Travel | 4 comments
By: Zdenko Kahlina
Murphys, Queen of the Sierra Foothills
I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered small town of Murphys in the Sierra foothills – Gold Country. This trip makes a wonderful weekend trip for many from Sacramento or San Francisco area. We went there in August of 2012 to visit our daughter Sanja and her boyfriend James, who lives there. But we came from far, far away…
The Murphys Hotel today
Tell someone you’re spending a weekend in Murphys, a gold mining town about 200 kilometers east of San Francisco, off Highway 4, and you’re likely to get a quizzical stare. Murphys, what Murphys? Where is that place? But you better get there before the stares turn into knowing looks. Tucked among Calaveras County’s thick oaks, aging barns, and acres of hearty grapes, Murphys offers one of California’s best, if little known, wine-tasting weekends.
Map of the area with Murphys location
We pulled into Murphys late in the afternoon and Sanja and James were waiting for us at the ‘Mini Mart’ gas station across from Pennsylvania Gulch Road. From there we just followed James into the hills for about 3 km on Pennsylvania Gulch Road and Skunk Ranch Road, which is a gravel road all the way to his house. James’s house was high in the hills with the beautiful view on surrounding Forest Meadows Mountains. I was surprised how hot it was – on that Saturday afternoon thermometer in James’s house was showing 104 degrees (Fahrenheit).
Murphys Main Street
James’s house is in the hills
After getting changed, relaxing for a bit on the deck at James’s house, in the evening we headed back into town. Unfortunately, it seems most of the town is closed Saturday evenings. Thus we didn’t look for restaurants, souvenirs or anything else for that matter. We were just browsing around to see this small town of Murphys. Fortunately the ice-cream parlor was still open…
Relaxing on the patio deep in the Forest Meadows
About Murphy history
Murphys is located in the central Sierra Nevada foothills oak and grassland, between Lake Tahoe and Yosemite National Park, in Calaveras County, California (see location map bellow), at about 2,000 feet. Its weather patterns resemble the Central Valley floor more than the Sierra highlands, so expect hot temperatures in the summer and cool temperatures (but no snow) in winter.
Rich in gold rush history, Murphys today is a vibrant, thriving community of approximately 2,000 residents, alive with art galleries and live theatre, eclectic shops, fine restaurants, charming hotels and B&B’s, and a multitude of outstanding outdoor recreational opportunities all just a short drive away.
One more picture of Murphys Hotel
One of the side streets in Murphys
Yogurt place on the Main Street
Murphys was one of California’s richest ‘diggings’. During one winter, five million dollars worth of gold was taken from a four-acre placer area. Such riches attracted fortune hunters and adventure seekers from around the world – gamblers, opportunists, ladies of easy virtue, and honest men, as well as renowned outlaws – among them Joaquin Murietta and Black Bart.
Gradually, the wild days became a thing of the past, replaced with families, gardens, ranches, and dairies. Hundreds of permanent structures were built, including an opera house, hotel, churches, and schoolhouse. As gold waned, the townspeople remained to work sawmills and stores, farms and ranches, and added their own chapters to the history of the community.
The townsfolk invite you to revisit the past while exploring the “new” upscale Murphys. Guided walking tours of the town’s abundant historic buildings, including the home of Albert Michelson, the first American Nobel Prize winner, are conducted every Saturday at 10:30 a.m., starting in front of the Old Timer’s Museum on Main Street.
Murphys’ First Congregational Church is located in the heart of California’s historic Gold Country
Our small group walking on the Murphys Main Street.
The Spice Tin store
Often called the “Queen of the Sierra,” Murphys has retained the charm of yesteryear, even as it has grown and developed into a modern community with all the amenities expected by today’s visitors. Many original gold rush-era buildings are still in use today, including the Murphys Historic Hotel and Lodge, a registered State Historic Landmark which once hosted such luminaries as General Ulysses S. Grant, Mark Twain, Horatio Alger, and Charles Bolton, aka notorious outlaw “Black Bart.” Towering, stately elm trees line Main St., providing a canopy of green that adds to the historic charm and ambience of the streetscape.
Daniel and John Murphy settled the area in 1848, at the start of the great California gold rush. Shrewd traders and smart businessmen both, the brothers made their fortune supplying the legions of gold miners flocking to the area, and legend has it that they were millionaires by the time they turned 25.
Small stores along Murphys Main Street
Small clothing stores in Murphys
The Murphys Hotel
The Murphys Hotel, built of local limestone, was completed in 1856 by James Sperry and John Perry. Gutted in the fire of 1859, it was rebuilt shortly thereafter. It was sold to C.P. and Elizabeth Mitchler in 1882 and operated as the Mitchler Hotel until 1945. It has been occupied as a hotel since 1856 and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971.
