Shenandoah Valley, CA offers wineries, lovely scenery and Plymouth and Fiddletown history!

Final Summer Concert at Helwig Vineyards draws a large crowd of revelers to enjoy the band.

A Sierra thunderstorm brews over the Shenandoah Valley, picture taken from Fiddletown foothills.
Vineyards at Karmere Winery stretch into the nearby Sierra foothills.
Beautiful fountain frames the vineyards at Bella Piazza Vineyards
Friends Jan Bell and Pat Moore sample wines at Karmere’s lovely French Chateau-inspired tasting room.
Sun sets over the Shenandoah Valley, during closing summer concert at Helwig Vineyards.

Travelers on historic California Highway 49 will be familiar with the Shenandoah Valley, just east of Plymouth, CA.  The valley is quickly becoming known for its award-winning wines, activities centered around the vineyards and a deep sense of California Gold Rush history surrounding the area!

Shortly after gold was discovered in nearby Coloma in 1848, the Shenandoah Valley began producing wines.  Zinfandel prospered in the valley’s loamy and granitic soil, and some of the state’s oldest Zin vines reside here.  In the 1970s, Sutter Home began producing popular zinfandels from the Shenandoah’s distinctive grapes, raising awareness of the valley; it gained appellation status in January, 1983.

Since then, the valley has achieved acclaim as home to some of the state’s best Zinfandel wines, as well as syrah and other new award-winning wines.  The appellation now encompasses over 10,000 acres and well over 2,000 acres in vineyards.  It’s growth has helped fuel a resurgent tourist industry in nearby Plymouth and Fiddletown, as well.

A recent tour took us to a handful of family-owned wineries, each with a distinctive flair.  First stop was Karmere Winery, which we have visited several times.  With a beautiful French Chateau-inspired tasting room and perfectly manicured grounds opening out to acres of surrounding grapes, it hosts many weddings and parties. Their syrahs, barberas and zins were all tasty, and the ‘Naughty Bawdy’ wine was a hit with our party! 

We happened upon Helwig’s final Summer Concert, featuring Gregg Rolie, original lead singer for Santana – scores of revelers danced until past 9 PM; we’ll return next season! Helwig’s Wine Club was intriguing, with many member benefits including free tastings, bottle and case discounts, discounts on concerts, tours of their wine caves and discounts on a nearby bed and breakfast in Sutter Creek.

Our next stop was Wilderotter Vineyard, where we sampled delightful sauvignon blanc, Grenache rose and petite syrahs.  This boutique winery continued our impressive tour, with carefully manicured grounds, a warm and cozy tasting room and informative staff.

Another delightful vineyard is Borjon Winery with a host of wine offerings, three choices of wine clubs and five annual events, ranging from the Vino Neuvo to the Vino De Los Muretos.  Once again, we resolved to return for one of their coming events!

Final stop was Bella Piazza Winery, with tasting room, a stunning reflective pool and grounds looking out to the vineyards and valley beyond. Their zins, syrahs and a selection of varietals merit close attention; we also found their zin port of special interest.

Nearby Plymouth and Fiddletown are rich in Gold Rush history and offer explorers a wealth of interesting historic sites, shops, restaurants ready for touring! And, at 1,000 to 1,500 feet elevation, both are generally well below the Sierra foothills snowline, making sunny fall or winter days the perfect time to tour!

Fiddletown traces its Gold Rush history back further than Plymouth (though Plymouth, located on Highway 49, is larger and better known). Fiddletown was established by prospectors from Missouri in 1849, and quickly grew in the 1850s and 1860s as a center of trade for many mines located nearby.

Miners were known, during the dry season when water for their hydraulic mining ran low, to just “fiddle around”, hence the town’s name.  During the city’s boom years, it numbered almost two dozen businesses, a handful of taverns, blacksmith shops, bakeries and restaurants. With a post office, church and school, it was a full-fledged city.

The town soon grew to over 2,000 residents, with over half Chinese, who worked the mines and established many of the early businesses (some of these still stand, though in a state of disrepair; the local Fiddletown Preservation Society is working to refurbish several structures).

While touring the several remaining blocks of old Fiddletown, be sure to check out the Chew Kee Apothecary (a rare “rammed earth” building dating to the 1850s), the other old Chinese merchant buildings, C. Schallhorn’s Blacksmith and Wagon Store and the Fiddletown Community Center with the giant fiddle over the door!

Nearby Plymouth traces its history to the 1870s, when prospectors stopped there in search of quartz and gold. For gourmet travelers, the new Taste Restaurant in Plymouth is a must-stop, drawing rave reviews from around the region. The city has a cute public park with bandstand, the old Plymouth Hotel and other eateries, all grouped along several old-town blocks.

Both Fiddletown and Plymouth are known as “Gateways to the Shenandoah Valley” and make logical stops.  While touring the area, take time to explore a variety of scenic back roads rimming the Shenandoah – watch for wild turkeys and deer, both found in abundance in this bucolic setting!

What’s nearby: Plymouth, on Hwy. 49, is just a mile from the edge of the Shenandoah Valley, while Fiddletown is about six miles away on Fiddletown Road.

How to get there: From Stockton, the Shenandoah Valley is about 60 miles, 1.5 hours.  Take Hwy. 88 northeast, then Hwy. 124 north, connect to Hwy. 49 north to Plymouth, then follow the Shenandoah Road east to the valley.

What to bring: Binoculars, camera, good walking shoes!

To plan your visit: For insight into Karmere Winery, go to, or call 209.245.5000, located at 11970 Shenandoah Road; for Wilderotter Vineyard,, 209.483.9170, 19890 Shenandoah Road; for Villa Toscana and Bella Piazza,, 209.245.3800, 10600 Shenandoah Road; for Helwig Winery,, 209.245.5200, 11555 Shenandoah Road; for Borjos Winery,, 209.245.3087, 11270 Shenandoah Road. For insight into Plymouth food and  lodging, go to:

For more inspiration on other travel destinations in California and the west, see my blog, http//, or contact me at 

Happy travels in the West!

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Teardrop travel trailers gather on California coast (Teardrops, Part 3)

Last weekend, a dozen teardrop trailer owners gathered on the California coast just above Jenner and Ft. Ross, at Ocean Cove campground.  This gathering is an annual affair, the second weekend in October – here are pictures from the last few years.

