BIG OAK FLAT – There’s no pot of gold at the end of the climb up winding Old Priest Grade in Tuolumne County.
But at the top of this steep mountain-road section of Highway 120, there is a place called Priest Station, where you can stop for a spell and reward yourself with a refreshing drink and satisfying meal after completing the enjoyable – some would probably say, stomach-churning and dizzying – ascent, and do a little bit of souvenir-shopping too.
Priest Station is a combination café and store which boasts hamburgers as “our specialty,” but it is actually much more than what it claims to be. The establishment, and the family that owns and runs it, is steeped in the rich history of this gateway to Yosemite National Park. Mountain-climbing fans and enthusiasts will also find a close affinity with the place. One of the business owners is Conrad Anker, the famed alpinist who co-authored the book, “The Lost Explorer: Finding Mallory on Everest,” with fellow mountain climber, David Roberts. The book tells the story of how Anker found the body of mountain-climbing legend George Leigh Mallory near the summit at Mt. Everest. Mallory and climbing partner Andrew Irvine disappeared on June 8, 1924, and their fate remained a mystery until 1999 with Anker’s discovery.
The book about how the decades-long mystery that shrouded the fate of Mallory’s final ascent of Everest was finally lifted is proudly displayed inside the store-café and is available for purchase along with other historical and informational books about Big Oak Flat, Yosemite and surrounding areas in this mountain region. Once you are at Priest Station, you’re only 27 miles away from Yosemite National Park.
Next to Conrad Aiken’s book is a framed cover of the National Geographic Magazine with the professional mountain climber’s photograph in full climbing gear.
While at the store and café, the man and woman working there – Denise and Steven – can answer any question you have about the world-renowned alpinist. This amiable pair is quite knowledgeable about Conrad Anker. He is, after all, their brother and part owner of Priest Station. If you’re lucky, you can also have a chat with their mother, Helga Anker, who is the hardworking genius behind the café’s many scrumptious gastronomical offerings.
“She does a lot of the cooking, and does all the baking for the restaurant. Like, today, we had a German dinner and she made the salad. Typically, she makes the soups and desserts,” said Denise, whose share in the family teamwork is doing all the bookkeeping, payroll and purchasing. She also creates the menu for the restaurant with her mother giving it her stamp of approval.
Steven is the daytime manager of the business in addition to being the maintenance person.
“He’s a busy guy. Steven also runs our ranch. We have our ranch right next to the restaurant. My dad used to say it was the oldest ranch in Tuolumne County run by the same family,” Denise said.
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Anker family bought Priest Station in 1853
The Anker family bought Priest Station in 1853. At that time, it was a miner supply store. Soon after that, Priest Station was turned into a hotel, a stage coach stop, restaurant, and blacksmith all rolled into one, Denise Anker said, relating the history of the property.
The property was then passed down through the family’s next generations, until 1970 when the Anker siblings’ grandfather decided to sell it.
“He wanted to retire. He didn’t want to take care of it anymore,” Denise said. She recalled that the sale of the property proved to be a difficult experience for their grandmother.
Their grandfather, Joe Anker, “kind of sold it against my grandmother’s wishes,” she said.
Her grandmother, Margaret, understandably was against the sale since she inherited it from her side of the family.
After Priest Station was sold, their grandparents moved to Sonora where they spent their retirement years.
But 37 years after Priest Station was sold, the historic property once again came into the ownership of the Anker family. All thanks to Wallace Anker, the late husband of Helga and father of siblings Conrad, Steven, and Denise.
“My father bought it back because he always wanted it, and because it was always my grandmother’s wish to return it to the family. He bought it back without specific plans (for Priest Station),” Denise recalled.
Wallace Anker worked in international banking. Because of the nature of his profession, the family moved a lot.
“We lived in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Chicago, New York, and overseas in Europe and Asia,” Denise said.
“But this is where my family is from; this is where the family ranch business has been since the 1850s,” she said of their Big Oak Flat business holdings.
Denise, her brother and their mother enjoy working together running the store and café. Even when they are busy, brother and sister will find time to sit down and chat with customers. And that’s just one of the things that Denise said she enjoys the most about the business.
“I love it. This is a people-business. You really never get sad when you’re always in contact with the people. It’s good to be in a social kind of job,” she said.
She has fond memories of her father, who passed on his mountain-climbing genes to his son, Conrad.
“He was a lifelong hiker and runner. He’s the one who instilled the love of the mountains in the family. He’d take us to the mountains from the time we were just babies, and we’d go to the high country, either on horseback or on foot. That was his passion,” Denise said, fondly reminiscing about their father.
Just how popular are Priest Station Café’s hamburgers and other menu offerings? The proof is in the pudding, Many residents of Groveland take the five-minute drive to the café for their famous hamburgers. It’s 45 miles from Oakdale along Highway 120.
For a complete menu of the café’s latest offerings as well as prices, log on to the Priest Station’s facebook page. Or, you can contact the Anker Family Proprietors by email at email@example.com or by mail to: 16756 Old priest Grade (or P.O. Box 455) Big Oak Flat,, CA 95305, telephone 209.962.1888.
The new expanded hours are Monday to Friday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. and weekends from 7 am. to 8 p.m.
It is easy to get to Priest Station from Manteca. Simply take East Highway 120 and then, arriving at the Priest Road fork, take either the less steep and windy New Priest Road or the more challenging and picturesque Old Priest Road.