I always think one of the keys to successful travel is the ability to drop back and punt. Okay, you get to your destination. It isn’t what you expected. You have to find something else that makes the trip worthwhile. Happened to us this weekend.

We went to Bear Valley for the skiing with only a vague idea what was available out there. Well, let me warn you, if you are going to drive for more than three hours from the Bay Area, go to Tahoe. Bear Valley is surprisingly comparable in the cost of lift tickets and trail passes, but the amenities are a mere shadow of what you’ll get at Tahoe. Example: cross-country skiing. At Tahoe, you can hit Royal Gorge which is North America’s largest cross-country ski trail system. You can go for miles on a wide variety of trails, some of which lead to you to incredible scenic overlooks you could never get to other than on skis. At Bear Valley, you can ski around on a flat golf course seeing nothing but the highway and a big flat field. And you’ll pay the same trail pass rate you’d pay at Royal Gorge. I took a big pass on that.

But I’ll tell you what you can do at Bear Valley that you can’t do in Tahoe. You can walk around through some incredibly BIG trees. Bear Valley is very close to the Calaveras Big Trees State Park which hosts one of the few remaining stands of Giant Sequoias, the largest living things ever on Earth. For a $7 per vehicle fee, you can get as many people as you can cram into your car, and you can hike, cross-country ski or snowshoe through giant redwoods. That’s what we did Sunday once we decided that Bear Valley was not for us.

Its hard to show you how huge these trees are. If you can see tiny Andy is in the picture, youll get the idea.

It’s hard to show you how huge these trees are. If you can see the tiny figure of Andy here, you’ll get the idea.

Let me tell you, these are Big Ass Trees — not just in height, but in mass. When one fell in the Thirties, it landed with the weight of 18 Blue Whales. People in the area thought they were experiencing an earthquake.

It’s hard to describe the awe you feel wandering around things that are so big. But apparently early settlers didn’t feel that sense of wonder. When encountering something so big and so majestic, their first instinct was to cut them down to create a dance floor on the stumps, chip them up for household insulation, cut a hole through them as a curiosity, and deface them. In one terrible example, one of the largest of the trees, named “Mother of the Forest”, was stripped of its three foot thick protective bark, so the tree could be “reassembled” in London at an exhibition. Of course, that action killed the tree. Luckily naturalist John Muir stepped in calling the stripping of the tree akin to “flaying the skin off of our greatest men in order to show the world the magnitude of their greatness.” He then spearheaded an effort to give the trees protection, something that took until 1932 to accomplish.

I’d definitely have to say, a visit to the Big Trees was worth the whole trip. There are other groves around, maybe ones closer to you, but I’d travel out three hours from the City to see these again. (Want to know everything there is to know about Giant Sequoias? Read this. Need the Reader’s Digest version? Check this.)

Some Natives saw the Sequoias as sacred. The early settlers thought it would be cooler to cut a big tunnel through them.

Some Natives saw the Sequoias as sacred. The early settlers thought it would be cooler to cut a big tunnel through them.

This 3000 year old tree was stripped of its protective bark so it could be reassembled in Victorian London as a sideshow. Of course, it killed the tree.

This 3000 year old tree was stripped of its protective bark so it could be “reassembled” in Victorian London as a sideshow. Of course, it killed the tree.

When this tree fell, people thought it was an earthquake. It takes centuries for a fallen tree to decompose. During that time, it acts as a slow vitamin drip for surrounding vegetation.

When this tree fell, people thought it was an earthquake. It takes centuries for a fallen tree to decompose. During that time, it acts as a slow “vitamin drip” for surrounding vegetation.

If you are going up to Big Trees, it’s an interesting drive back, provided you don’t take all the wrong turnings as we did on the way up. Drive through Gold Country, especially Angels Camp of Mark Twain and Celebrated Jumping Frog fame. It’s a fun little town and not much changed. Murphys, up closer to the Big Trees is also worth a trip. The Gold Country seems to be recasting itself as a new wine country. The part-time Sonoman in me sniffed at first, but hey, who cares if the wine isn’t first rate if you can walk around boardwalks where Mark Twain hung out while you sip your glass? I’m giving this excursion a big Thumbs Up, even if we didn’t end up doing what we thought we were going up there to do. And sometimes, isn’t the Serendipity the best part of travel.

Dont miss Gold Rush towns like Murphys and, especially, Angels Camp. They recreate the Jumping Frog contest on the third week in May. The winners are immortalized on the sidewalks.

Don’t miss Gold Rush towns like Murphys and, especially, Angels Camp. They recreate the Jumping Frog contest on the third week in May. The winners are immortalized on the sidewalks.

Its an amazing drive to come out of the Sierra Foothills and see the massive Central Valley spread out below.

It’s an amazing drive to come out of the Sierra Foothills and see the massive Central Valley spread out below.

See more tree pictures here.

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