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Family Road Trip: Gold Country and South Lake Tahoe

Family Road Trip: Gold Country and South Lake Tahoe

Play and learn on this five-day itinerary that includes snow sports and Gold Rush history

Kay Akpan wanted a snowy getaway for her family, and her nine-year-old Aiden had his own mission: He wanted to learn how to snowboard. The Southern California family took a trip to California’s Gold Country and the Lake Tahoe area, where they could also soak up some history and explore a part of the state they hadn’t visited before. “Even though we live in SoCal, I don’t know anything about NorCal,” admits Akpan, the creative force behind the Mom Trotter blog.

It’s easy to recreate their trip‚ and these spots offer year-round activities, too. The Akpan family flew in and out of Sacramento International Airport, and rented a car to drive the 400-mile round trip that included Tuolumne County, Calaveras County, and Heavenly Mountain Resort in South Lake Tahoe.

Stop 1: Tuolumne County

Where they stayed: McCaffrey House, a seven-room bed-and-breakfast where every room has a cast iron stove

What they did: The Akpans drove about two hours southeast from Sacramento to Tuolumne County, which has both Gold Country history and High Sierra scenery. They picked up some local maps and brochures in Sonora at the Tuolumne County Visitors Center then checked in at their B&B in Twain Harte.

During the winter months, there are plenty of snow sports to choose from, including ice skating at Long Barn Lodge Ice Rink, sledding at Leland High Sierra Snowplay, or skiing at the approachable Dodge Ridge Mountain Resort, which has 67 runs, 12 lifts, and three terrain parks. Families can choose from group lessons for kids, teen lessons, and parent-and-me lessons. (During warmer months, you can stay at the mountain’s campgrounds and play at Pinecrest Lake.) They had a great day brushing up their skiing skills at Dodge Ridge, Akpan says. “There had been a snow storm the week before, and it even snowed the day we skied—and the instructors there were amazing.”

The trio loved their home base on this leg of the trip, too. While many people think of B&Bs as a romantic getaway, Akpan was struck by the family-friendliness of the McCaffrey House. “I liked that you wake up and go upstairs for breakfast and you’re eating with a family. You get to talk to locals and learn so much about the area.” They also enjoyed other nearby places to eat, such as the coffee, soups, and goodies at Alicia’s Sugar Shack and the burgers and salads at The Rock of Twain Harte.

Stop 2: Calaveras County

Where they stayed: The Victoria Inn, a 12-room modern inn in downtown Murphys that channels Gold Rush style by way of fireplaces and claw-foot bathtubs

What they did: The Akpans drove about 30 miles northwest, heading deeper into Gold Country. First they exploredColumbia State Historic Park, the most well-preserved Gold Rush town in California, which has a variety things to do from gold panning to perusing an old-fashioned candy store. They also visited Angels Camp Museum, home to the nation’s largest collection of wagons and carriages, and Moaning Caverns Adventure Park, where miners explored in the 1840s and 1850s.

“We homeschool, so any trip that can be educational is a plus,” Akpan says. “We went gold panning and we went through one of the tunnels. I base lessons on his interests, but it was interesting for me, too—I was asking a lot of questions.”They even found some history at Ironstone Vineyards in downtown Murphys, where the on-site museum houses a 44-pound gold leaf specimen, the largest of its kind ever found in the Motherlode. “That made a big impact on my son—he was like, ‘Wow,’” says Akpan. “You can talk about something all you want, but to see it in person is something else.’”

Murphys also offers a lot of modern-day perks, with boutiques and restaurants such as Aria Bakery with its pastries, coffee, and ham-and-cheese croissants.

The next day, the family walked through Calaveras Big Trees State Park, a mixed-conifer forest with two groves of giant sequoias—the world's largest trees. “We had never done a hike like that, walking in the snow,” Akpan says. “My son liked looking at all those trees and comparing himself to them.”

Stop 3: South Lake Tahoe

Where they stayed: Lake Tahoe Resort Hotel, an all-suites resort at the base of Heavenly Mountain Resort

What they did: The last stop was for achieving Aiden’s goal: snowboarding. They drove about 120 miles northeast from Murphys to Heavenly Village, where they could sit by outdoor firepits and make the most of local shops and restaurants—like the to-go sandwiches at Holiday Market or a sit-down dinner at Gunbarrel Tavern. The Village offers easy access to activities such as Tube Tahoe, where ages three and up can enjoy 500 feet of groomed tubing lanes.

It’s also an easy shuttle ride to Heavenly’s California Base Lodge, where the Akpans got ready for their family snowboard lesson. “You just sit down, and one person measures your feet, and they put the boots on for you,” she says. “For someone who’s never done it before, it was so easy.” The family lesson was a success, and Akpan says that watching Aiden was a highlight of the trip. “He did such a good job for being the first time,” she says. “Watching him get on there and zoom down was great—he was snowboarding like he had been doing it his whole life. He definitely wants to do it again.”

Make the Trip Your Own

Gold Country and the High Sierra both make for easy snowy getaways. When planning your own trip, check out Visit California’s Winter Fun section and pay close attention to these family snow adventures and awesome alternative winter activities, such as bobsleighs and snow-bike activities around the Golden State. Heavenly, meanwhile, offers plenty of all-ages après-ski fun, and there are amazing things to do in Calaveras County. If you’re making the trip during winter, add some chains to your tires, which can be picked up at retailers like AutoZone.

For an educational family trip any time of year, consider these eight family-friendly Gold Rush adventures and this museum-dotted educational road trip that starts in San Francisco.

California Winery

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