Each year, a number of quality trailers, including several with full galleys in the back, join in the fun gathering. One, homebuilt teardrop, built by a single female out of Santa Rosa, had a very creative “pop-up”, giving the trailer 6 feet-plus of headroom. Very nicely done!

Several added additional square feet of living space, with creative add-on tent covers, as you’ll see in the pictures.

The combination of gorgeous California coastal weather, creative owners and a beautiful setting made for a nice weekend! 



The arguments for teardrops are several-fold: most weigh only 800 lbs. or so, hence they can be towed by almost any vehicle.  They store in a garage or beside the house, so no need to store them for $100+ per month somewhere.  They are hard-sided, so, spouses don’t worry about bear attacks; and, they are always loaded with your camp gear; so it’s easy to “hit the road on a moment’s notice”!  And, they range in price from $3,000 to about $8,000, depending on how tricked out, how large, how new they are – so they don’t break your budget!  One can always find a selection on eBay or Craig’s List, or at local dealers throughout N. CA (just search for “teardrop trailer”)!

For more inspiration on other travel destinations in California and the west, see my blog, http//, or contact me at 

Happy travels in the West!

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Apple Hill; apple pie, family fun, crisp days and history galore!


Author's spouse, Susan, poses upon 300 lb. pumpkin at Boa Vista's Pumpkin Patch!

Crafter’s Barn at High Hill Ranch is popular with holiday shoppers!
Lone angler awaits trout bite at High Hills Ranch trout pond, looking out upon the High Sierra in distance.
Lifesize stagecoach and horse art await visitors to Apple Hill this fall (photo courtesy Sally Kulik)
Sutter’s Mill replica, site of first CA gold discovery, awaits visitors at Marshall Gold Discovery Park, just miles from Apple Hill.

Apple Hill, celebrating 50 years of the Apple Hill Grower’s Association, over 50 ranches, Mother Lode gold and lumbering history and lots of kid’s activities – what’s not to like?

This year, Apple Hill celebrates its 50th anniversary of the association that promotes the popular fall and winter destination, perched at 3,000 feet in the Sierra foothills.  Long a haven for apple growers, whose apple orchards thrive in the rocky soil and foothills climate, Apple Hill has long been a haven for families seeking fall fun, good food and holiday memories.

We have taken our grandkids there several times, but this visit we took the time just to explore, the two of us.   We quickly realized, with California history at both east and west ends of Apple Hill, fine dining and lodging options, the area presents a marvelous long-weekend destination.

We began with two favorite Apple Hill destinations, High Hill Ranch and Boa Vista Ranch, to get our bearings and to see what was new with these favorites.

High Hill Ranch, 2910 High Hill Rd., Placerville, opens a week before Labor Day and closes December 24. It’s a haven for crafters, every type of apple product, from pies to cider to more in a lovely setting looking into the distant Sierra.  We split an apple fritter the size of a pie plate, yum! For kids, a fish pond offers fishing, purchase a fishing permit for $3.50; fish caught go for nine dollars/pound and $6.50 rents a pole.

Another favorite, Boa Vista Orchards, 2952 Carson Rd., Placerville, is just a mile west of High Hill Ranch, with large pumpkin patch, wine tasting, crafts, large variety of apple products for sale.  We purchased a huge apple pie for later consumption.

Nearby Christmas tree farms like Harris Tree Farm and several others offer fine holiday trees, such as white fir and silver tip varieties.  And, like their Apple Hill partners, they offer hot chocolate and a host of apple and berry pies to round out the experience.

A wealth of events and activities await explorers in late October to November, from the Apple Hill Harvest Run, Nov. 2, to the Chestnut Festival, Harvest Festival and other fun activities (see full calendar on Apple Hill web site, below).

This visit, we went in search of kid’s activities, history, good food and lodging.  We found all nearby!  EL Dorado Orchards on North Canyon Rd. is famed for its smoked turkey sandwich. Through middle of November It offers kids train rides on the Apple Hill Railroad; we watched scores of kids and adults chug their way through the ranch in delightful fall weather.

History, good food and lodging await visitors on the eastern edge of Apple Hill in the historic town of Camino.  The town features the popular Forester  Restaurant and Pub and Camino Hotel/Bed-and-Breakfast. The Camino Hotel dates to the 1880s, once serving as a logger’s barracks for workers at the Michigan-California Lumber Company, now silent. Remnants of the towns logging days are present throughout the hotel – and to preserve history and offer quiet for guests, the rooms have no phones and no TVs.

History also reigns supreme in the Gold Rush town of Placerville, just west of Apple Hill. Take a stroll on its wonderfully preserved historic Main Street, lined with buildings dating to the late 1800s.  Just opposite the historic bell tower is a restaurant favorite, the Powell Steamer Company, with a variety of fish dishes, oysters on the half shell, great clam chowder and specials of the day.  Just down the busy street is the historic Cary House Hotel, a good place to stay in the heart of the energetic downtown.

From Placerville, Coloma and the James Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park is just six miles north on Hwy. 49.  Site of the first California gold discover in 1848, the park offers the reconstructed Sutter’s Mill, where gold was found, and a wealth of the town’s history dating back 165 years!

Apple Hill is a perfect destination for family fun right through the holidays.  Tour the apple and Christmas tree ranches, watch the colors changing in the trees and explore the history that surrounds the area.

What’s nearby: Placerville, stately Gold Rush center with historic downtown, just a few miles west on Hwy. 50; Coloma and James Marshall Gold Discovery State Historical Park, site of first California gold discovery, just six miles north of Placerville on Hwy. 49.
How to get there: From Stockton, Apple Hill is 90 miles, a little less than two hours; go north on Interstate 5 or CA Hwy. 99, then east on Hwy. 50, just past Placerville, to the Apple Hill turnoffs.

What to bring: Binoculars, camera, good walking shoes!

To plan your visit: For insight into Apple Hill, complete with October and November activities, see, 530.644.7692; for Placerville businesses and hotel/motels,, 530.672.3426; for Coloma and James Marshall Gold Discovery State Park, see the California State Park’s web site:  Museum and Visitor Center: 530-622-3470.  Address is 310 Back Street, Coloma, CA 95613.

