Small Wonders

(page 3 of 9)



A short hop from Angels Camp, the setting made famous in Mark Twain’s The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, sits Murphys, a Gold Rush relic that glitters with unpretentious sophistication. Settled in 1848 by a pair of punctuation-challenged brothers who couldn’t agree on who should get credit for founding the place (hence no apostrophe in its name), this charming hamlet was once a boomtown filled with gamblers, prostitutes and outlaws. Since then, it’s lost most of its rough edges (it’s still a rest stop for the Harley crowd) but not its ambition. With its proximity to soaring forests and grape-friendly foothills–and a Main Street that buzzes with low-key energy from its shops, restaurants and free (yes, free) wine tasting rooms–Murphys has become an off-the-beaten-path discovery for day trippers, outdoor lovers and oenophiles alike.


Wine Tasting
Responsible grape-guzzlers, rejoice; no Napa roulette here. Just park and amble around Main Street, where 22 area wineries have tasting rooms, many featuring the Spanish and Rhône varietals that thrive in this region. Be sure to visit Lavender Ridge (425 A Main St., 209-728-2441, for a tasting that pairs international cheeses and chocolates with its wines (the organic, sulfite-free “Estate Côtes du Calaveras” is a must experience). Those with designated drivers should head to Laraine Winery (3675 Six Mile Rd., 209-736-4766,, once owned by late Hollywood producer David Gerber (whose credits include Police Woman) for a pour of its playfully layered petite sirah.

Horsing around in the Gold Rush town of MurphysHiking, Spelunking and Splashing
Walk among giants on the mellow 1.5-mile North Grove loop at Calaveras Big Trees State Park ($8 for a day pass;, 15 miles outside of Murphys. Stop at marker 11 for a reclining bench that tilts the neck back at just the right angle to enjoy the towering sequoias.  If temperatures soar, descend 16 stories into the damp cool of Mercer Caverns (1665 Sheep Ranch Rd., 209-728-2101, to check out “cave coral” and other stunning limestone formations (but only if you can manage the steep stair climb back out). Or ask locals for park-and-walk directions to Candy Rock, a popular swimming hole on the nearby North Fork of the Stanislaus River, and shoot some YouTube footage of yourself jumping off the smoothed-stone walls into the current’s gushing spray (you won’t be the first).

Ironstone Amphitheatre
For live entertainment, Ironstone’s outdoor amphitheater (1894 Six Mile Dr., 209-728-1251,, which runs through fall, is one of Murphys’ top draws. Throw back some vino and settle into the four-tier, horseshoe shaped venue to watch acts like Alan Jackson (Aug. 26), Sammy Hagar and the Wabos (Sept. 9) and Don Henley (Oct. 1). If you want to save a few bucks, bring a beach chair, set up on the grassy General Admission area and enjoy the show with the aid of giant video screens for only about $40. After the show, relax and enjoy some more wine; it can take almost an hour to get out of the crowded parking lot and back to town.


The “Aphrodisiac” champagne cocktail at MineralMineral
This inspired vegetarian restaurant (419 Main St., 209-728-9743, could hold its own in San Francisco, let alone a small mountain town. Colorful fare can initially seem esoteric—chilled watermelon basil soup, tofu negra with galangal mung beans—but dishes are both tasty and accessible (they also offer a delectable mac and cheese and meatless burger). Plates arrive with exquisite presentation from owner Maya Radisich. Don’t skip the champagne cocktails, especially the frothy hibiscus flower “Aphrodisiac,” beautifully garnished with floating flower petals.

A modern loft-like space with concrete floors and a roll-up garage door, Firewood (420 Main St., 209-728-3248, hits the trifecta of casual favorites, offering wood-fired pizzas, well-portioned burgers and fries, and authentic Mexican street food. The crisp-edged pizzas are simple yet satisfying, as are the salty sweet potato fries, which get raves from locals. And don’t miss the perfectly executed fish tacos; each crunchy bite is accented by feathery cabbage, cool cilantro, velvety crema and smoky ancho chile salsa.


For a truly unique experience in cozy luxury, head to Querencia ($275-$400; 4383 Sheep Ranch Rd., 209-728-9520, Perched on a hill offering panoramic views, this curving, earthen-colored establishment also inspires awe—think Antoni Gaudi meets Bilbo Baggins. Inside is just as spectacular—a two-story stone waterfall in the great room, a hidden wine cellar behind a bookcase, cylindrical showers with tiled mosaics in each of the four suites. Breakfast starts with coffee and freshly baked scones, segues into an elaborate fruit plate and crescendos with corn buttermilk pancakes or egg dishes made to order. —T.S.