Located 2.5 hours east of the San Francisco, Calaveras County is a perfect weekend getaway from the Bay Area. It is a popular destination for hiking, biking, and boating in the summer, and for skiing in the Sierra Nevadas in the winter. Throughout the year you can learn about the county’s historic roots and sample delicious local food and wine.
Calaveras County is also a great stargazing destination! It’s far enough from the city lights to reduce light pollution. Parts of Calaveras County are also at a high elevation, reducing atmospheric interference and giving you great night sky views. If you’re based in the Bay Area and looking for somewhere new to explore – and to go stargazing – Calaveras County is a great option.
Why Visit Calaveras County?
Calaveras County has a long and compelling heritage in California history. Calaveras was one of the original counties established when California became a state in 1850. One of the first communities in Calaveras County, Angels Camp, was started shortly after the Angel brothers began gold prospecting in the area in 1848. Eventually, a large gold-bearing quartz vein was discovered. Mines reached their peak production in the 1880s and 1890s.
Calaveras County was also home to two other important historical events. In 1852, Giant Sequoias were discovered in Calaveras County on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains. And in 1865, Mark Twain set his story The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County in Calaveras. This catapulted the small communities of Calaveras County onto the national literary consciousness. Each year in May, locals and travelers can attend the Calaveras County Fair & Jumping Frog Jubilee which includes a jumping frog competition.
Calaveras County even has deep astronomical heritage. In 1907, Murphys resident Albert Michelson was the first American to receive a Nobel prize in science for his work studying the speed of light. With so much history and great stargazing spots too, it’s a perfect Bay Area getaway for space enthusiasts.
Stargazing Spots in Calaveras County
If you’re planning a trip to Calaveras County specifically for stargazing, it’s important to choose a few spots as part of planning your itinerary! Here are some of the top places for stargazing in Calaveras County.
Calaveras Big Trees State Park
One of the best places for stargazing in Calaveras County is Calaveras Big Trees State Park, nestled in the western slopes of the Sierras along California State Route 4. This park is home to some of the first Giant Sequoias discovered in California – and expansive stargazing views.
A volunteer group holds star parties in Calaveras Big Trees State Park 1-2 times per month during the summer months. Volunteers bring out their personal telescopes and set up so that you can view 3-4 different night sky objects during the evening. The Calaveras Big Trees Association has information on their website including 2019 star party dates.
Stanislaus National Forest
Covering nearly 900,000 acres and bordering Yosemite National Park on the north, Stanislaus National Forest is home to countless stargazing spots among the trees and ridges of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Calaveras Big Trees State Park is part of Stanislaus National Forest, but there are a variety of other stargazing places you might want to visit too:
- National Forest Campgrounds: There are dozens of campgrounds in Stanislaus National Forest, many of which have good stargazing opportunities.
- Arnold Rim Trail: Designed as a network of trails spanning 17 miles for Day Use, Arnold Rim Trail isn’t set up for camping but they do host sunset and full moon hikes throughout the year.
- New Melones Lake: Certain dates throughout the year (like the Perseids meteor shower in August), you can attend special stargazing events at New Melones Lake. Check the Calaveras County events calendar for details.
- Lake Alpine: Located at 7,350ft in elevation, Lake Alpine is a popular daytime recreation spot. It’s also great for stargazing with clear skies and expansive views out over the lake. (Note: Many Calaveras County Lakes are great for stargazing!)
What to Do in Calaveras County During the Day
In between stargazing sessions, you can explore more of what Calaveras County has to offer. These activities will give you a quick idea of what to do for a weekend trip in Calaveras County.
Calaveras Big Trees State Park
No trip to Calaveras County is complete without seeing the Giant Sequoias, which were first discovered in this part of the Sierra Nevadas. Even after stargazing there, you should visit during the day to get a sense of the massive scale of these trees and the unique ecosystem of the forest in this part of California. Be sure to visit the Discovery Tree, which fell in 1853; you can walk on the massive stump. Admission: $10 park access fee.