For more inspiration on other travel destinations in California and the west, see my blog, http//, or contact me at 

Happy travels in the West!

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Sonora, Gold Rush cross-roads; Columbia and Tuolumne City are near!

Kids, including author's grandson, Hunter with curly hair, can pan for gold and agates at Columbia State Historic Park.


Westside Lumber Engine No. 2 resides in Tuolumne City Park, a remnant of the glory that lumbering once brought to the city, just six miles from Sonora.

Wells Fargo stagecoach rumbles into Columbia, offering rides to visitors to Columbia State Historic Park.

On Wednesday, we shared a feature on Sonora, its Gold Rush and lumbering history ( and mentioned nearby attractions.  Here is a bit more insight on two, both within about six miles of Sonora:

Columbia (just four miles north), took root in March, 1850, when Dr. Thaddeous Hildreth and others settled here and began prospecting. Soon, Hildreth Diggin’s had found the precious metal; in weeks more than a 1,000 miners descended on the area. The gold camp was initially named American Camp, and, eventually, Columbia.  Today, Columbia State Historic Park preserves the old Gold Rush town of Columbia as a museum of living history! Open seven days a week, all year, the park offers activities and history for all ages, from young to old!

Originally, almost all the buildings were made of wood and a huge fire ravaged the city in 1854, destroying most of the wooden buildings in the business district. Most were rebuilt in 1855, but a second fire in 1857 destroyed more framed buildings and some of the brick ones; the town again rebuilt and further emphasized brick buildings and state-of-the-art fire suppression.

By the early 1860s, most of the easiest placer gold had been sluiced out, and the town began a slow decline. In the following 20-some years, many of the vacated buildings were torn down, and their sites were mined for gold. By the late 19th century and into the 20th, the town was in visible and steady decay – residents had dropped to below 500.

Columbia’s business district is closed to all but foot traffic, and a host of businesses, shops and volunteers bring the town to life, much as it appeared in 1855!  Take a stage coach ride, pan for gold, tour blacksmith and livery shops, get a free tour led by period-dressed docents, grab lunch or an ice cream and take in life as it was more than 150 years ago! Best of all, admission, parking and guided tours are free, so a day spent here is easy on the wallet!

Just six miles to the southeast of Sonora is a real gem; Tuolumne City, which preserves vestiges of the old Gold Rush town of Summersville, but it’s even more interesting due to its hay-day as a logging and lumber capital of the Mother Lode. Tuolumne began in 1854 when Franklin Summers and family settled nearby. In 1856 James Blakely arrived and discovered the first quartz outcropping, which would become his “Eureka” quartz and gold mine.

Other nearby mining towns would spring up (and then disappear), Lone Gulch, two miles south, and Cherokee, two miles north. Later named Cartersville, then Tuolumne City, the gold would quickly be mined out, and the area developed as the heart of logging and lumber production for cities in the valley like Modesto and Stockton.

Of several logging operations, the Westside Lumber Company became the main player, expanding its railroad, the size and complexity of its mill, and developed Tuolumne City into a lumber town of major proportions in the first sixty years of the 20th century. The mill closed in the early 1960s, after a major fire during a labor dispute.

Today, remnants of the lumber empire of the Westside Lumber Company take center stage. Several of the company’s buildings remain, though in states of disrepair. Pieces of logging equipment dot the town, from a huge Steam Donkey next to the fire station, to lumbering equipment on the edges of town.  You’ll find the lumber company’s Steam Engine #2 in the city park; nearby are the Municipal Auditorium and the local museum (open Saturdays and Sundays, 1-4 PM excluding holidays, at 18663 Carter Street, (209) 928-3516; Visit the Tuolumne-band of the Miwuk Indian’s Black Oak Casino, just a mile away (

Dining, lodging, camping options: Both Columbia and Sonora offer quick to gourmet dining options.  Sonora offers many motels, hotels, bed and breakfasts and a number of good to fine restaurants. Black Oak Casino also offers hotel accommodations, several cafes and a fine restaurant, the Seven Sisters. Campgrounds can also be found along Highway 49, and up Highway 108 in the Sierras.

How to get there: To reach Columbia, just 1.5 hours from Stockton; go east on Hwy. 4, then south on Hwy. 49 and watch for the Columbia turn-off. Sonora and Tuolumne City are further south down Hwy. 49.

What’s nearby: Gold Rush towns like Angels Camp, Amador City, Sutter Creek and Jamestown make for a nifty collection of historic towns in the Mother Lode.

To plan your visit, go to or call the State Park at (209)-588-9128.  For Sonora and Tuolumne City insight, go to the Tuolumne County Chamber of Commerce,, or call 209.532.4212.

Next week, we will share insight on Apple Hill, just off CA Hwy. 50 to the east of Placerville, and nearby Coloma, site of the first gold discovery in 1848!

For more insight into wonderful California and western travel destinations, see my blog:, or, write to me, Happy travels in the west!





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Sonora, visitor-friendly cross-roads of Gold Rush and lumbering history!




The stately Curtin Mansion, built in 1897, was home for Senator J.B. Curtin, attorney and candidate for CA Governor in 1914.

The Sugg-McDonald House dates to the mid-1850s, built on the property of a former slave; it is in process of being renovated. 
The old City Hotel, opened in 1852, anchors the historic downtown Sonora business district.
Sugar Pine Railroad Engine #3 worked the Sierra for many years, bringing logs out of the mountains to the huge mill in Standard, on edge of Sonora.
Coffill Park, a pleasant and cool urban oasis, is just steps off Washington Street in the center of the historic business district!

Sonora, just 60 miles east of Stockton, has always been a crossroads, first for Miwok Indians traveling in and out of the Sierra or along the Sierra foothills route.  When gold was discovered in Coloma in 1848, the ensuing Gold Rush brought the largest migration in history as thousands of Argonauts poured into the Mother Lode region. 

The route now known as Highway 49 echoed with pick axes as miners worked their way along creeks and tunneled into hillsides.  Gold Rush towns sprang up overnight, and Sonora emerged as a commercial hub of placer mining, businesses, restaurants, saloons, banks and hotels to support the miners.

It also quickly became the center for logging and lumber-mills; growing continually to become the regional center than it is today.

