California Flying: Amador County

June 1, 2008

Amador County is shaped like a turkey drumstick. The axis of the county is oriented so that the meaty end points 250 degrees relative to true north. Camanche Reservoir in the southwestern corner of the county is 500 feet msl while Thunder Mountain in the farthest northeastern corner peaks at 9,408 feet msl. Amador County is located “in the heart of the Mother Lode.” Fly-in visitors will find a wide variety of outdoor activities and historic sites in this county served by the Westover-Amador County Airport (O70). I flew into the Westover airport last spring and Daffodil Hill was in full bloom.

Daffodil Hill

“The phone is always ringing this time of year, “ said Jacqueline Lucido, executive director of the Amador County Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau. “Yesterday we had 70 calls and almost all of them wanted to know if the daffodils were blooming.” More than 70 years ago, family members unwittingly started what became Daffodil Hill by planting a few daffodils in memory of their mother. Daffodil Hill now refers to a six-acre area on a family farm that is planted with more than 300 varieties and nearly 500,000 blooms. Every year from mid-March to mid-April, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., the Daffodil Hill grounds are open to visitors. Visitors are free to sit, or picnic, or just wander amongst the daffodil and tulip blossoms. Daffodil Hill is located 12 miles from both Jackson and Sutter Creek. More complete directions are available on the Amador County Visitor’s Bureau Web site.

Indian Grinding Rock State Historical Park

Lucido suggested that I visit the Indian Grinding Rock State Historical Park since it’s on the way to Daffodil Hill. Two state highways bisect Amador County. California State Highway 88 runs from the lowlands in the west up along the spine of the drumstick to the crest of the Sierra at Carson Pass. California State Highway 49 winds from Oakdale in the south in a northerly direction as it passes through 10 counties that make up the famed “Mother Lode” region of the state.

The park is located eight miles east of Jackson in a little valley 2,400 feet above sea level with open meadows and large valley oaks. It features an outcropping of marbleized limestone that has 1,185 mortar holes worn into it. The Miwok Indians created these mortar holes as they pounded and ground acorns and other seeds into meal, a staple of their diet. According to park information, this is the largest collection of bedrock mortars in North America. California acquired the land for the park and re-created a Miwok village complete with a ceremonial roundhouse (hun’ge) and a number of bark houses (u’macha) near the grinding stone outcropping. There is the Chaw’se Regional Indian Museum at the park site, which features the technology and crafts of the Miwok and other Sierra Nevada Native American groups, and a number of hiking and nature trails.

More outdoor activities

The alignment of Westover Airport’s Runway 1/19 was determined by the landform instead of by reference to the prevailing winds. Crosswinds build during the day and then slack off toward evening. The airport is located on a hill equidistant from Jackson and Sutter Creek.

Sutter Creek was named California Gold Country’s “prettiest small town” by Sunset Magazine in its April 2008 issue. The county has also been recognized as one of the “10 Best Places to Live in Rural America,” by the Progressive Farmer in 2006; and as one of the “Top 10 Up and Coming Destinations in 2006,” by Frommer’s in 2005.

Visitors will enjoy exploring other towns in the county. Names such as Drytown, Plymouth, Fiddletown, and Volcano stimulate a desire to discover why and when the town grew, and what it’s like today. For example, Volcano is the site of California’s first astronomical observatory, its first public library, its first literary and debating society, and is reported to be the site where the first public law school was established. Today, visitors are surprised that the largest building in Volcano—the St. George Hotel, which was built in 1862 and is still providing lodging and meals for visitors—appears to rear up out of the middle of the Pine Grove-Volcano Road. Fortunately, the road veers away and continues on toward Grinding Rock and Daffodil Hill.

A few of the many activities for fly-in visitors include fishing, wine tasting, dog adoptions, antiquing, gaming in the local casinos, and wandering through some of the most interesting and well-preserved towns of California’s gold country.

What to do when you fly in

The Amador County animal shelter is adjacent to the end of Runway 1. It’s not unusual for families to fly into Westover to adopt new pets. Visit the Web site to see the pets that are available for adoption and contact the shelter.

A local pilot recommended dining at Taste in Plymouth, a town not far from the area’s 30 wineries. Unlike some other wine regions, these wineries don’t charge for the privilege of tasting their wines. Amador vintners’ events include the Big Crush Harvest Festival on October 4, and the Summer Solstice Wine Daze June 25 and 26. Plymouth is also home to the Amador County Fair, scheduled for July 24 through 27.

Where?

Amador County is about 45 miles northwest of Sacramento in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Its central position in the Gold Country has led to the name, “The Heart of the Mother Lode.”

Both the underground tour at Sutter Gold Mine and the surface tour at the Kennedy Mine provide visitors with a glimpse into yesteryear. There are also opportunities for touring underground caves. The Black Chasm Cave features a wide variety of formations including stalactites, stalagmites, flowstones, and the vast arrays of rare helictite crystals.

Rental cars are available. There are many camping sites, mountain biking trails, and campgrounds within the county. The Jackson Rancheria Casino and Hotel, and some local bed and breakfasts, offer to pick up fly-in visitors from the airport. I enjoyed a small sample of the many wonders of Amador County during my brief visit. There’s a lot to see and do, so visit early and visit often.

E-mail the author at steve.ells@aopa.org.