SJ Valley offers endless array of outdoor options

March 5, 2013 

Have you run out of places to write about yet?"

It's a question I get asked fairly often. Given California's nearly unlimited outdoor recreation opportunities, it's a question I will always be able to answer with an unqualified "No."

In the process of exploring and featuring places all over the state, it's easy to forget about "old favorites" close to home.

The old saying about the San Joaquin Valley is that we are "two hours from everything."

You can live in some parts of the state and be close to the Sierra, the ocean, or a big city, but it's hard to be close to all three.

Two hours is a reasonable distance for an easy day or weekend excursion that won't even require a whole tank of gas.

During the winter and early spring, Tuolumne County is a great destination to enjoy the best that the cold months have to offer.

Stretching from the lower foothills to the crest of the Sierra Nevada, Tuolumne County includes the towns of Sonora, Columbia, Jamestown, and Groveland. Crossed east to west by Highway 108, all destinations are along or adjacent to the highway.

Over the past weekend I headed up to the Tuolumne Sierra for some wintertime fun. Despite lower than average snowfall, I enjoyed a great day on the slopes at Dodge Ridge.

Fresh snow fell throughout the day on Sunday, and I was absolutely stunned by how few people were enjoying it. There weren't any lines and the slopes were wide open.

Conditions should be continuing to improve as you read this, with a new storm hopefully bringing 12-18 inches of fresh powder.

With eight chairlifts, 67 runs, and 1,600 feet of vertical descent, Dodge is a great place for skiers of all levels. It's one of the places where I learned to ski and I enjoyed improving my skills last Sunday. The lifts are scheduled to be open through April 7, so there's still a month to hit the slopes.

Last weekend was the first time I had spent the night near the mountain. Dodge is such an easy drive that I'd always skied and returned on the same day. With an extra day to check out some of the other winter attractions in the area, you can ice skate at Long Barn Lodge or tube and sled at Leland Snowplay.

Long Barn Lodge (13 miles from Dodge Ridge) offers comfortable cabins and motel rooms starting as low as $59.95 a night during the winter. One of the best things about staying at the lodge is that you can walk from your room to the ice skating rink and enjoy the ice for $10 a day (skate rental included). For other nearby lodging options and more information about the area, check out the Tuolumne County Visitor's Bureau website at www.tcvb.com.

The slopes at Dodge Ridge are open daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and full-day/half-day lift tickets are $64/$54 for adults, $52/$45 for teens, $20/$15 for youths, $28/$24 for seniors, and $49 for active military.

Equipment rentals, lessons for all ages and ability levels, and a comfortable lodge with a cafeteria are found between the parking area and the slopes. You can find more details at: www.dodgeridge.com or by calling (209) 965-3474.

Leland Snowplay is currently closed but is likely to reopen during or after the current storm. Visit http://snowplay.com/cms/ or call (209) 965-4719. All day access to the rope tows, lifts, and groomed slopes is $30/person on weekends and holidays and $22/person midweek.

We enjoyed some delicious brick oven pizza at Mia's in Cold Springs, just a couple of miles below the slopes on Highway 108: http://www.mias.com and (209) 965-4591. You can find more information on Tuolumne County dining at http://www.tcvb.com/.

If you want to do something in addition to enjoying the snow, check out Sonora's historic downtown for restaurants, interesting shops, and the Tuolumne County Historical Society Museum. Columbia State Historic Park is one of the most authentically preserved of the gold rush towns and late winter through early spring is a great time to see it with few other visitors.

Adam Blauert is an avid outdoorsman who enjoys fishing, backpacking and exploring the western states. He can be reached at adamblauert@yahoo.com

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