Now is a fine time to visit; days are warm, nights are cool, the aspens in the Sierra and other deciduous trees are turning colors; Sonora makes a spectacular center of the Sierra foothills universe.

The town offers a huge wealth of its historical perspective – locals truly treasure and preserve their history!  You will discover this by talking to the docents and volunteers at the numerous museums and merchants in scores of historic businesses. Conveniently, the town also provides a wide variety of visitor amenities – from great restaurants, local theater and pleasant places to spend a long weekend.

We were offered an historic city tour by Bonnie Summers, both a Stockton and Sonora resident and a volunteer docent at the Sonora Historical Society.  The society is wonderfully located in the old Sonora Jail, just up the hill from the stately old courthouse.  “Get set for a great tour of the history that made Sonora what it is today”, she noted as she piled me and my pal Gary into her vehicle for an impressive tour of museums and surrounding countryside.

In several hours, she toured us along Washington Street/Hwy. 49 as it cuts through the city and shared stories of some of the scores of beautiful Victorians that line the tree-shaded streets.  We also took a detour into the higher foothills to the east (where her family homesteaded 160 acres in the 1920s), through the very pretty Apple Ranch Valley area and explored the interesting facility, Indiginy, producing acclaimed Brandy and hard cider in a beautiful setting.

The old Sonora jail (now the Tuolumne Historical Society/Museum) was first built in 1857, burned and was rebuilt more stoutly in 1866, serving continuously until replaced in 1960.  Inside, each of the 10 old jail cells serve as “mini-museums”, focusing upon Native American forebears, early miners and townspeople, weapons of the day, importance of water to mining and agriculture and other more recent facets of the town’s history.  While at the Society, pick up a copy of the “Sonora, a Guide to Yesterday” and “Tuolumne County Museums” brochures.

Other museums are nearby: the Sonora Fire Museum, 125 N. Washington, the Veterans’ Memorial Hall and Military Museum, 158 W. Bradford and St. James History Room, 42 W. Snell.  Six cemeteries circle the old city; get a map from the Historical Society!

Old Victorians line most streets; we toured past the Sugg-McDonald House, built in 1857 on property of a former slave, William Sugg.  Along W. Bradford Street we trekked past eight vintage houses, dating from the late 1800s, including a beautifully restored 1897 beauty, the home of J. B. Curtin, attorney, State Senator and 1914 candidate for Governor.

Downtown’s Washington Street/Hwy. 49 features dozens of historic buildings, including Serventes (Sonora’s only cast-iron front building, dating to 1856), the Wells Fargo building (1856), the City Hotel (1852) and spectacular Opera Hall (1885).  Walk this 6-8 block stretch of history and stop at Coffill Park, a green oasis on Sonora Creek where a 22 pound nugget was found!

Visitor amenities abound along this compact downtown route, including restaurants, bakeries, theaters and hotels.   We stopped for lunch at the Diamondback Grill, a delightful spot in the midst of our tour. Along this quaint stretch of yesteryear is the old Gunn house, a well-regarded hotel and the Sonora Inn (now a Days Inn).

Sonora also quickly developed as a lumbering center with several huge saw mills nearby including the Standard Mill adjacent to Sonora and Westside Lumber in Tuolumne City, just six miles southeast.  These mills built narrow gauge railways deep into the Sierra; Shay Engine #3, a 60 ton locomotive that began operation in 1910, is on display at the entrance to the Mother Lode Fairgrounds on Stockton Road, just a mile from downtown.

Evening entertainment is flush in the area, with the town sporting the old Opera House, three theater companies as well as Fallon House Theatre in nearby Columbia.  And, Black Oak Casino, five miles away in Tuolumne City offers entertainment, dining and lodging.

What’s nearby: Tuolumne City, home to Westside Lumber, a fine tour destination to discover the former grandeur of “lumber as king” in the Sierra; Columbia State Historical Park, just four miles to the north, perhaps the best preserved of all the Gold Rush towns; historic Jamestown, and Railtown 1897, both just off Highway 108 to the west of Sonora.

How to get there: From Stockton, it is 60 miles, about an hour; go east on Hwy. 4 to Copperopolis, then go southeast on the O’Bryne Ferry Road, then east on Hwy. 108 to Sonora.

Dining options: In addition to those mentioned, consider the Standard Brewery in a building of the former Standard/Pickering Lumber Company, the Red House, Gus’s Steakhouse, and the nine restaurants in Black Oak Casino, including the Seven Sisters (casino is in nearby Tuolumne City).

What to bring: Binoculars, camera, good walking shoes!

To plan your visit: Make your first stop the Tuolumne Historical Society Museum, 158 W. Bradford,, 209.532.1317.  Also contact the Sonora Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 3084, Sonora, CA  95370,, 209-694-4405; and the Tuolumne County Chamber, 222 S. Shepherd St., Sonora,, 209.532.4212.

For more inspiration on other travel destinations in California and the west, see my blog, http//, or contact me at 

Happy travels in the West!

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Travels with a teardrop, other tiny trailers, Part II

A nice teardrop, with an added "side tent" to expand living area, overlooking Ocean Cove Resort north of Jenner, CA.

Possibly the nicest teardrop we have seen, built by Dan Hazard out of Manteca; 5′ wide, 10′ long, with an expanded, luxury rear galley, microwave, air conditioning, generator – very elaborate!
Our new 58 Serro Scotty Junior teardrop, with builder Tom Scott, a West Virginia shop teacher. We have towed this little trailer across the US, twice up into British Columbia/Alberta, and to the Southwest, enjoying the freedom of the road!
This is our 1964 Serro Scotty Sportsman, weighing just 1,000 lbs, and offering stand-up room for someone 5’8″, double bed, dinette and small sink/stove, Note it was towed with our then Nissan 300 ZX. Still needing a major rebuild, it sits snugly wedged into our garage.
This was our Kit Kamper replica, that we happily toured throughout CA for almost six years!

I have not posted for a while on “traveling with a teardrop trailer”; but, anticipating a teardrop gathering at Ocean Cove Resort above Jenner on the California coast in a week, here is an update.

