May 9, 2018 by Elizabeth Harryman for AAA Magazine

Waterfowl and Old West flair in laid-back Lake County

Sunlight glinted like sapphires on California’s largest and oldest natural, freshwater lake as I drove to its basin. Clear Lake covers 68 square miles (Lake Tahoe is bigger, but sits partly in Nevada). The lake is nearly 1 million years old, and its plant and animal life have sustained human habitation for 12,000 years. Today, Clear Lake forms the centerpiece of Northern California’s Lake County, a nexus of boating, fishing, wildlife watching, sightseeing, wine tasting, and a refreshing lack of pretension. The towns of Upper Lake and Lakeport serve as convenient home bases. Last June, I set out to explore the region’s pastures, vineyards, and rounded hills, which appeared to be swathed in velvet by green and golden grasses.

Wineries Plus

Some Lake County wineries offer more than wine tasting: Chacewater Winery and Olive Mill (707- 279-2995; chacewaterwine.com) hosts olive oil tastings, and Boatique (707-279-2675; boatiquewines.com) has a collection of antique wooden speedboats ($5 admission is waived with bottle purchase).

Be sure to designate a driver if you plan to drink alcohol.

The Old West

The Old WestIn Upper Lake, I felt as if I’d entered an Old West movie town: A doctor’s office, a lawyer’s office, a post office, a saloon, a hotel, and several shops line one main street. I half expected to see a poncho-clad Clint Eastwood with his pistol out, ready to dispatch a villain. The historic, wooden Tallman Hotel adds to the ambience. A veranda surrounds three sides of the hotel, and my room had a 12-foot-high ceiling, a claw-foot tub, and a wicker desk. “This was the end of the stage line past Ukiah,” said Bernard Butcher, co-owner with his wife, Lynne, as we chatted in the parlor. “People transferred here to wagons to go to hot springs resorts.” Four rooms are in the original 1896 building, 13 more are in modern structures. Rates start at $219, which includes continental breakfast and Wi-Fi. Across a gravel patio, the Blue Wing Saloon Restaurant serves dishes such as Lake County Yerba Santa goat cheese with roasted walnuts, greens, and a citrus vinaigrette. Local musicians play three nights a week and during Sunday brunch. Dinner entrées, $17–$32; Tuesday evening three-course prix fixe dinner, $20. (707) 275-2244; tallmanhotel.com.

Dog ‘n’ Ponies

As a horse lover, I leapt at the chance to see some of the region in a red wagon drawn by three Belgian draft horses named Chief, Mr. Max, and Jimmy. With her pug mix, Daisy, next to her, Susan McCarty, co-owner of Live Oak Belgians with her husband, Kenn, drove our group of six through pear orchards and walnut groves, where growers came out to greet us. Two-hour trips available with reservations (up to $300 per wagonload); 20-minute rides from Upper Lake offered about once a month ($10 per person). (707) 275-3365 or (707) 900-1693.

For The Birds

“Clear Lake is the country’s largest breeding ground for Western and Clark’s grebes,” said Faith Rigolosi, co-owner with her husband, J.W. Shipley, of Eyes of the Wild, as she piloted a pontoon boat onto the lake. Displaying an uncanny ability to find these long-necked, pointedbeaked waterfowl, she slowed the boat near a Western grebe with a baby nestled on its back. We also spotted ospreys, cormorants, and the flash of a yellow-headed blackbird whose rasp resembled a smoker’s cough. Two-hour tours, $50 per person. (707) 262-2401 or (707) 349-0026; eyesofthewild.us.

Don’t Miss

In March or April, you might catch the grebes’ mating dance: “He picks up weeds, she picks up weeds, and they dance around each other.”

Pomo Culture

Pomo CultureAt the Historic Courthouse Museum in Lakeport’s 1871 former County Courthouse, a dapper gentleman with a thin mustache, a bead necklace, and a black Western hat welcomed me. For centuries, Pomo Indians were master basket weavers, explained American Indian interpretive specialist John W. Johnson, as he showed me baskets with dazzling geometric patterns reminiscent of op art. “These were woven so tightly, they could hold water,” he said. “People would put water and acorn meal in the cooking baskets, then add hot stones. You’d have to keep stirring, so it wouldn’t burn a hole in the basket.” Closed Mondays and Tuesdays. Donations accepted. (707) 263-4555;

Free Mendocino and Sonoma Coast maps, which include Lake County, are available at an Auto Club branch. For info about TourBook guides and TripTik Travel Planners, visit a branch or go to AAA.com/maps.