Explore Along the Gold Rush Highway
California State Route 49, which cuts from north to south in Calaveras County, marks the boundary of Gold Country in California. Some of the richest mother lodes in California were found in close proximity to this highway, and communities still exist along the highway. Be sure to stop in Angels Camp for lunch (Cascabel has delicious, traditional Mexican food) and to learn about Mark Twain’s Jumping Frogs of Calaveras County.
Calaveras County Wine Tasting
While other wine-growing regions of California might get more attention (Napa, Sonoma, and even Monterey counties), Calaveras County has some great wine to sample. Calaveras County is home to four dozen wineries that produce varietals for every palate. Most wineries have tasting rooms in one of the small towns; for example, Mineral Wines offers tastings at their tasting room in Murphys as well as at the vineyards near Angels Camp. Mineral Wines offers a wide range of wines to sample, including a special, ‘La Calavera,’ (The Skull) named after the region plus delicious zinfandels (the most popular varietal in the region). Mineral Wines offers tastings at their Murphys tasting room 12-5pm or 7pm, or by appointment at their vineyard.
With all the gold in them there hills, there are also some amazing caves to explore. Mercer Caverns is the most popular since its discovery in 1885. Both indigenous and animal (an extinct Sierra Ground Sloth, megalonyx sierrensis) remains were found in the caves over the years, as well as an unusual mineral formation: flos ferri. These stringy erratic crystal formations can be found all over inside the lower part of Mercer Caverns, which you can see on a 45-minute guided tour. Admission: $17.00 for adults & $9.50 for children.
Where to Stay in Calaveras County
There are a variety of accommodation options in Calaveras County. You should choose where to stay depending on where you want to stay and what you want to do. Here are some options to consider.
Arnold Meadowmont Lodge – Arnold, CA
Arnold is one of the largest communities in the western part of Calaveras County. The Arnold Meadowmont Lodge is located just off State Route 4 in Arnold. This old-style motor lodge has been renovated entirely and has modern amenities and style. It’s a perfect base for a weekend of hiking or exploring along the Arnold Rim Trail – it’s also a 10-minute drive from Calaveras Big Trees State Park. Rooms start at $99 per night; book online here.
Murphys Historic Hotel – Murphy, CA
The Murphys Historic Hotel has been open since 1856, and the hotel still has historic rooms available for overnight stays. 9 rooms offer historic furniture and amenities and the remaining 20 have a modern design in a separate, newer building. The restaurant offers breakfast, lunch, and dinner, as well as specials and wine pairings. Historic rooms start at $95 and modern rooms start at $105.
Hotels & Airbnb in Calaveras County
If you prefer other options, there are several hotel chains including a Best Western & Travelodge near Angels Camp. You can see a full list of hotels in Calaveras County here. If you’d rather stay in an Airbnb, here are some options:
- Lakefront Cabin near Arnold, from $41 per night.
- Pond Cabin on Pond in Eastern Calaveras County, from $99 per night.
- Clean, stylish chalet in Arnold, from $105 per night.
- Remodeled A-Frame in Arnold, from $110 per night.
Never tried Airbnb before? Click here to get $40 off your first Airbnb booking!
Bonus! Visit California’s First Amateur Observatory near Calaveras County
Photo credit: Adam Gottstein
It’s not located in Calaveras County, but 30 minutes north of Calaveras County in Amador County, you can visit the site of California’s first amateur observatory in the town of Volcano. The plaque (pictured above) tells the story of this historic landmark and George Madiera’s observations from the area. The original observatory building is no longer standing, but the historic landmark marks the likely site of the building from the late 19th century.
Have other questions about visiting Calaveras County for a stargazing session? Email/contact us!
Thanks to the following secondary sponsors:
Arnold Meadowmont Lodge, the Murphys Historic Hotel, Cascabel, Mineral Wines & Mercer Caverns.