The town of West Point is located in a particularly beautiful location in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, at the point where the lower-lying rolling foothills of golden fields and an occasional oak tree give way to more steeply inclined valleys and slopes covered in a mixture of deciduous and evergreen trees. The area benefits from a chance geophysical anomaly: it typically receives weather systems coming both from the north and the south. This results in an annual rainfall average that is greater than surrounding areas, even those at the same elevation. As a result, trees grow particularly tall. While relatively secluded—very few pass through West Point on the way to somewhere else—the town is within easy reach of a wide array of recreational and cultural attractions. Chamber players and non-players alike would do well to arrange their visit to take advantage of this unique and scenic area, and the area is particularly well-suited to children.
The town received its name from a wrong turn taken by the famous scout and explorer Kit Carson in the mid-1800s. Wanting to find an easy route over the Sierras to Sacramento, he set forth westward on the southern side of the Mokelumne River. By the time he reached the area that became West Point, he was forced to turn back by the raging torrents that fed into the river. (If he had taken the northern side, he would have followed the current path of Highway 88 and had an easy time of it.)
Here is a brief overview of the main points of interest:
Music and the Arts
Chamber musicians planning a stay at Blue Mountain Chamber Music Retreat might well coordinate their visit with one of the concerts presented by the Mother Lode Friends of Music, headed for over twenty years by your host Ron Brickman. Each season includes at least four chamber music concerts, one symphony concert, and one or two house concerts. An occasional special event adds variety. In recent years the organization has presented performances of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial by Jury, Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors, Stravinsky’s Histoire du Soldat, a concert of Baroque choral music with chamber orchestra and soloists, and Peter and the Wolf with the Sacramento Ballet. Go to www.mlfm.org for a list of upcoming events.
The Calaveras County Arts Council presents a concert series that typically includes a concert of classical music, all presented in the Performing Arts Center in Angels Camp. Go to the Ovations page on the Calaveras County Art Council’s website.
In the summer, usually the first two weeks of August, the Bear Valley Music Festival presents a series of classical and popular concerts, including orchestra performances, under the baton of Michael Morgan. The festival takes place at the Bear Valley Ski Resort on Highway 4 above Arnold. Go to www.bearvalleymusicfestival.org for more information.
While its population is small, West Point does have its own theatre company. The Blue Mountain Players, with its playhouse on Main Street, presents two plays a year. See www.theater.bluemountaintheater.com for further information. Other theatre companies, mostly summer productions in outdoor amphitheatres, are the Volcano Playhouse in Volcano (volcanotheatre.org) and the Main Street Theatre Works in Jackson (www.mstw.org).
For pop artist concerts, the biggest draws locally are the outdoor summer concerts presented by the Jackson Rancheria in Jackson (http://www.jacksoncasino.com/entertainment/full-schedule) and Ironstone Vineyards in Murphys (www.ironstonevineyards.com/Events…/Ironst ).
Visitors should make an effort to spend some time at Indian Grinding Rocks, an archeological site and museum devoted to the native Miwok Indians. The state park is located midway between Pine Grove and Volcano.
Museums tend to focus on the gold-rush era. Particularly worthy are the museums in Jackson (Court Street) and San Andreas (Main Street). In a class of its own is the town-museum of Columbia, located near Sonora off of Highway 49, a California state park.
Historic towns. The area is the heart of the gold rush era, and is dotted with a string of charming and picturesque towns dating from that period. Most of these towns have an array of historic buildings and monuments, antique stores and shops, and dining establishments. Sutter Creek, Murphys and Mokelumne Hill are particularly recommended for their fine art galleries. Jackson, Angels Camp and Sonora are the towns with the highest levels of modern commercial activity.
Visitors to the area should not miss Calaveras Big Trees, one of the few remaining groves of California’s giant Sequoias. A world-class site, it is located a few miles above Arnold on Highway 4, about an hour and fifteen minute drive from West Point.
There are several natural caverns in the area. The closest is Black Chasm in Volcano, with Mercer Caverns, outside Murphys, and California Caverns, near Mountain Ranch, also worth a visit.
The magnificent high Sierras are an easy drive from West Point. Regain Highway 88 from Highway 26 North, turn right, and you are soon at 8,000 to 10,000 feet elevation, in view of majestic peaks and shimmering mountain lakes. Proceeding further, you can experience the remarkably sudden climate change into the high desert country of Nevada. Or you can proceed to the Lake Tahoe basin, just one and a half hours from West Point.