We have owned several tiny trailers over the last seven years; our first was a cute little reproduction Kit Kamper, popular after World War II and one of the more frequent teardrop trailer styles seen today. The Kit was built on a platform of 4’X8’ plywood sheets; hence, 4’ wide, 4’ tall and 8’ long (we have since upgraded to a Scotty teardrop, as noted below).

Ours was built from a kit in 2004; we purchased it from its second owner who towed it with a Mini Cooper! We toured mostly California with this trailer – the North Coast, the Sierra and a few trips to other destinations. In 2012, we decided to up-size, and bought a slightly larger 1964 Serro Scotty Sportsman trailer (still teardrop in style, but offering a dinette, an interior sink, two-burner stove and stand-up room for someone 5’8” or shorter) but needing a pretty complete rebuild.

Shortly after, I sold the Kit for what I had paid for it, to a new owner in S. California. With the larger Scotty trailer wedged in our garage (awaiting more extensive work than I originally realized), I found on-line (eBay) a beautiful reproduction 1958 Serro Scotty Sportsman Junior, built in West Virginia in 2011 by a true craftsman. Since we were headed back to Gettysburg anyway (for a week-long bicycle tour with my brother and four other pals), I bought this cute teardrop and picked it up in route to Gettysburg.

The 1958 Scotty was also built on the 4’X8’ plywood platform) making it similar in size to the Kit. We have toured extensively with it, including the trip all the way across the country, a three week trip up the CA/OR and WA coasts to Vancouver, BC, across BC to Spokane and back, and assorted other shorter CA trips to national parks like Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Pinnacles and more.

The arguments for a teardrop trailer include small and lightweight (about 700 to 800 pounds), so a small car or truck can tow it and still deliver good gas mileage (we tow ours with a 2013 Ford Focus 5-speed stick and get 26 MPG). I take special delight in pulling up beside giant diesel pickups, pulling 35′ fifth-wheels (and getting about 10 MPG), realizing we are about as comfortable as they are! 

With their small size, teardrops fit in your garage, and their relatively small interior space mean two bodies keep us quite warm, even when outside temps drop into the 30s!  Our interior sleeping space is 4′ width X 6’5” length X 4’ in height, so plenty of length and space for two.  Being a hard-sided trailer, my spouse Susan no longer worries about bear attacks, as she did when we tent-camped!

The teardrops also have a rear galley that often have built-in stove tops and/or sinks; ours offers reasonable storage space for Coleman stove and other camp gear. We also equipped both our teardrops with a rear bike carrier receiver, so we can load 2-3 bikes on back.  With your bedding already made up, camp gear loaded, it’s a simple matter to pack a cooler and your clothes, hook up and away we go!  The main negative is the trailer’s smallness (not a lot of fun on a rainy weekend, though we have been known to hibernate and watch movies on a laptop for hours on end)!

Teardrops are not the only choice in small camping rigs, which also include both soft-sided and hard-sided “tent trailers”, and smaller, fuel-efficient vans decked out as creative campers. The marketplace for any of these is both Craig’s List and eBay (search for both tear drop, and teardrop campers); I frequently see nice teardrop trailers advertised from anywhere from $2,500 to $7,500, depending on how nicely equipped.  And, now is the time to buy, as warm-weather retreats and many decide to sell that cute little camper!

You can also find, on the web, varied companies that rent teardrops for a few days or a week. Try one out, you may become hooked on the comfort afforded and hard-sided security, vs. tent-camping!

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Exploring the wild East Bay, from Byron to Mt. Diablo State Park


The view from Mt. Diablo, looking west off North Gate Blvd, from about 2,500 feet. On this day, Bay Area smog cut the impressive view; pick a clear day for a drive to the top!

A scenic trail heads into the oaks, along Marsh Creek at the Round Valley Regional Preserve.
Wildflowers cover the hillside on Marsh Creek Road, about six miles east of Mt. Diablo.
A lone cyclist heads for Mt. Diablo along Hwy. 4 in the Delta.

You’ve probably seen those iconic twin peaks of Mt. Diablo on our western horizon, but many have not explored this large park – the reward at the end of this day-trip!  With the recent rain settling the dust in our hills, reducing fire danger and helping clear the air – it’s a fine time for doing a little creative exploring between Stockton and the “wild East Bay Area”.  

Take the 60 mile scenic drive from Stockton, west on Hwy. 4, south to Byron, west again towards Mt. Diablo and you discover arguably the prettiest and one of the shortest routes to the East Bay, Concord and Walnut Creek.

On this adventure, you’ll cross about 15 miles of our scenic Delta, be amazed by our agricultural bounty and meander through the wild and beautiful foothills leading to Mt. Diablo. The route eventually drops you into Concord and Walnut Creek – it’s hard to find a more picturesque way to get there.

From Stockton, just 10 miles west on Hwy. 4, you will pass Union Point Restaurant (beside the old bridge of same name); it’s a fine lunch stop, right on a scenic Delta waterway.  Next Delta crossing is the Old River Bridge, you’ll then pass Discovery Bay and turn south to Byron.  Heading west from Byron toward Mt. Diablo you pass stellar attractions including Los Vaqueros Reservoir and Round Valley Regional Preserve, and can climb Mt. Diablo for some of the best views in northern California!

All three are home to incredible wildlife diversity, including California ground squirrels, deer, desert cottontails, the San Joaquin Kit fox and pocket mouse, coyotes, reclusive mountain lions and red foxes.  Nesting golden eagles and burrowing owls can also be sighted.

Likewise, a wide variety of trees inhabit portions of the parks. Within one or more of the three, you will find oaks of the blue, valley, interior live, coast live and black oaks. Native and non-native grasslands abound, and wildflowers burst forth in the springtime.

Los Vaqueros Reservoir and watershed (a few miles off Camino Diablo Road) is only a few years old; the pretty lake was just increased in capacity to 160,000 acre-feet by raising the damn 35 feet; it stores water pumped from the Sacramento and San Joaquin Delta, for Contra Costa Water District residents (it’s a good example of creative water solutions, building a new reservoir that stores water for future use, and creates a marvelous environment for animals, flora and for people!). The impoundment is regularly stocked with rainbow trout, largemouth and striped bass, catfish and more; loaner rods are available for first-time anglers (a daily fee of $4.50 per angler, and CA fishing license is required).  The park is also a hiking and bicycling Mecca; with a variety of trails/roads in the hills surrounding the reservoir.

