Highway 4 is the quintessential east-west drive across the 209.
It starts in the Delta at the crossing of Old River a few feet above sea level and crosses lofty Ebbetts Pass at 8,730 feet some 139 miles to the east.
Along the way it takes in the water paradise of the San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta with its diverse ecological system and rich farmland, it passes through the 209’s largest city — Stockton with 307,000 residents and California’s eastern most seaport, passes over the rolling farmland in eastern San Joaquin County that inspired “The Big Valley” TV series of yesteryear, runs north of the state’s fourth largest reservoir — New Melones — that is also the largest body of water in the 209, meanders through the Calaveras Wine Country, climbs toward Big Tree Calaveras State Park, passes Bear Valley Ski Resort and narrows down to just over a lane as it squeezes through the Stanislaus National Forest to reach the crest of the Sierra at Ebbetts Pass.
You can drive it end to end in about 3 hours and 15 minutes without having a lead foot.
It is tempting to do as a day trip for several reasons. First, it is the only stretch pf pavement to go from the eastern to western end of the 209. It gives you a look at a cross-section of California, and it’s a fairly laid back drive.
And while it is the ideal place to head to play in the snow or enjoy the great outdoors in the summer given the crowd factor is significantly lower than on any other trans-Sierra route, the drive-thru tour is impressive in late October and into mid-November as nature’s colors are changing from river side to mountain peak.
Two things to note. I’ve never been disappointed with a fall drive up Highway 4 but this year’s unreasonably late and hot temperatures may change the timing of the color dynamics. Keep in mind this isn’t New England, but California so the color show while impressive isn’t the same type of fall kaleidoscope that inspired Robert Frost. If you are thinking about putting Ebbetts Pass on your winter weekend travel list, don’t. Once the snow season comes, Caltrans will close Highway 4 just beyond the turn-off to Bear Valley at the 6,600-foot level. That said, there are great areas to frolic in the snow, cross country ski, and even take advantage of permitted Sno-Parks along Highway 4.
But I’m jumping ahead of the seasons. Right now — all things considered — is the mellowest times to enjoy Highway 4 scenery while incorporating quick stops or short side trips.
Starting on the western San Joaquin County line just east of Brentwood and Discovery Bay where Tracy Boulevard meets up with Highway 4 is a great way to get a feel for the heart of the Delta.
As a Delta byway, Highway 4 is pretty straight forward. There’s no razzmatazz, just farmland, levees, snaking water, and tons of birds. It is worth taking a short side trip down roads that follow the levees. The Delta is under the Pacific Flyway. And while your best bet to find tons of migrating birds this time of year is at the San Joaquin Valley Wildlife Refuge south of Manteca and west of Modesto or the wildlife refuge near Merced, there’s still plenty of birds near Highway 4 from egrets to ducks.
I’m not going to lie. The scenery along Highway 4 through Stockton will never make it into a chamber of commerce travel commercial. This is the segment that serves agri-businesses, the Port of Stockton, and goes past the city’s most challenged neighborhoods although that is from an elevated freeway looking south.
Stockton is much like a homemade tamale. If you judge it by what you can easily see on the surface as you zoom by at 65 mph on Highway 99, Interstate 5 or Highway 4 there doesn’t seem to be much to savor but once you pull off the husks and get to what’s beneath it’s an amazing place.
This is a city that has a vibrant private institution of higher learning, one of the best small city art museums in the country, thriving arts, two minor league sports franchises playing in more than appealing venues, appealing specialty shops, and an impressive embrace of their waterfront.
Exit off Highway 4 and drive a few blocks north to the Stockton Waterfront. Stretch your legs along the waterfront, and perhaps grab a coffee or treat at the City Centre anchored by a cinemaplex next door to the majestic Hotel Stockton.
The flat farmland once you hit Farmington — if you’re craving good BBQ you have to try Royce BBQ next to the general store located in a century old building — eventually gives way to gently rolling terrain as you head toward Calaveras County. (The BBQ place has been there for years and is a favorite of several friends. As for me. I used to stop there on 80 mile bicycle rides of the eastern county to grab a Dryers ice cream bar.)
The first real foothill community you can turn off into is Copperopolis. It is also the way to Lake Tulloch where an enclave of fairly wealthy folks have saturated the shores with homes well in excess of $1 million in value.
There is now a bypass of Angels Camp, which is a shame. It’s just a short detour to the south to the town Mark Twain immortalized via the Jumping Frog Jubilee. It’s got Gold Country charm, small shops and nice dining options.
It is also the jumping off point to the Calaveras Wine Country with 30 plus wineries and wine tasting rooms including stately Ironstone Vineyards. You can download a map as well as information on various wineries at calaveraswines.org. Amidst the wineries you will find four popular cavern tours — the Moaning Caverns, California Cavern, Mercer Cavern, and Black Chasm Cave. If the temperatures are in the mid-80s or higher when you drive along Highway 4, you might consider investing in cavern tour tickets to cool off given temperatures rarely deviate from 61 degrees year around.
On the way up to the higher elevations where there are plenty of lodges and campgrounds you will find small communities with services and restaurants such as Arnold and Camp Cornell
If you want to walk among giant sequoias and gaze skyward but don’t want to deal with Yosmeite Park crowds, transverse a Foresthill Divide Road more suitable to a 4-wheel drive Jeep than a family car, or take an excursion to Sequoia National Park, then Calaveras Big Trees State Park is ideal for you.
Unlike in Yosemite where the groves entail hiking a mile or so before you reach the big trees, they’re right off the highway and a short walk from your car. While there are taller sequoias in the Sierra, the tallest tree in the state park — the Louis Agassiz tree in the South Gove — tops out at 250 feet with its diameter being 25 feet some six feet above the ground. That’s more than twice the height of the Double Tree Hotel in downtown Modesto or the new courthouse in downtown Stockton. As with all state parks, there is a use fee.
East of Big Trees the outdoor wonders of the Stanislaus National Forest awaits with assorted lakes, hiking trails, and more.
My favorite part of the drive is the Ebbetts Pass area. One visit and you’ll see why it has been designated a National Scenic Byway. The trees are king here, not the road. Pine trees come up right to the road’s edge while the tight and sharp terrain forced engineers to go with pavement that is under two lanes in width in places promoting the disappearance of centerlines.
This is not the place to travel fast but then that only adds to the visual joy. If you descend the eastern side there are plenty of blind hairpin turns
This is a quad buster to bicycle, believe me. But at the same time it is a joy as you almost feel as if you’re not on a road but taking a path through the forest. You can get the same feeling in a car.
Nowhere else in the 209 driving on one road do you get such a rich smorgasbord of Mother Nature’s offerings as you do traveling Highway 4.