West Point is situated midway between two of California’s most highly regarded wine regions. To the north, centered around the town of Plymouth in Amador County, is Shenandoah Valley. Multiple tasting rooms are located next to each other. To the south is the wine region centered around Murphys. The towns of Murphys and Sutter Creek also have wine tasting rooms along their main streets if you don’t h ave time to go to the wineries themselves.
Besides local wines, the greater West Point area has many fine antique stores. Go in particular to the main streets of Sutter Creek and Jackson. Two superb fine arts galleries, featuring works and home furnishings of local artists, are Petroglyph Gallery in Mokelumne Hill and Fine Eye Gallery in Sutter Creek. A world-class bakery, which also has cheeses and other fine products, is Andrae’s in Amador City. For a list of local producers of fruit, vegetables and meats, go online to Calaveras Grown and Mother Lode Harvest. Main Street, Jackson, is host to a first-rate kitchen supply store.
One of California’s famous Indian casinos is located just minutes outside Jackson, in the direction of West Point. A chunk of Reno dropped down unexpectedly in the rolling countryside of the Sierra foothills, the casino offers a full array of gambling options, plus restaurants, a hotel and shops.
The town of West Point has limited infrastructure for recreation. There are playing fields, an outdoor basketball court and a playground at the elementary school within walking distance of the Retreat. An archery terrain is next to the fire station behind Main Street. Public tennis courts can be found at the high schools in Jackson, Sutter Creek and San Andreas and in Mokelumne Hill. The Retreat plans to install in the spring a horseshoe pit, badminton court and pingpong table. A local guide is available to help with gold-panning in local streams and to lead you on a tour of the many abandoned or still active gold mines in the area.
Your host spent his summers down at the local swimming holes. The two favorites are close to the bridge over the Mokelumne River on Highway 26. One hole, now with parking and toilet facilities (see photo at left), is deep and surrounded by immense granite boulders. The other, just a few hundred feet downstream, is the equivalent of several Olympic sized pools, surrounded by flat rock slabs and a sandy beach for sunbathing.
West Point is the center of a well-known network of rivers, streams and lakes that make an ideal venue for fishing enthusiasts. Schaad’s Lake is a man-made lake serving the East Bay Municipal Water District, located some 8 miles from West Point off of Blue Mountain Road.
West Point is located within an easy drive (about an hour–always check road conditions) to the magnificently situated, world-class ski resort of Kirkwood, located on Highway 88. Another option is Bear Valley, located about an hour and 45 minutes from West Point on Highway 4.
The closest golf course is Mace Meadows, located on Highway 88 in Pioneer, about a half hour away from West Point. The 18-hole course is surrounded by magnificent pines and cedars. Other golf courses are Castle Oaks in Ione, Meadowmount in Arnold, Greenhorn Creek in Angels Camp and Forest Meadows above Murphys.
Marinas where you can rent boats and other equipment include Camanche (off of Highway 88 west of Jackson) and New Melones (Highway 49 between Angels Camp and Sonora).
There is a virtually infinite range of hiking opportunities in the region surrounding West Point, which is heavily wooded and studded with streams and rivers. Local friend, neighbor and classical music lover Pat McGreevy is the unofficial trail master of the area, and is happy to advise guests on a hiking program adapted to their preferences and capabilities. Within an hour, the visitor can start a hike in the high Sierras, with the first trailheads located in the Silver Lake and Caples Lake areas. For all hiking, guests should wear sturdy shoes and bring water.
A Recommended Walk
Guests at Blue Mountain Chamber Music Retreat should find the time to take the “grand tour” of the property. Take the unpaved road that starts just above the vegetable garden. With magnificent views of Blue Mountain along the way, you will pass the upper walnut grove, the upper berry garden, the remnants of the greenhouse project launched by “Doc” Brockman in the 1960s, and the chicken coop. The walk becomes progressively more wooded, allowing you to experience fully the sights and smells of the region’s flora. You pass by some mysterious large boulders with peculiar markings: are these simply a natural formation or a message from some prehistoric people? Something else to look for is hinted on a crude pencil-drawn map of the property, obviously a homemade flyer to help sell the property in the 1930s. While the principal landmarks are indicated, there is a note that the property also boasts “one undeveloped goldmine,” whose precise location is not indicated on the map. Can you find the missing gold mine? Circling back to the house area, you can continue your tour by going to the end of the driveway, crossing the highway, and entering the orchard (take the key to the orchard with you), from where you get good views of Blue Mountain and the Retreat behind you. A map is available showing the location of all the heirloom apple trees.