I’ve always struggled with the idea of gift giving. Birthdays, Christmas, anniversaries, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day … it just doesn’t feel right to buy someone a gift just for the hell of it. I look up to creative gift-givers but I have never been one myself. I will always opt for experiences over gifts. If I ever get married, I would rather go on an adventure and find a special rock to keep forever than to be gifted a fancy diamond to wear on my chubby finger that I will most likely lose—are you taking notes, future husband? Every year, I worry about what I should “get” my mom for Mother’s Day, and every year, I end up empty-handed. So this year for Mother’s Day, my mom and I went on an escapade together just an hour-and-a-half east of Sacramento, to California’s Gold Country.

We didn’t really have a plan; that’s the story of my life. I informed my mom we were going on an adventure for Mother’s Day. She seemed excited, but skeptical. At 1 a.m. on the night before the big day, I realized I had nothing planned. I knew I wanted to go to Calaveras County, but aside from frog jumping and rock climbing, what the hell was there to do? I did an in-depth Google search for “best hikes in Calaveras,” and the first one that popped up seemed to be the winner: Natural Bridges Hike.

We ate breakfast, packed a lunch and hit the road around 10 a.m. After about an hour-and-a-half of windy (and surprisingly well-paved) roads through rolling hills that are just starting to lose their spring green hue, we arrived at the pull-out for Natural Bridges. By no means is this getaway an escape from people, but nonetheless it is worth the drive.

To get there from Sacramento, cruise down Highway 16 and take Highway 49 toward Angels Camp. Hop on Highway 4, pass the touristy and infamous Moaning Caverns and turn onto Parrotts Ferry Road. Soon after, you will see the pull out for the trailhead. Get there early or go on a weekday to dodge large families with small, adorable, but loud children. The hike is an easy 0.7 miles downhill and an easy 0.7 miles back up the hill. We didn’t really know what to expect, but as we descended the hill, the river came into sight and soon after, the cavern’s opening revealed itself. How had I never heard of this magical place?! California never ceases to amaze.

We waded in the water and saw light shining from the other side. The water is deep, but swimmable, and cold, but manageable. I highly suggest you dabble with the idea of swimming through the cavern, but proceed with caution! After swimming around, we explored down river and rock hopped through the rushing water; Natural Bridges has endless potential for exploring and getting away from people.

After a couple hours on the river, we knew that wine tasting was a mandatory stop on the day’s agenda. Heading home, we passed Sutter Creek and Amador County as lines of mothers, daughters, sons and husbands filled the streets to top off their wine glasses. Hopeful to find a quiet vineyard down the road, we found just that at Drytown Cellars, a quaint vineyard atop a hill that overlooks the valley. We walked in, a woman handed us two glasses and gave us the spiel: free tastings. We walked out with more than a few bottles. Until recently, I hadn’t done much exploring in California’s Gold Rush towns, but they are a little slice of heaven that have a rich history—go to the saloon in Angels Camp and maybe the locals will teach you a thing or two about dice gambling games. I (almost) won big last weekend.

There are many small towns scattered along Highway 49 that attempt to replicate the feel of the Gold Rush, some cheesier than others, but a great place to bring children or learn about California’s history. New Melones Lake supports year-round fishing and all sorts of watersports, and there are many caverns to be explored. If you’re a rock climber or a hiker, the rock is endless and just a couple hours further you will land in Yosemite. I’m always discovering new areas of California that continue to blow my mind! Have a glass of wine for me out there and adventure on.

**This piece first appeared in print on page 12 of issue #240 (May 22 – June 5, 2017)**

    Ellen Baker

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    Rock scrambling, exploring and taking photos along the way.