S.F. to Bear Valley: Sierra camping without the masses

Annie Tittiger | April 23, 2013 | Story California Destinations

Not all is lost for camping hopefuls idling on those seemingly eternal Yosemite Valley wait lists. Calaveras Big Trees State Park offers a mellow sequoia-shrouded meadow camp with new, nearly uncharted epic trails through glacier-carved valleys. All that’s missing is the national park logo.

After negotiating a maze of interstate freeways, you’ll spend an hour driving through endless rows of olive orchards and golden farmland along Highway 4. Then you’ll hit the 19th-century merchant outpost of Murphys (Mile Marker 142), brimming with all the gourmet picnicking goods you need for an epicurean feast among sequoias. Stock up on morning-fresh loaves from Aria Bakery, creamy Italian La Tur cheese from Lavender Ridge Vineyard, and thick home-made fudge from Nelson’s Candies (209-728-2820). And don’t forget the wine—Murphys has 23 tasting rooms, pouring the Sierra foothills’ finest. Hint: Newsome-Harlow Winery is best known for its bone-dry whites and rosé, while Metate Hill Vineyards boasts robust Spanish reds.

Set up camp at Calaveras Big Trees State Park [MM 156] in the North Grove, which encircles a meadow (sites 60 to 74 are farthest from the highway), and indulge in the bounty you gathered in Murphys. Walk off dinner among 3,000-year-old giants close to camp.

In the morning, the newly refurbished meadow boardwalk provides easy footing for a leisurely stroll through blooming lupine, dogwood, and 20 other wildflower species. And just up the road, the new Arnold Rim Trail, a 17-mile serpentine trek through secluded oldgrowth cedars and pines, lures the adventure inclined. Stop at the Cougar Rock and Top of the World overlooks for seemingly infinite views of the surrounding evergreen Stanislaus National Forest, the distant snowcapped Sierras, and, on a clear day, Mount Diablo.

Another 40 minutes of winding up Highway 4 near Bear Valley is cobalt blue Lake Alpine [MM 182], speckled with granite islands that serve as reclusive picnic perches accessed by kayaks rented from Lake Alpine Resort. Set up camp at the west end of the lake, then rent fishing equipment from the lodge and try your hand at the waiting game. Should something bite, there’s a cleaning station near the boat camp. If you’re lucky, by sunset you’ll be frying up your hardwon trout while the sun disappears behind the pass.

Add a day: Leave your claustro-, acro-, and germophobia at the top of the 165- foot rappel drop: You’re going spelunking. Guided by Cave and Mine Adventures experts, explore California’s largest public cave, Moaning Cavern in Vallecito. Wiggle your way through tight passages—but be prepared to get more than a little dirty.

More Summer Get Aways:

S.F. to Santa Cruz: Highway 1 via two wheels
Three days (suggested time), 123 miles (one way), $$

S.F. to Borrego Springs: Desert funk
Five days, 769 miles, $$

S.F. to Truckee: Summer camp flashbacks
Two days, 200 miles, $$$

S.F. to Venice Beach: Paradise hopping
Four days, 448 miles, $$$$

S.F. to Humboldt: Oysters, hot tubs, martinis
Three days, 330 miles, $$

S.F. to Mendocino: Wine country underground
Three days, 165 miles (bring a designated driver), $$$

S.F. to Bear Valley: Sierra camping without the masses
Three days, 182 miles, $

Originally published in the May 2013 issue of San Francisco.

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