to be continued)

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7. Re: Combined TR – 2 trips – Sonora, Columbia, Mariposa, Yosemite

Sounds very fun! We spent some time in Angels Camp and Murphy's this year also. :)

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