COPPEROPOLIS, Calif. – Sunny and 90 degrees outside, I was still freezing.
Wading through Natural Bridges, a popular swimming hole where the Coyote Creek runs through a beautiful limestone cave, the water felt both cold and refreshing at the same time. Enough light penetrated the cave that the twisted rock formations I could see on the wall and ceiling of the cave seemed to glow. What a fascinating spot easily accessible by a two-mile roundtrip hike off a main road in Calaveras County.
The foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains might be one of California's most underrated vacation spots, especially for golfers. One minute you can be teeing off on one of northern California's best public courses – Saddle Creek Golf Resort in Copperopolis. The next you can be hiking to a rocky natural wonder or dining and drinking in downtown Murphys, one of my favorite hangouts in the entire state.
A holiday weekend at Saddle Creek delivered the right mix of golf, adult fun and family play time. For such a remote destination – two hours south of Sacramento or two-hours-plus from the Bay Area – in the middle of nowhere, the entertainment options feel endless.
Day 1: Escaping the madness of the Bay area
I was road raging when we pulled into Saddle Creek, a 900-acre development by Castle & Cooke. Bay Area traffic is always bad, but the holiday weekend turned a two-hour-plus journey from San Jose into four.
The stress melted away when my children – ages 15 and 12 – took one look at their weekend home: "Medinah", a two-bedroom, two-bathroom bungalow. All of the resort bungalows sit on a paved street that ends at a cul-de-sac within walking distance of the 12,000-square-foot Lodge that serves as the resort's main clubhouse.
The word "bungalow" doesn't do it justice. The high ceilings, fireplace, full kitchen and backyard patio overlooking the golf course make them look as nice as the custom-built homes lining the fairways.
Dinner and drinks at the Copper Grille set things right again. We watched golfers hit heroic approaches over the water to the ninth green while devouring prime rib, fish and chips and of course, cheesecake for dessert. As first impressions go, Saddle Creek was already worth the arduous trek.
Day 2: The full resort experience
Saddle Creek doesn't look like a resort. There's no hotel tower or award-winning spa. That's the big part of its charm. It's a more intimate place where everything is easy. The rhythm of life beats a little slower here.
We took a chill pill and relaxed, lounging much of the day at the outdoor pool and hot tub at the fitness center. We brought tennis rackets and golf clubs for my two children, but they essentially gathered dust the whole weekend. To burn some energy before dinner, we played catch in the street with the two lacrosse sticks my daughter brought.
At dinner, we explored Copperopolis Town Square, a master-planned development of shops and restaurants four miles away right off California State Route 4. The Tipsy Frog, a wine tasting room, had a party going with live music on its porch. We ended up at Griffs Barbeque & Grille next door. Its saloon motif fits the history of the region, where millions of dollars of copper were pulled out of the local mines until the 1950s. I'm guessing the pulled pork and homemade dressings for our salads were tastier than anything the miners ate during the California gold rush. Griffs is the best restaurant in town, although competition has arrived with a new pizza joint recently opening.
Day 3: Golf and caves
Teeing off first before 7 a.m. – one of my tips to enjoying golf on a family vacation – allowed my cart partner and I to enjoy the course to ourselves. We saw more deer and wild turkey than golfers.
Saddle Creek, a Carter Morrish design that debuted in 1993, is 6,803 yards of visual splendor. The large, white-sand bunkers pop against the green fairways and the backdrop of burned-out, yellow fescue lining the wide playing corridors and the surrounding hillsides. Every hole either rises gently to challenge you or falls sweetly to enhance your confidence.
The front side features the most fearsome hazards. I lost three balls that were more user error than architectural bullying -- on the demanding drive at no. 2, a cape-hole par 4 that bends right along a wetland, and the difficult approaches over ponds to the eighth and ninth greens. I finished an enjoyable round by 10 a.m. just in time for a family adventure.
The first stop was Murphys Pourhouse, a beer garden in the heart of wine tasting rooms and restaurants in downtown Murphys. It's as cool as casual gets. Patrons park at picnic tables to guzzle craft beers and munch on sandwiches and snacks. Don't miss the beer cheese dip, a family recipe passed down for several generations. Outdoor cornhole and Jenga will entertain the more active members of your entourage.
We worked off lunch with that spectacular hike to Natural Bridges. We wisely blew up a small inner tube and carried it down the trail. My son and I were the first to swim through the cave, emerging on the other side to bask in the sun. My wife and daughter weren't brave enough to take the plunge in such cold water, so I pulled them through on the floatie.
The motivation to survive the taxing hike out of the canyon under the midday sun was dinner in the outdoor courtyard at the Murphys Historic Hotel. The 29-room hotel, dating to 1856, was featured in 2014 on the reality TV show ‘Hotel hell' with host and celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay. The biggest complaints Ramsay tried to address were the museum-like décor and the noise emanating from the bar to the rooms upstairs. To many guests, that's the secret sauce of the place. Our fantastic meal might as well have been cooked by Ramsay himself. Whatever we ordered – Alfredo pasta, fried chicken, Bolognese, Brie – was on point.
I could see myself coming back to stay and join the crowd at the bar, but I'm not going to lie. After such a busy weekend, it was nice to return to the modern luxuries of a golf resort as nice as Saddle Creek.