The back nine at Pine Mountain Lake kicks off with four tumbling par fours, each offering views of Stanislaus National Forest. The crescendo comes at holes fifteen through seventeen. The fifteenth green, a compact uphill dogleg left, features a slippery back-to-front slope and a view of Yosemite. Lined by an alley of oaks on the right, the par-five sixteenth opens with a downhill tee shot and concludes with an uphill approach to a green bulging with undulations. The penultimate hole, a downhill par three, boasts a green ringed with oaks whose rustling leaves scatter the streams of light.
The end of the line for Highway 49 is the town of Oakhurst. It’s home to Château du Sureau, one of the world’s hundred best hotels, as selected by readers of Travel + Leisure. This Provençal-style inn merits a visit not only for the sumptuous rooms and the gastronomy at Erna’s Elderberry House but also for its proximity to Sierra Meadows Country Club, the final stop on the Gold Country golf trail.
Located in a hidden valley in the town of Ahwahnee, Sierra Meadows received a makeover in 2001. Its terrain is less dramatic than that of other courses in Gold Country, with fewer contours and flatter greens. But the shady holes along the perimeter offer variety and elevation change, and the use of native grasses and existing trees and water impart a minimalist feel. The course also features striking rock formations seemingly borrowed from Stonehenge. The views of the forested surrounding hills are sublime.
Now that I’m behind the wheel and no longer peering out a window from the back seat, I’m happy that California forgot about Gold Country for so long. Left largely undisturbed, it was able to retain its authenticity. The remaining flecks of gold may be buried deep in abandoned mines, but above the surface there is still much to be discovered, both on and off the course.
It’s a melancholy trip, back through the flat and dusty valley toward California’s crowded coast. But I know I’ll be back.