Friday, November 14, 2008

Fall Color in California?

We yearned for color – those of us who originally hailed from the shores of the Atlantic missed the yearly autumn display. We wanted to see trees of lemon yellow and crimson red. But we live in Central California and what leaf changes we have here never live up to those memories we hold of the splashy show of the northeast trees. What to do? Take a bus trip north to Plumas County.

We were on the road early on a bright sunny morning in early October with plans to tour and have lunch at the Stewart & Jasper Almond Ranch in Newman, California.
The ranch is a third generation family business that farms more than 3000 acres of nuts and fruits. We watched as assembly line people quickly plucked reject almonds from a moving belt loaded with nuts. After our tour we enjoyed a tasty lunch and spent some time shopping in the gift store.

Overnight was in Oroville and early the next morning we set off up Highway 70, a spectacular scenic drive along the Feather River. The section between Oroville and Quincy is known as the Feather River National Scenic Byway and words to describe the route cannot do it justice. The river, which tumbles over huge boulders, is thousands of feet straight down from the road for most of the drive. People suffering from height phobias may have trouble on this route, but no one can deny its beauty. Waterfalls tumble down the cliff sides and as the elevation climbs we began to see some change of color in the foliage.

The railroad makes it way up this canyon too and was cause for some interesting engineering feats in the building of the line and placement of bridge overpasses. The historic Pulga and Tobin bridges are an example. One is a highway bridge that crosses over a Western Pacific Railroad bridge. Its said to be one of the most photographed sites, but on narrow Highway 70 there is no place for a 40 foot bus to pull over for those of us with cameras to get a shot.

We did get a chance to photograph the river and another Tobin bridge after we descended from the heights and could park in a large open space adjacent to the river. Here a small waterfall cascaded down the hillside into the boulder-strewn water. There was just a hint of color change in the trees but a large scar of previously burned area also was evident. This past fire season a large brush and forest fire consumed many acres in this northern California section.

Logging is still an active industry up here and we saw many large trucks loaded with huge logs barreling up and down the highway. Most of the small towns in the area support the logging industry.

Lunch was in one of these small towns, Mill Creek, at St. Bernard's Lodge. Lunch was great but the best thing was looking at all the artifacts in this old fashioned bed and breakfast. The property contains a small pond and a larger body of water adjacent to it where mallards and domestic ducks paddle back and forth. The pond is stocked with huge rainbow trout. This stop was one place where some nice fall foliage was evident but the dog that the place was named after never showed.

Our tour continued around Lake Almanor, the largest lake in Plumas County. We stopped to admire a nice flock of white pelicans that were floating on the water. Lake Almanor has 52 miles of shoreline and is a popular recreation spot.

Railroads have played a big part of this area's history and part of our trip was railroad oriented. At Greenville, while searching for a restroom break spot, we stumbled upon and old depot building next to a line of tracks. And all up and down Highway 70 we encountered long lines of freight trains snaking their way along the canyon ledges and through the massive tunnels that railway workers had blasted out of the mountainsides. In some places the track loops over itself in order for the trains to gain in elevation along the canyon walls.

The Western Pacific Railroad finished building their line across the Sierra Nevada Mountains in 1909 and was the last transcontinental railway built. Their history and a grand assortment of rolling stock are available to the public at the Western Pacific Railroad Museum at Portola and this was a must-see stop for our tour. Here members of the Feather River Rail Society preserve rail history in a large building housing many artifacts, photos, and equipment. Outside in the yard is 12,000 feet of track and every kind of engine and rolling stock that you can imagine. Visitors can even drive a locomotive through the Museum's Run-a-Locomotive program. Our group got to participate in a train ride in a variety of old cabooses.

From Portola we headed for an overnight stay at Chalet View Lodge outside of Graeagle. This is a very nice upscale resort on large picturesque grounds. There are rooms in the lodge section and individual cabins available. Dining is on site and you can enjoy the pool or the Jacuzzi. A spa, fitness room, Bocce and volleyball courts, 6-hole golf course, a ponds stocked with trout are all on this property. They have wine bar and soon will have a brewery and also offer Starbucks coffee.

After a great night's sleep we drove down a rural byway for a stop at Gold Lake. This small lake is set in a dip in the mountains and a more serene place would be hard to find. We snapped photos and watched as Canada geese flew overhead, squawking on their way.

Then we were back on the road until the majestic Sierra Buttes came into view and our kindly bus driver allowed for me to jump off for a photo opportunity. Here there was a bit more fall color evident in the trees but we had already come to realize that this either was not a spectacular year or we were in the area a bit too early.

The tiny gold rush town of Downieville on a fork of the Yuba River proved to be a great rest stop break and we all visited the Downieville Museum that is housed in a building from 1852 that has thick walls of stone and an iron door. Here docents showed us tools and implements used by miners of old. A stuffed mountain lion resides in the back room and a docent demonstrated a hand cranked washing machine. Then we wandered the plank sidewalks and browsed in and out of some of the shops. Mining for gold in the heydays of that activity was what made the towns in the Mother Lode great. Now they are quiet little hamlets that tourists love to explore.

Gold mining took up the last part of our fall color trip with a tour of the Empire Mine where we enjoyed a miner's lunch consisting of something called "pasties." These are meat-filled doughy pastries that apparently were concocted by gold rush miners in desperation for sustenance. While interesting to see what those times of old brought forth, "pasties" are something I could live without. I did, however, enjoy the ice cream dessert.

The Empire Mine is now a state historic park and encompasses the elegant homes of some of the mine's owners as well as the original mine shaft. This mine produced six million ounces of gold valued at $100 million and was the deepest hard rock mine in California. I don't venture down mine shafts or into caves anymore mostly because of the terrain not being the best and I actually find them kind of creepy, so I enjoyed touring William Bourne's stately residence and clubhouse. Bourne was the last owner of the mine and was an influential person in California history. Adjacent to the gift shop was a great museum display showing how the mine worked and numerous photos of actual miners at work. The Empire Mine State Historical Park is located just outside of Grass Valley.

The last stop on our tour was Nevada City with a knowledgeable historical guide. Beautiful Victorian homes still grace this gold mining town with picturesque white church spires punctuating the hillsides. One can't help but feel the essence of times past and the great amount of history towns like this have given to California and the nation.

We headed home – fall color tour over and not much color to speak of. It is November now and as far as fall color is concerned, the best display locally lies in the salicornia-pickleweed estuary in Morro Bay that has just now turned a lovely shade of crimson and rust. New England has nothing to worry about. We won't be taking over the title of best fall color in the United States!

Fall Color in California!

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