Next up on your scenic drive is Round Valley Regional Preserve, which offers trails that take you deep into the East Bay foothills.  Scenic hiking trails abound and bikes are allowed (but not on singletrack); sorry, no dogs allowed.  Hiking trails take you deep into these scenic foothills, and connect to neighboring Morgan Territory Preserve.

Beyond Round Valley, your scenic drive takes you over the northeast flank of Mt. Diablo and drops you into the little town of Clayton: an old town but updated with new housing, bike trails and quaint shops.

To reach Mt. Diablo, continue west on Marsh Creek Road to Concord, turn left on Ygnacio Valley Road, then left on Oak Grove Road to the park’s North Gate Road entrance. North Gate Road into Mount Diablo State Park yields an incredibly scenic drive with some of the best views in all of Northern California. Try to make your visit on a day where the skies are clear – smog can detract from the experience. 

The park offers three campgrounds (Juniper, at 3,000 feet, offers spectacular vistas and star gazing), gorgeous picnic areas, over 150 miles of hiking trails.  Of course, the view from the twin Diablo peaks is to die for.

Night-time star-gazing is high on visitor’s lists; on October 25, 5:30 PM, the park offers a public astronomy program “Why Earth?”, using the parks 14 inch Celestron Telescope, at the lower summit parking lot.

How to get there: From Stockton, go west on CA Hwy. 4 just past Discovery Bay, take Byron Highway south one mile to Byron, go west on Camino Diablo which connects with March Creek Road.  Los Vaqueros Watershed and Lake is just south of Camino Diablo (turn left on Walnut Creek Blvd.), while Round Valley Preserve is right off Marsh Creek Road.

What’s nearby: the Morgan Territory Regional Preserve abuts Round Valley Preserve on its southwest flank.  Another wild destination is Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve, to the north, just west of Antioch.

Dining, camping options: On your way along Hwy. 4 is the Union Point Restaurant; in Clayton, restaurants of note include Mudville Grille and Moresi’s Chophouse for tasty respites.  Camping is offered in Mt. Diablo Park (details below).

What to bring: Binoculars, camera, good hiking shoes and cold weather gear for about any type of weather!

To plan your visit: For information on Los Vaqueros Watershed,, 925.240.2440; for Round Valley Regional Preserve,, 1.888.EBPARKS; for Mt. Diablo State Park,, 925.927.7222. Both Los Vaqueros and Mt. Diablo State Park charge an auto admission charge. For camping in Mt. Diablo State Park,, or 800.444.7275.

For more inspiration on other travel destinations in California and the west, see my blog, http//, or contact me at 

Happy travels in the West!

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Children’s Museum, Pixie Woods; child-friendly treasures in our backyard!


The Children's Museum is all "hands-on", complete with RTD bus, police car, fire engine and ambulance - here grandson Jack is right at home as a bus driver!

The Children’s Museum’s water maze fascinates young and old alike. By moving the baffles, kids can redirect the current and move boats through the maze in different directions!
Giant nutcrackers pose outside Stockton Children’s Museum; grandson Jack was very impressed!
Grandson Jack and other kids cavort in the Pixie Woods “Dragon water feature”, just right on a 90 degree day!
The Pirate’s Lair is one of the places visited on the boat ride through the Pixie Woods Lagoon!

We had planned a day-trip with grandson Jack, age 4, to Apple Hill, east of Sacramento – but the Sierra forest fires, casting a pall over that portion of the Sierra, put the trip on a back burner. What to do?  We decided to revisit kid-friendly destinations, right in our backyard.  Pixie Woods, the Weber Point water fountain and the Stockton Children’s Museum were substituted and off we went over a two-day weekend.

We had not been to Pixie Woods in years, but found the venerable kid’s playground not lacking in interest for four-year olds, and, offering a few newer attractions that grabbed both spouse Susan and Jack’s attention. 

Four dollars for each of us got us in (boat, carousel and train rides are extra) , and we trekked through the impressive, shady park.  First stop, the Rabbit exhibit, complete with husky black and spotted rabbits, who occasionally showed themselves.  Then it was off to the playground, complete with a huge cartoon characters that caught Jack’s attention.

New was the Dragon water feature, a large water fountain made in shape of a coiled dragon, just right for kids to run and splash through.  Jack got soaked (we brought a change of clothes) along with another dozen kids, all of them hugely enjoying themselves on a 90 degree September day.  Then it was off to play “shop keeper” with grandma Susan in Pixie Woods Town, where both enjoyed sticking their heads through caricatures for cute photo ops.

Next was a boat ride on the Pixie Woods Lagoon, taking us past the Pirate’s Lair, a Dinosaur forest that was quite realistic, turtles, egrets and more – this was possibly Jack’s favorite ride in the park.  The railroad, usually running, was idle that day, to my chagrin.  Next time!

The next day, our destination was the Stockton Children’s Museum ($6. each for admission).  We had been previously with our two older grandkids, but not for six or so years.  The museum, founded as a memorial to the 1989 Cleveland School shootings, did not disappoint.  It offers scores of hands-on exhibits and activities that four year-olds cannot resist.

Our first stop – a number of reptile exhibits, with jack locking onto the lizards and snakes and grandpa Tim trying not to imagine future nightmares he might have (Tim, not Jack).  Then onto the race car track, where Jack and grandpa built their race cars with Legos, then raced down a long, four-abreast track.  Only when Jack discovered that the more Legos he layered on his car (to overcome friction) could he beat his grandfather – which elicited a gleeful “you lose, grandpa” from Jack!

Next, the water maze, where Jack could move a variety of baffles in the moving water and redirect boats following the current.  Both grandson and grandfather found this riveting for about 20 minutes.  Then it was onto the grocery store exhibit, where jack could pick his own groceries, and build his own sandwich from the salad bar. A quick stop at the face-painting station allowed him to get his face painted, none too creatively, by grandpa Tim.

Jack and a host of other kids finished up with tours of the real fire engine, police car (Jack quickly found delight in turning on the flashing lights), ambulance and Regional Transit bus; with Jack quickly acclimating himself to being a real bus driver.  After a few hours, both he and grandparents were pooped, and headed for a nearby snack break on the way home.

