Treasure hunters still scour the Sierra

When you can get there, you can learn a lot 300 feet inside the Earth.

Those missile-size icicles dangling from the cavern's roof? They don't look securely attached. No worries, our guide said; they're all as solid as rocks. Actually, they're as solid as calcium carbonate, but close enough.

Our college-age guide had led my family deep into Moaning Cavern, one of several natural caves open for tours in California's Gold Country.

Here we also learned that the huge cave fangs pointing down are called stalactites and those jutting up from the floor are stalagmites.

What happens here in an earthquake? Good question. One I asked. It turns out that several hundred feet down is the right place to be during such a natural disaster. The quake would roll right over us, the guide said. We probably wouldn't feel a thing.

Even before a trio of quakes rattled California in June, I found this informational nugget comforting. It was the first in a mother lode my family unearthed in and around Gold Country's caverns that month.

Without breaking much of a sweat, my wife, two young sons and I visited a literary landmark, explored a historic Gold Rush town, tasted local wine, panned for gold and, of course, ventured into the belly of the Earth. One quick disappointment: Despite the name, Gold Country has no readily available gold lying around. I looked.

But what these Sierra foothills lack in free precious metals they make up for in another commodity Americans value: Mark Twain.

Angels Camp, where we stayed, holds a couple of firm claims to the Twain legend. The first is that as a young man the pioneering American writer lived there for about three months in a one-room cabin just outside of town. He was there, like practically everyone else, to prospect for gold.

The cabin on Jackass Hill — no kidding — looks largely as it did in 1865 when Twain slept and smoked there. The abode is humble, if not downright spartan: a stone fireplace, a couple of windows and the front door. From the looks of it, there was little to do except write.

According to a plaque on the site, Twain met some nonfictional characters, which later figured into "Roughing It," his famous, mostly true, adventures of the American West from 1861 to 1866.

Our 3- and 5-year-old sons were less than captivated by the empty wood shack (especially because it was a stop on the way to the much-hyped caverns). But if we couldn't ruin a child's good time with a little education, what kind of parents would we be? A nearby sign warning of rattlesnakes noticeably buoyed their spirits.

Angels Camp's best-known connection to Twain is that it serves as the location for one of his first published short stories, "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County."

According to local lore, he overheard a saloon patron regaling his drunken comrades with the tale, embellished it himself in the retelling, and thus began his journey into American literature.

To frogs and wine

The town of 3,000 has capitalized on its amphibian renown. Since 1928, on the third weekend of every May, the Jumping Frog Jubilee is staged. The event attracts thousands of humans and their frogs, half of whom are eager to break the current record by Rosie the Ribbeter, who jumped 21 feet, 5 ¾ inches in 1986.

The prize is $5,000 to the well-muscled frog legs that can surpass that mark. Others that come close might get a spot on the frog walk of fame along Main Street. Each plaque lists the name of the frog, the year it competed, distance jumped and hometown.

It's a safe bet that where writers tread, barkeeps follow. The town and surrounding Gold Rush communities don't disappoint, and local saloons have the beers and ales you can now find just about anywhere. But the real news in the region is the rise of local vineyards, once considered a minor side attraction. There are now 18 wineries in Calaveras County alone.

We made it to Twisted Oak Winery, which specializes in varietals native to the Rhône Valley, Spain and Portugal. Me, I don't know a Viognier from a Garnacha from a Tempranillo. Apparently, the first is a white varietal, the latter two reds and the handsome little tasting room cheerfully offered up glasses of all three and more. (Sorry, "Sideways" converts, no Pinot Noir, so don't ask.)

My lack of connoisseurship didn't matter: Any tour of the region's wineries takes you through stunningly beautiful countryside of California oaks, yellowed grass and rolling hills, which anyone can appreciate.

With or without a glass of wine first, it's easy to wonder what life was like in Gold Country when the national epidemic of get-rich fever broke out in nearby Sutter's Mill 157 years ago. Luckily, at Columbia State Historic Park, about a 15-minute drive from Angels Camp, you don't have to imagine too hard.

The park is an amazing restoration of a town from the 1870s. Its inviting saloons offer sarsaparilla with your hearty lunch plate. Historical re-enactors in period clothes run small stores, a blacksmith shop and a fully operational hotel. One look at the stagecoach horses and we were on board.

Halfway into a 15-minute ride, the coach got held up by a gun-toting, bandanna-wearing character who called himself "California Slim." The portly gentleman, a member of the "Hole in the Head" gang, specialized in jokes that may have played better in the Borscht Belt. We were allowed to escape only after singing a chorus of "Ring Around the Rosie."

A quick mention about the lodging and food. We stayed at the newly opened Best Western Cedar Inn & Suites in Angels Camp, where a mini-suite comfortably accommodated our family of four.

The swimming pool was a big hit with the kids, and the bountiful continental breakfast was a hit with everyone. Good bagels, oatmeal and plenty of fruit — perfect fuel for a day of gold panning.

As for other meals, it's probably best to leave your sophisticated palette at home. There's not much haute cuisine in Angels Camp to begin with; we found it best to stick to the basics. The locally popular and affordable Mike's Pizza, for instance, provided a respectable thin-crust pizza.

Down under

Nothing topped our journey to the center of the Earth — or, at least as close as I'm likely to get. We took the family tour at Moaning Cavern, which lasted about 45 minutes. You can actually rappel to the bottom, a 165-foot drop, if you have a little more time, money and moxie. I had none of those. (But no mountaineering experience is necessary, and they assured me it's very safe.)

The cavern has enough space to contain the Statue of Liberty, and the guides are knowledgeable and fit, going up and down about 450 stairs on each tour. The descent down the first few flights of stairs was fairly steep and cramped — no place for claustrophobes.

By the time you get to the bottom — one can take stairs made from a scrap metal of a World War I battleship rather than a rope — you've had a geology lesson and a good cardiovascular workout.

In an unusual experiment, Moaning Cavern accepted what it's hoped will amount to another stalagmite on its floor. The ottoman-sized rock formation is a refugee from a Chinese cavern flooded by the gigantic Three Gorges Dam project.

Will the transplant take root in an American cave?

Nobody knows yet. Check back in a few thousand years.

Budget for four


Best Western Cedar Inn & Suites, two nights $268
Mike's Pizza $22
Columbia House Restaurant $30
Other meals $144
Moaning Cavern tour $48
Stage Coach ride $16
Total $528
Distance from L.A. 384 miles


Cedar Inn & Suites, 444 S. Main St., Angels Camp; (209) 736-4000, . Rooms and suites, $94-$235.


Mike's Pizza, 294 S. Main St., Angels Camp; (209) 736-9246.


Moaning Cavern, 5350 Moaning Cave Road, Vallecito; (209) 736-2708. . Walking tours, $12; $6 for kids. For 12 and older: rappelling, $45; three-hour spelunking tour, $99. Underground Adventures also sells bags of dirt for gold-panning, about $5 each.
Columbia State Historic Park, 22708 Broadway, Columbia; (209) 532-0150, .
Twisted Oak Winery, 4280 Red Hill Road, Vallecito; (209) 736-9080, .
— Martin Miller