Thursday, August 20, 2009

Sonoma's Hollywood Connection

Anyone growing up watching "My Three Sons" with Fred MacMurray would never guess that the big-time Hollywood actor ("The Apartment" is one of my favorite movies) actually spent a lot of his time not on a southern California backlot but on a sprawling ranch in Sonoma County. It's where he and his wife raised their four children. The ranch is now a winery, MacMurray Ranch, and it's owned by E.J. Gallo. But there's still an actual MacMurray connection: Fred's daughter, Kate (right), who lives on the property, in a cabin built by her father decades ago.
She works for Gallo promoting the MacMurray Ranch label. I recently had the chance to chat with Kate in the main house on the idyllic property (upper left), tucked in a lush, redwood-ringed valley off of Westside Road between Healdsburg and Forestville. Her love of the place is obvious. She said her father discovered the land on flyfishing trips in the 1930s when it was owned by the descendants of the Potter family who first came to the ranch in 1840 from Arkansas. After years of asking the Potters whether they would sell, he was finally able to purchase the property in 1941. Fred made more than 100 films and spent 12 years on "My Three Sons" but he was able to spend enough time here to turn the property -- a plum orchard under the Potters -- into a cattle ranch, with Black Angus he had shipped from Scotland. She recalls long driving trips between Sonoma County and their house in Los Angeles (this was before Interstate 5 was built) and stopping at a Foster's Freeze in Gilroy, all four kids and their movie star father climbing out for burgers and milkshakes. There was no TV and little Hollywood-style glamour at the ranch, only some hard work and lots of old-fashioned fun as the children were free to roam the property, ride horses and explore. "We didn't have a lot of worries. We were allowed to run free and go outdoors. It was magical," she said.

The 1,500-acre spread is not open to the public normally but you have a chance to spend time there over Labor Day Weekend when MacMurray hosts the Sonoma County Vintners' 30th annual Taste of Sonoma, which features 150 wineries offering samples of thousands of wines and 60 local chefs cooking up dishes to pair with the pourings. It all takes place around the charming old home where Kate grew up and in the barn that her father built with his own hands. General admission is $150 per person, although Visa Signature cardholders receive a special price of $95. Make sure you sample some of MacMurray's yummy pinot noir and pinot gris.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Quiet Sierra Lakes, Easily Accessible

My favorite mountain getaway for camping and easy backpacking is off of Bowman Lake Road where there's a beautiful landscape of lakes, creeks, meadows and granite mountaintops in a little-known spot called Grouse Ridge Recreation Area.
Tom Stienstra of the San Francisco Chronicle has written about the area over the years (most recently on Sunday, Aug. 2 in his Sunday Drive column) but, despite the publicity, you don't find many people here. To escape the summer fog in the city I went up a couple of weeks ago with a friend. Unfortunately, the gray weather followed us and we found ourselves in a Sierra storm, with dark skies that turned to rain and even some hail. But it was worth it (in the photos, as you can see, it was still very pretty).
One reason that I love this area is that it so accessible. You take Interstate 80 east 40 miles past Auburn to Highway 20. Drive four miles on Highway 20 to the Bowman Lake Road and turn right. (Or, if you're coming from Nevada City, it's about 22 miles on Highway 20 to Bowman Lake Road). If you're not much of a camper or backpacker, you could spend the night in Auburn or Nevada City and drive over for some spectacular day hikes.
The trails I love to hike start at Carr and Feeley lakes. To get to the trailhead, drive about eight miles on Bowman Lake Road and then take the turn for Carr and Feeley and drive a couple of miles on a bumpy and rocky dirt road. High-clearance vehicles are recommended on the road but cars seem to do okay. There are a few primitive campsites at Carr Lake but my favorite thing to do is to pack a backpack and walk in a couple of miles to gorgeous granite-studded Island Lake and find a spot along the shores.
It's a flat, easy trail to Island Lake past lush ponds covered with lily pads (see left) and, because it's so close to the trailhead, it's almost more like camping than backpacking. When I go with friends, we sometimes even bring a small cooler and beach chairs. Check at the trailhead, but campfires in designated spots are usually permitted. Dogs are permitted, too.
There are dozens of lovely lakes to explore, many from the trails that radiate from Island lake (the USGS Emigrant Gap topo map covers the area), including little picture-perfect Round Lake, Milk Lake and Penner Lake. You're close to civilization (at night if you listen closely you can hear the rumble of vehicles on Interstate 80 or more distant trains) but a world away in a beautiful Sierra landscape.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Sunday, Sunday, Sunday!

I finally got a chance to check out one of the best new programs San Francisco has going: Sunday Streets. It's the program that Mayor Gavin Newsom started last year to encourage people to get out and exercise -- walk, bicycle, skateboard, roller blade, you name it -- on selected city streets that are closed to traffic on the first Sunday of the month. It's already been done along the Embarcadero and in the Mission. Today, Sunday Streets took place out in the western part of San Francisco -- on the Great Highway along the Pacific Ocean. All four lanes were closed from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. from Golden Gate Park all the way to the San Francisco Zoo (where a furry penguin met us, see photo right).
We couldn't have asked for better weather. The day started out with a bit of fog that clung just along the beach, but it burned off by about noon. The temperature was in the mid 70s.
Now, there's nothing new about biking and walking along the Great Highway. There's a lovely path along the eastern side of it that's always very popular. But it was something else to actually bike down the middle of the road, the sand dunes and ocean to the west, the stretches of Sunset District houses to the east, along with thousands of other people. Musicians performed along the way and there were stands set up offering drinks, a bite to eat or a chance to chat with representatives from local nonprofits, such as the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, that encourages people to drive less and bike more.
With such gorgeous weather, most people hung out at the beach long after the highway reopened at 2 p.m. "Next time, let's keep Sunday Streets going until sunset," someone said. Yes. We've got the chance soon: the next Sunday Streets is scheduled for Sept. 6 and it's going to take place again along the same stretch of the Great Highway. Mark your calendars.