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Travel gold: wide open roads lead to Murphys, California

Surely, you’ve heard the phrase, “it’s the journey, not the destination.”  The trip I'd like you to consider involves both.   The journey begins with visions of the open road ahead, the freedom of leaving the lurch of traffic in your rear-view, to see an adventurous path ahead that is not only traffic and stop-light free but windy, scenic and reminiscent of your favorite rollercoaster.   This road I urge you to find is the historic highway 49 in Northern California that whimsically winds its way through rolling hills, stunning lake vistas, and on parts, the giant sequoia trees that skirt Yosemite National park.  In between, you’ll find what is known as the Mother Lode; the gold rush country in the Sierra mountain foothills that boasts old time Americana in the form of cobblestone streets, authentic mining towns, original art galleries and antique shops, gourmet dining and river rafting, zip lines and fine wines.  With so many options for recreation and romantic fodder along this magnificent roadway, your wandering eye may have a hard time deciding where to land. 

Try skirting down route 4, a side-bend off highway 49 and a National Scenic Byway, to arrive at what is known as the Queen of the Sierras: Murphys, CA.  Murphys, named after Daniel and John Murphy who struck it rich there, is a town with a wild past that in the mid 1800’s attracted opportunists and outlaws.  Today, the town is pleasantly settled in tone and provides a wealth of recreation on Main Street and in the surrounding vineyards, caverns and wide open land and streams where enthusiasts seek to hike and fish. Ideally located near the Calaveras Big Trees and Bear Valley (a skiing haven), yet far enough away from the commercialized mayhem, Murphys is quite a find.

Named one of the “Coolest small towns in America” by Frommers, Murphys is that rare locale that is so welcoming, brimming with so much character and small town community magic, that you’ll ask yourself:  why don’t I live in a place like this?  In fact, several of the business owners today are recent settlers who came as visitors from larger cities to Murphys and then on a wing and a prayer decided to bring their talents and lives there to roost.  This migration results in a combined mix of  artistic endeavor, entrepreneurship and gourmet attitude that now exists in the form of vegetarian fine dining at  Mineral, scrumptious baked goods at Aria, and hearty inventive cuisine at restaurant Alchemy that has a wine and cheese market attached as well.   
It’s easy to see why one would want to hideaway in Murphys.  Main Street is adorably picturesque with its rare elm trees blanketing the street, white picket fences framing the cobblestone path, and the babbling brook is a constant soundtrack.  While you whistle your day away, stop at one, or many, of fifteen wine tasting rooms in a four block radius, yes fifteen, each presenting a unique atmosphere from cave-like to lavender fresh.  Tastings are free, as is the advice and guidance of your engaging wine server who may ultimately couple as your town concierge with his/her local knowledge. As much for its hospitality, the area is known for big red Zinfandels, a peppery red wine (with hints of berry at times) that goes fine with red meat, however, Vigonier, Syrah, Grenache, Sangiovese and even a Gewürztraminer can be found among the tasting lists.  Some favorite tasting rooms, for their wines as well as the friendly, knowledgeable people that represent them, are Muir’s Legacy, Zucca Mountain, Lavender Ridge, and Millaire (wine hostess pictured above).  Be sure also to visit the Bodega del Sur tasting room, a Salvadorian owned winery that offers a sumptuous Syrah and provides an environment as warm as fresh baked bread.   

In between wine tastings, stop in at one of several antique shops, bookstores, clothing shops and local artist displays on Main Street.  Make sure to get a coffee at Gold Coast where the beans are roasted on the premises weekly and try the fresh baked blackberry pie at Aria.  Make time to sit by the stream and envision new worlds, much like a great many before you.  Take a stroll and you’ll walk in the footsteps of legends such as Mark Twain, Ulysses S. Grant and Albert Michelson, the country’s first Nobel prize winner whose home is part of the free Saturday morning walking tours.   