The Murphys Hotel – serving the public since 1986!
The Murphys Museum
The oldest stone building in Murphys, P.L. Traver erected this dry goods store after the fire of 1854. Over the years it was occupied as a store by Riley Senter, Manuel & Garland, Stephens Brothers, and others until converted to a garage by Jack Morley. It was later purchased by Coke and Ethelyn Wood and became the Murphys Oldtimers Museum.
General Merchandise in 1890 – Cash store
Old Murphys Grocery Store
Built as the Big Trees Hotel on Big Trees Road in the 1890s, the two-story frame building was moved to its present site in the early 1900s. It was then occupied by Ben and Jim Stephens as a grocery store for many years, and after that by Buster and Rose Riedel’s Murphys Grocery Store until the 1980s.
Old Murphys Grocery Store
The Legacy of Murphys, Queen of the Sierra
A stroll down tree-lined Main Street transports visitors back to the mid-1800s with buildings bearing thick stoned walls, iron shutters, and pastoral gardens with white picket fences.
We liked both the town of Murphys and the many great attractions nearby. Most Gold Country towns have lost their charm, but Murphys hasn’t. The central core consists of about 3 well-maintained blocks. Most of the buildings have been restored, the main street is shady and lined with mature trees, and there’s even a horse-drawn carriage for hire (although strictly for entertainment). Walking across Murphys’ core takes 10 minutes.
Vera and I usually spend a couple of hours meandering through the town visiting the shops. Here in Murphys, we didn’t need that much time. Most of the merchandise in the shops is not especially compelling to us, but it’s fun to look around. We’ve heard that in the past couple of years, the shops in Murphys have become much more upscale and mall-like and thus have become a little more generic.
We stayed at James’s house in a planned community called Forest Meadows, about 3 kilometers east of Murphys. Forest Meadows has some nice and fairly priced condos for rent which are a great option if you want privacy and independence. In-town lodging options include the Dunbar House, a small and historic B&B, the Redbud Inn a more modern B&B, the historic Murphys Hotel and a new motel on Highway 4. As much as we enjoy visiting the town itself, Murphys is also conveniently located to a number of great attractions nearby.
Night walk in front of the Murphys hotel
All stores were closed early
Murphys vineyards – A sweeter Napa
Murphys has a burgeoning wine industry, with 9 wineries within 10 minutes of Murphys (and most have tasting stations in the town itself). I’m not a connoisseur, so I won’t critique the quality of wine, but you should explore if you’re into wines. While we tend not to be impressed with wineries, it’s hard not to be impressed with the Kautz Ironstone Vineyards 10 minutes west of Murphys. It’s a lovely setting, so bring your lunch or buy a gourmet lunch there. You can also see the big gold nugget they proudly display.
Ironstone vine comes from Murphys area
Boutique tasting rooms hide behind saloon doors along Main Street—think Dionysian Nevada City—and granitic and volcanic soils combined with a tepid alpine climate have created the perfect milieu for Rhône-style varietals. And while the Napatocracy sometimes shuns Murphys, it’s probably just because they’re jealous. “Some very knowledgeable growers are moving here instead of Napa. They’re saying, ‘We want lives, not lifestyle,’” says Ron Morris of Lavender Ridge Vineyard. And grapes are just the beginning. Calaveras boasts redwoods, deep caves, and rivers, and Murphys has a growing culinary scene that, for a town of just over 2,000, might surprise you.
Wines can be enjoyed in all seasons, but summer is the best time to picnic by the town stream or hoof it on one of the area trails. For some of the best hikes, swimming holes, and caverns—and the area is full of them—head west a few miles on Highway 4, make a left at Parrots Ferry Road, and stop at Moaning Cavern, where you can rappel among the stalactites and escape the heat (caves stay 59 degrees all year). A little farther down Parrots Ferry Road, stop at the Natural Bridges trailhead and take the 1.4-mile-long trail that, not surprisingly, takes you to a natural bridge—one you can swim right under if the snowmelt has been plentiful.
If you’re not in the outdoorsy mood, spend an hour perusing Moon Alley, where Brooke Langlois sells her one-of-a-kind candles. Poured and carved by hand, with designs inspired by Japanese woodblock prints and art nouveau motifs, they offer far more than wax and a wick. Most of the other Main Street shops are typically cutesy—good for passing time between tastings and hikes—but don’t miss Handmade Gallery’s locally blown glass and colorful abstract ceramic sculptures.
Ironstone mine – claim extends as far as my rifle shoots!!