On both days, we also stopped at the Weber Point water fountain, long a popular mecca for kids on hot days.  On each day, despite a City web site noting the fountain will run from 11 AM to 7 PM through September 28, no water.  Quite disappointing to scores of families and kids; call Stockton’s Community Services Department before making a special trip.

How to get there: For Pixie Woods, go one mile west on Monte Diablo, from Interstate 5 to 3121 Monte Diable and watch for signs to the park.  For the Children’s Museum, address is 402 W. Weber Avenue just off the downtown Stockton waterfront.

Dining options: Pixie Woods has an on-site food and drink kiosk; for the Children’s Museum, the Waterfront Warehouse is right across the street, with Dok Shoon’s Hot Dogs, Nena’s and several other good eateries.

To plan your visit: For information on Pixie Woods, go to:  For the Children’s Museum:

For more inspiration on other travel destinations in California and the west, see my blog, http//, or contact me at 

Happy travels in the West!

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Safe bicycle riding in Stockton and San Joaquin County (Bike Fest is this Saturday, Sept. 27)


Downtown Stockton's waterfront is the destination as these cyclists depart UOP campus at the 2013 Bike Fest.

Riders, young and old, prepare for fun cylcing at UOP last year.
Three women prepare for the 2013 San Joaquin Bike Fest.

An estimated 2/3s of our county residents have one or more bikes stored at home.  Many are dusty and in disuse; why, you might wonder?  The biggest concern in a recent poll of current and potential riders is “where can I safely ride in our city for fun and exercise”?

On September 16, a new state law went into effect requiring vehicles to give bikes in the same lane a three foot buffer when passing, Violators can be fined $35 for an infraction, and, If a cyclist is hit due to a violation, the fine increases to well over $233; court costs can add hundreds more.  This new law does not automatically make the streets safer, but in other states with similar laws and education shared with drivers and law enforcement it has helped avoid close calls and reduced accidents. 

Many already realize that Stockton and San Joaquin County are close to a bicyclist’s dream! Our cities and county offer many cycling benefits; lovely weather almost year-round, few hills, a variety of safe and scenic routes to flex those leg muscles and several clubs that cater to new and veteran cyclists!

Whether it is riding on quiet Lodi-Woodbridge roads through vineyards, biking through quaint tree-lined Stockton streets to the historic downtown waterfront, or cycling along Manteca’s paved biking trail that offers a bridge that crosses the Stanislaus River into our neighboring county – cyclists rate San Joaquin County as a solid biking destination and one with even greater potential for the future.

The north end of the county offers tours of over 80 wineries to the west, east and north of Lodi – and downtown Lodi and Woodbridge offer a host of places to stop for a beverage or for lunch along the way.  Many of Stockton’s rides are anchored by the University of Pacific campus, which is blessed with the Calaveras Bike Trail running east and west through UOP’s north side.  The quaint Miracle Mile is a marvelous place to peddle to on Stockton’s sunny weekends.  Manteca and Tracy also offer special bike trails with a number of options to start, finish and take a biking break, mid-ride.

Some might wonder about safety of cycling on city streets.  A couple of tips: Always anticipate that drivers don’t see you – ride defensively.  Follow the laws, and ride with traffic, not on sidewalks or against traffic.  Wear the brightest colors you can find – day-glo yellow, red or orange.

Invest in a rear-view mirror for about $20 – mine offers me peace-of-mind as I can see drivers approaching from the rear.  And, study city maps to determine the safest routes.  For Stockton, see the city’s web site with a downloadable map profiling current and planned bike trails and routes.

I originally got tips from the Stockton Bike Club as to how to ride north and south in the city; my route to downtown winds through University of Pacific’s lovely campus, goes south on Kensington and Baker to the waterfront.  It’s a pretty ride, on quiet and historic residential streets – typical of rides in other county cities for folks willing to explore safe routes.

The San Joaquin Bike Coalition offers monthly rides that tour both the city and the county; on the first Saturday each month is an LSD (“long, slow distance”) Ride, which offers short and longer tours of varied portions of the county.  The organization also offers a shorter Family Ride on second Saturdays, designed for families with kids and more novice riders – those without group-riding experience.  For details, go to the Bike Coalition’s Facebook page,

A special event is coming soon; the ‘San Joaquin Bike Fest’, on Saturday, September 27, 9 AM to 2 PM at University of Pacific (formerly the ‘Bike and Hike to End Hunger’)!  It’s your opportunity to tour both the Calaveras Bike Trail’s West and East routes and a scenic and historic route to the downtown waterfront.  Bike Coalition members will act as tour guides on these flat, non-competitive rides. 

Kari McNickle, Vice Chair of the SJ Bike Coalition, adds “Join hundreds of families and singles for this fun, family tradition; three scenic bicycle routes begin and end at the University, offering choices of routes from 6.5miles, 7.5 miles and 9.5 miles (link them all for a 25 mile ride).  A Kid’s Safety Village and short “activities course” will make a fun diversion for kids from 2 years and up, as well as novice riders”!

The Bike Fest jazzes up the rides by offering music by ‘Pushers and Thieves’, good food and soft drinks to all participants. A beer garden, offering beer by Stockton’s Abbey Trappist Pub, and classic bikes makes the Bike Fest event a lively, family tradition. 

Registration opens at 7 AM; rides begin at 9 and 9:30 AM and music, food and the beer garden will be ready for fun and lively action at 11 AM; the event concludes at 2:00 PM.  Proceeds support the Emergency Food Bank’s nutrition programs and the educational programs of the San Joaquin Bicycle Coalition; participants help end hunger in Stockton & San Joaquin County, and, educate motorists and cyclists about safe bike travel!

For more information on the Sept. 27 San Joaquin Bike Festival, go to  Register in person on Thursday and Friday, Sept. 25 or 26, Noon to 6 PM at Fleet Feet-Lincoln Center, register on-line at, or call (209) 969.3875. 

For insight into the San Joaquin Bike Coalition and their monthly rides and activities, go to their Facebook page,  For info on the Stockton Bike Club, go to  For Stockton Bike Route maps go to:

Happy and safe peddling!

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High Sierra fall finery: Hwy. 108, Twain Harte to Kennedy Meadows!


