ANGELS CAMP, Calif. – I stuck a tee in the ground at Greenhorn Creek Resort and couldn’t believe my good fortune.
I was about to experience the ultimate day: living life from ski to tee, driving just over an hour to drop 5,000 feet of elevation from skiing in the Sierra Nevada mountains to playing golf in its scenic foothills.
The sun was shining in both places. The conditions were perfect, too. A fresh coat of snow on top of a deep snowpack at Bear Valley mountain and grass at Greenhorn Creek as lush as I’ve seen it since my family moved to California three years ago.
The epic winter rains have already made 2017 the wettest year on record in California. The reward is less grumbling about the historic drought of the past five years. Better still, there's more snow for skiers and more green grass for golfers. There aren’t many places in America where you can golf and ski in the same day. Calaveras County is one of them.
This unspoiled region in California Gold Country might be the state’s most underappreciated getaway. It’s got great winter sports (just like Tahoe), wonderful wine (just like Napa), stellar golf (just like the Bay Area) and fine restaurants in downtown Murphys (just like San Francisco) without the hubbub of traffic or exorbitant prices of California’s trendier destinations. Calaveras County is famous for its annual frog-jumping contest, inspired by Mark Twain's short story: "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County." We were a little early for the May celebration, so my family spent the weekend at the quirky and cool Caddy Shack at Greenhorn Creek playing golf and skiing instead.
Day 1: Greenhorn Creek Resort
The Caddy Shack is one the most interesting places I’ve stayed in all my golf travels. This unique lodge is hidden on a gravel road between the driving range and the ninth hole and next to the maintenance shed. The former home of the office staff was retrofitted four years ago into the ultimate hangout for golf groups. It’s got 10 beds in five bedrooms, a separate kitchen, a living room with a large TV and two bathrooms – one with stalls and three sinks, a tangible reminder of what the building once was. The resort is putting the finishing touches on the backyard this spring, installing a fire pit, new BBQ grill and horse shoe pits. It regularly books up for summer weekends. There are also golf course cottages and Worldmark villas for rent within the sprawling upscale community.
That night, we dined in CAMPS restaurant in the clubhouse. Live music, local wines and prime rib served only on Friday and Saturday nights made it a happening scene.
Day 2: Golf clubs and Ski poles
Clear roads and light traffic made the trip from Greenhorn Creek to Bear Valley, a Skyline Resort, a breeze Saturday morning. Somewhere above 5,000 feet, snow became more evident along the road and in shady spots among the soaring pines. Since this was our first family ski trip in years, we took it slow. A couple rides up the magic carpet and simple runs down the bunny hill got the snow legs under my wife and two children. We graduated to the “super cub” run and within an hour, my children, ages 12 and 14, were hitting jumps and begging me to take videos. The resort pumped up the tunes to keep the energy up and the atmosphere festive.
We’d never skied on a day when you could peel off layers of clothing to ride the slopes in short sleeves. What a joy. The runs were as heavenly as I’ve ever experienced on a ski trip, my past travels ranging from Michigan, Canada, Montana and Washington state. By lunch, my daughter wanted a season pass and my son said: “After skiing, everything else seems boring”. Sadly, Bear Mountain can't take advantage of the extra snow this year since it's lease forces a closing April 23, while a number of ski resorts in Lake Tahoe will stay open until July. Start your planning for next year.
Before heading back down the mountain, we stopped for a quick tubing session (geared mostly for kids 10 and under) at Bear Valley Cross Country. Back at the resort, while my kids hit the outdoor pool and hot tub, I teed it up solo to enjoy the fading afternoon light. I only ran into one group, so I essentially owned the place.
The course, a pleasant 6,740-yard Robert Trent Jones Jr. redesign, celebrated its 20th anniversary last summer. Its split personality – a wide-open front nine, where scoring opportunities abound with three par 3s and three par 5s, and a tight, more scenic back nine through the forest - provides great contrast. You’ll feel on top of the world at the 13th tee, a drop-shot par 3 with a stunning mountain backdrop.
Every great vacation day deserves a grand finale. Ours came at Alchemy Market and Cafe on Main Street in downtown Murphys, home to two dozen wine tasting galleries and tons of places to eat. Owner/chef Jason Wright’s crave-able menu had us raving about the cheesy ‘Forever Nachos’ and calamari appetizers and the towering coconut cream pie for dessert. I sampled from the 70 craft beers - the largest collection in the mountains - and my wife savored one of the 30 local wines on the menu.
Day 3: Easter eggs and wine at Ironstone Vineyards
Thankfully, with two children in tow, it isn’t all about wine at family-owned Ironstone Vineyards near Murphys. Ironstone stocks its calendar with events, concerts in its amphitheater, movies, tours of its wine cavern and as luck would have it, four spots open for an exquisite Easter brunch.
Since my kids were too old for the egg hunt run by the local Lions Club, we explored the garden grounds colored by blossoming spring flowers. The tasting room offers a nice deli and a fireplace for lounging. Inside the Heritage Museum, filled by a trove of mining memorabilia, a vault holds a 44-pound Crystalline Gold Leaf specimen, the largest in the world. It was mined 20 miles away by the Sonora Mining Company on Christmas Day in 1992.
Turns out, we discovered our own treasure this weekend - Calaveras County, a goldmine of fun, food and adventures, whether your family loves golf or not.