Mercer Caverns is a mile from town and is a very enjoyable tourist stop, especially in the heat of summer (it’s 55 degrees inside!). Make sure to get your discount coupons in advance from http://www.mercercaverns.com. It’s also a good kid-friendly destination. Moaning Caverns is about 10 minutes away but we thought the fun factor per dollar was low—the tour was basically descending down 235 stairs (including a vertigo-inducing 150-foot high spiral staircase), hearing about 5 minutes of “talk,” and ascending the steps. Moaning Caverns also offers rappelling and a seriously muddy spelunking tour. Kids are welcome but will likely whine about the stairs or beg to be carried. Finally, California Caverns is about 40 minutes away by some serious back roads and is another good tour like Mercer (visiting both Mercer and California caverns in the same trip is a little redundant, but both are good trips).
Columbia, one of the best-preserved larger Gold Country towns, is less than 30 minutes away. Columbia has been lovingly restored and has numerous outdoor exhibits that act like a large museum. I especially liked how all of the shopkeepers wear authentic clothing. In Columbia, you can also pan for gold and tour a gold mine, so it’s great for kids. In addition to Columbia, there are many other good historical towns along Highway 49.
There are a number of rafting options in the area and James organized one short rafting trip for our group down the Tuolumne river. More about our rafting adventure in separate blog…
There are many hiking options very close to Murphys, but most of those are too hot to enjoy during the summer. But good things await up Highway 4, including Calaveras Big Trees State Park about 30 minutes from Murphys at about 5,000 feet (see my review on Big Trees).
Spring is a wonderful time in the area, and the areas around Murphys get a great showing of flowers.
It’s nice to hang out in the shade of a large oak tree, in the park a half-block off Main Street or where ever you want, and enjoy a book, a snack, the breeze and the one you love.
Other activities we haven’t done but you might enjoy:
In season, it’s about an hour to the ski resorts up Highway 4. The skiing isn’t Tahoe-quality, but it’s not going to be as crowded as Tahoe either.
The Stanislaus River flows into the New Melones reservoir about 20 minutes from Murphys.
There are golf courses in Forest Meadows, Arnold, Angels Camp and Copperopolis. Don’t expect Pebble Beach, but the Forest Meadows and Arnold courses are nicely set in the trees.
Getting to Murphys from the Bay Area is convenient but a little convoluted. From San Carlos, we take the 101 North to the 92 East to the 880 North to the 238 East to the 580 East to the 205 East to the 5 North to the 120 East to the 99 North to Highway 4 East to the 49 South to Murphys Grade Road (this is a local bypass road that is quicker than 4 and takes you right into the heart of town). Whew! (For those of you counting, that’s 11 different freeways!). It’s about 130 miles and takes 2.5 hours with no traffic.
Plenty of roads in the area
The roads are all good except for two poorly graded portions of 4 which make my wife a little nauseous but last only about 10 minutes each. There’s not really any interesting stops along the way—you pass through the Pleasanton/Livermore power malls to the sprawl of Tracy and Manteca, skirt Stockton, and then once on the 4, there’s not much until Angels Camp. We always stop for groceries at the Save Mart in Angels Camp, which has a far better selection than the markets in Murphys.
Murphys Main Street
Expresso Bistro coming soon!
Ever wondered why Murphys doesn’t have an apostrophe?
One day the 2 brothers started arguing about which one was the ‘owner’ of the camp, and after a bit of continued argument, decided to settle the issue with a show of strength, which really was nothing but a fist fight between two brothers – not uncommon, as you know if you have a brother (or sister). After rolling around in the dirt and mud for a few minutes, the 2 brothers actually fell into a mine pit, with the help of one of the town’s mules.
Fortunately for them, it was only about 30 feet deep, but slick on both sides, and about 6 feet in diameter. After each one got tired of only trying to rescue him, they decided to work together, and back to back pushed off on the walls, and somehow with extreme effort, got themselves up and out. It was then that the brothers decided to call the town “Murphys” instead of “Murphy’s”. Without the apostrophe, there was no “possession” of the town by either.
Tourists goofing around in Murphys
Conclusion on Murphys
The word is already out about Murphys. Ten years ago, the typical Gold Country excursion was to cruise the 49, and because Murphys is about 10 miles off the 49, not everyone would stop by. Murphys has finally hit the big time, and as a result Murphys has gone upscale and gotten noticeably more ‘touristy’. But for both old-timers and newcomers, Murphys is a wonderful place to relax, explore and enjoy.
Pros: charming Gold Country setting and history, good arts and wine, caves to explore, hiking…
Cons: the town’s been discovered already. It is increasingly touristy and quite expensive…
Web site: http://www.visitmurphys.com/
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