The Murphys Historic Hotel, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, has maintained the rooms and furnishings in its main house as they appeared in the late 1800’s and shows the original hotel register with signatures of Twain, Grant and other famous guests.  The full-service saloon holds remnants of days past with the original flooring from the 1800s and numerous artifacts lining the walls.  The upstairs balcony is brimming with stories of past gun fights and down below bar room brawls with none other than Charles Bolton, otherwise known as Black Bart, an outlaw legend in these parts.  

Accommodations in Murphys are available in all price ranges and tastes.  Murphys Historic Hotel has rooms for as low as $89 mid-week and $109 on weekends.  You can choose to stay in one of the historic rooms, ghosts and all, or in the no frills lodge rooms.  The Victoria Inn is a lovely romantic treasure in the center of town, with rooms befitting chocolate and candlelight among claw foot tubs and fireplaces and starting at $125/night.   Another option is Dunbar House 1880, a four diamond AAA rated bed and breakfast that concentrates on personal touches for a luxurious stay inside a two-story inn surrounded by lush gardens.    For a more independent experience and longer stays, you may choose to rent one of many cottages available within walking distance of Main Street.  The cottages are two or three bedrooms and come complete with a kitchen and backyard and are ideal for privacy and for small groups traveling together. 

Ideal times to visit are weekdays when you'll have plenty of time to mix with the locals, however for businesses in Murphys "hours are not set in stone" during the week so prepare to be flexible.  Weekends are easier as all are open to welcome visitors on their weekend escapes from the city.

Now is a good time to find a map and make your way.  Follow the road to Murphys for your first stop. You never know where the treasures are hidden, or where your journey may lead. 

Where to stay:
Murphys Historic Hotel:   Charming well-preserved Inn
Murphys Cottage Rentals:  Rustic little marvels with lots of space and privacy
Victoria Inn:  Romantic B&B
Dunbar House:  Award winning B&B country style

Where to dine:
Mineral Wine Bar and Restaurant:  Superb vegetarian fare
Grounds: Excellent Breakfast, soups, salads, sandwiches
Alchemy:  Creative flare on some American favorites
Aria Bakery:  Hands down best pastries and breads
Deli-Nini - Fresh little Italian deli

Where to taste wine:
Black Sheep:  A newcomer to Murphys
Bodega Del Sur:  A truly pleasurable experience
Milliaire:  Even their $9 table wine is good.  Try them all.
Lavender Ridge:  Smooth, sensuous reds paired with artisan cheeses
Muirs Legacy:  Share in the family tradition of the Muir's.  Make sure to try the "Bully" red
Twisted Oak:  Their motto is Caution, Adults at Play
Zucca Mountain:  Have you ever drank wine in a cave?

Great saloons:
Murphys Saloon:  Whole lot of history in an old timer atmosphere
The Nugget:  Local dive with a friendly vibe

Scenic roadways to drive:
Highway 49
Route 4

For more information and a complete listing of recreation options:

Related articles:
Roadside Treasures off the 101:  Mosby wines
Ooh la la:  hot date in L.A.
Alternative Lodging 101

Check out my favorite examiners:
Andrea Kittleson, LA Comedy Examiner
Autumn Millhouse, SF Wine Country Travel Examiner


  • Ironstone Heritage Museum 5 years ago

    It is a shame that after driving so far, you failed to go an extra couple of miles outside Murphys to see the mining history museum at Ironstone Vineyards with the largest piece of crystalline leaf gold in the world. Along with the Big Trees of Calaveras Big Trees State Park, the gold piece is a must see. There is no charge to the museum to see the gold either. Perhaps on your next visit to Murphys you can go the extra mile and half to see one of mother natures great wonders.

  • Al Romas 5 years ago

    That's it, I'm going! And I'm not going an extra couple of miles to some mining museum! I'm staying at Murphys and getting pie eyed on good wine! Screw natural wonders! I like vino!

  • Lydia 5 years ago

    As a native of Murphys, I enjoyed reading this. Although, I must comment that you spelled Murphys incorrectly through most of your article. Is is spelled Murphys NOT Murphy's. There is no apostrophe.

  • mark mortensen 4 years ago

    I can`t wait to move to Murphys. My grandparents live there, and ive been back and forth from NM. for years. It is so beautiful.

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