Gold Country Nugget

The desk clerk said “Monday and Tuesday nights are good nights to stay. The rooms are quiet. There’s no Karaoke in the bar on Monday and Tuesday nights..” 

I’m guessing that’s a good tip, in a sideways kind of way.

I had thought about a trip to the ‘gold rush’ country, but probably wouldn’t have made it to the Hotel Leger, Mokelumne Hill and Ebbet’s Pass if our dear friend (and wonderful artist) Maria hadn’t offered up a voucher for two free evenings in this quiet corner of Calaveras county a little over an hour southeast of Sacramento.

And, as luck would have it, the voucher was for Monday and Tuesday nights. The quiet nights.

Susie and I were due for another Chihuahua road trip as well, so we coughed up a modest pet deposit, loaded up Nellie and Shiloh and set out for what turned out to be a few days of pleasant discoveries.

We drove out of Monterey across Pacheco Pass, and instead of blasting North on the 5 through the big valley, we drifted a little further east to Los Banos and headed north on the backroads. Pleasant discovery #1: The backroads in the San Joaquin valley are the way to go if it makes any directional sense. They’re straight, usually pretty fast and there’s plenty of places along the way to tank up on food and fuel. You also get a feel for the sheer, immense scale of California agriculture.

This dovetails nicely in pleasant discovery #2. As we got closer to our destination of Mokelumne Hill, it turns out that the backroads in Calaveras county are awesome. Somebody knows somebody at CalTrans or whatever, but CA 26 out of Valley Springs is a biker’s dream.

Because the Hwy 49 traffic breezes by outside of town, Center Street in Mokelumne Hill (or Mokie Hill as the locals call it)  becomes a quiet refuge that I’m guessing looks pretty much as it did a 150 years ago. The same is true for the Hotel Leger.

Walking through the tall, glass-paneled front doors that gravity has has settled and time has worn, you’re presented with a large front drawing room, high ceilings, wooden banisters and player piano, all bathed in the warm tones and reserved formality of a centennial era household. A hotel with a bed and breakfast feel.

The same was true for our room. High ceilings, wooden floors and wooden shutters complete our engagement with the past, the way hotels used to be.

It’s a terrible cliché, but the whole place could almost stand in as a set for a favorite western.

The entire city is today a California Historical Landmark that at the height of the gold rush around 1851 had 15,000 inhabitants. Once the gold ran out in the 1860’s the city lost most of its lustre along with its wild inhabitants and settled into the quiet borough you encounter today.

The next morning we headed out for Ebbet’s Pass, which is a designated National Scenic Byway that crosses the Sierra on Route 4 at over 8,700 feet. I had thought we might make a big loop on routes 89 and 88 and circle back to Moke Hill, but that proved a little ambitious, largely because every direction has something to see on this route and Route 4 isn’t a freeway.

Which brings us to pleasant discovery #3: There were plenty of empty campgrounds all through Stanislaus National Forest on a clear October day, once again confirming my belief that with a little effort and timing, you can have acres and acres of California to yourself just about anytime you need to.

Route 4 narrows as it climbs to the top of Ebbet’s Pass and it truly deserves the scenic byway designation.

We can even say we hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, albeit for a quarter mile or so. Even with that short of a hike I was able to grab a few nice images for the posting.

It’s worth noting that Route 4 is one of the less travelled Sierra passes and it can be a little steep and twisty on the eastern side. However if you’re a 2 wheeled enthusiast (bike or motorbike) it’s certainly worth consideration as you scan your Sierra maps for a good ride.

The Hotel Leger, and the quiet setting of Mokelumne Hill, combine nicely to reveal pleasant discovery #4; There are plenty of quiet gems to be found, away from the freeways and hotel chains, Yelps, Trip Advisors and Google. It’s worth the effort to dig a little deeper. You might just pleasantly discover a real nugget.  (Sorry, I couldn’t resist)