Pinecrest Lake’s chilly waters made for bracing wading by author’s grandson Jack Taylor

Clark Fork River meets the Middle Fork of the Stanislaus just 25 miles east of Pinecrest.
Kennedy Meadows Resort offers cabins, camping, horseback riding, hiking and cute store and tasty restaurant.
Huge talus pile below Columns of the Giants are sure to intrigue four year-olds like Jack, and adults!
Pack horses await early morning cowpokes at kennedy Meadows Resort.

Where do you go for a scenic, accessible and family-friendly tour of the high Sierra?  My wife and I wanted to take our grandson camping, fishing and hiking, so kid-friendly was on our list.  Jack, four years old (“and three weeks”, he is quick to add) had been camping once with his parents, but had not been deep into the Sierra.  We recently chose Hwy. 108, targeting a place just 10 to 60 miles east of Sonora – Twain Harte up to the Kennedy Meadows area.

We assumed camping would be wide open (it was), the weather would be stunning (yes, 80 degree days, 45 degree nights!) and the fish would be biting (pretty slow, actually). After 21 years on the Dodge Ridge National Ski Patrol, with 300 some trips both winter and summer, I had a pretty good idea of where to go.

With our teardrop trailer in tow, we headed first to the cutest of several quaint towns, Twain Harte, developed and named for two famous authors who both lived in the state, Mark Twain and Bret Harte. Our choice for lunch, The Rock (voted top hamburger and brewery in Tuolumne County), always a dependable place, kid-friendly with five choices for $5 kid’s meals (and, coloring menus, always a hit).

We then trekked about 15 miles further up Hwy. 108, and spent the early afternoon at Pinecrest Lake, long a favorite of Stocktonians and our family.  Jack found time to go wading (though the water was a bit chillier than he expected, with the lake level still quite high despite the drought).  After a short hike around the south west end of the lake, we decided to find our campsite.

We arrived late afternoon at Clark Fork Campground, just off the highway, with only six of its 28 spaces taken while we were there.  Best of all, it is only miles from the entrance to the Carson-Iceburg Wilderness Area.  The beautiful Sierra scenery is there for the taking (or, hiking), with a number of shorter hikes, as well as much more strenuous trails into alpine backcountry. 

That night, it was mac and cheese around the campfire, with s’mores the dessert hit!  Four year olds make the best of campgrounds, with rocks for leaping, fallen trees as “balance beams” and being mesmerized by evening campfires!  We all slept well that night!

The next day, it was a hearty, delicious breakfast and exploration at Kennedy Meadows Resort, long a back-packing and horse-packing favorite for trips into the Emigrant Basin Wilderness Area.  The resort boasts camping, rental cabins, horse and mule rides and access to some of the best hiking in the central Sierra.  Jack was smitten by some of the 65 horse/mule herd; the resort offers 1 ¼ hour rides for $25 each.

We later returned down Hwy. 108 and did the short, paved-trail hike into the Columns of the Giants.  These huge hexagonal columns were formed thousands of years earlier when hot lava flowing from a crack in the Sierra then cooled, creating one of the world’s most intriguing wonders.  Jack found the 3/8 mile hike fun, the giant columns interesting, and the two pineapple-sized pine cones from huge sugar pines of high intrigue!

Fishing was reportedly slow in the Clark Fork River and both the South and Middle Fork of the Stanislaus, as well as in Beardsley Reservoir and Pinecrest Lake.  So, we did a bit of practice dry casting, and decided we would try fishing at a later date.  Jack returned to an earlier activity, throwing stones into the Clark Fork, and seemed happy enough.

This entire stretch of Hwy. 108, from Pinecrest to Kennedy Meadows, offers views extraordinaire, glimpses of trees turning their fall colors, a wealth of National Forest campgrounds (half off with a Federal Senior pass) and many hiking options just right for families with kids.  And, weather is generally sunny and beautiful into October (though, check weather forecasts and prepare for changeable conditions). 

At the end of our several day camping adventure, Jack noted “way cool; let’s do it again and bring more s’mores!”.  So, we shall plan a return when the fish are really biting!

When to go: Highway 108 east of Strawberry is often closed by snows around November 1; Kennedy Meadows Resort closes on Columbus Day (October 13).

How to get there: From Manteca, go east on CA Hwy. 108 to Sonora (the largest town, for provisioning), then continue about 60 miles further east to Kennedy Meadows.

Dining, lodging, camping options: Favorite restaurants along Hwy. 108: the Rock and Eproson’s House in Twain Harte, The Pie Pizzeria in Sugar Pine, the Steam Donkey in Pinecrest and the Kennedy Meadows Resort restaurant; for lodging: the Christmas Tree Inn in Sugar Pine, Long Barn Lodge in Long Barn, Pinecrest Resort, Pinecrest Chalet and Strawberry Inn and Kennedy Meadows Resort.  You will find about a dozen campgrounds east of Strawberry; though check with Stanislaus Forest for seasonal closings.

Hiking: From the Kennedy Meadows area into the Emigrant Wilderness, the Carson-Iceburg Wilderness, Columns of the Giants (2 miles west of Kennedy Meadows); around Pinecrest Lake, or (from Strawberry) the old Sugar Pine rail-trail along the South Fork of the Stanislaus River (also ideal for mountain biking).  Stop at the Stanislaus Summit Ranger Station in Pinecrest, for flyers and Maps.

What to bring: Binoculars, camera, good hiking shoes and gear for about any type of weather!

To plan your visit: For information on camping or hiking in the Stanislaus National Forest  go to, or contact the Summit Ranger District, 1 Pinecrest Lake Road, Pinecrest, CA 95364; (209) 965.3434.  For information on Kennedy Meadows resort,, or call (209) 965.3900.

Next week, we explore Apple Hill, that pretty slice of the Sierra just above Placerville, home to scores of apple orchards and wineries –ripe for touring in the fall!

For more inspiration on other travel destinations in California and the west, see my blog, http//, or contact me at

Happy travels in the West!

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    Tim Viall

    Viall is a local travel writer; he retired in late 2012 after almost 10 years as executive director of Stockton's Emergency Food Bank and six years with the Downtown Stockton Alliance. Before that, a 21-year career in daily newspapers helped shape ... Read Full
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