Sierra Gold Country
Find the secret romance of the West on this budget-friendly drive through Sierra Gold Country.
With a flick of the reins, the driver urged his sturdy horses into a gallop as the lumbering old stagecoach approached an incline in the dusty road ahead. Bouncing behind him, my wife, Sandy, and I grabbed the edge of our hardwood seats and held on tightly. "Keep your eyes open," the driver shouted over the rackety din. "We might run into bandits around the next bend." And, sure enough, we did. Stagecoach? Bandits? What's going on here?
As excited as kids, we were reliving the romance of the 1849 California Gold Rush. Stagecoaches like the one to which we clung once linked the mining camps that sprang up in the rugged foothills of the Sierra Nevada. The rare chance to ride in an authentic coach was just one historical episode among many in our four-day, 540-mile drive into Gold Country.
Though some forty-niners struck it rich, you won't need a bag of nuggets to explore the region, which has become a popular weekend retreat for folks from the nearby San Francisco Bay Area. This is good budget travel territory, where appealing lodgings and Old West-style caf,s come at affordable prices. Much of what you will want to see and do is free-or almost so.
Speaking of nuggets, many visitors still pan for gold in the rushing streams that cascade out of the Sierras. And with a quick lesson in the art of handling the pan-offered throughout Gold Country-you might go home with a bit of gold dust, a nugget, or even your own bonanza. California still mines millions of dollars of gold annually.
But panning is hard work; I know firsthand. For less-demanding fun: Go white-water rafting; tour a former gold mine; view one of the world's largest gold nuggets (13 pounds); hike among giant sequoia trees; quaff a beer in an authentic miner's saloon; or sip (for free) the very fine wines of Amador County, where more than 20 wineries are clustered in the sunny hills just outside the town of Plymouth.
Relics of the legendary quest for gold are everywhere on this very scenic drive-in the crumbling stone walls of a former Wells Fargo office or the rusting machinery of abandoned mines. But the principal vestiges of the colorful era are the onetime camps and boomtowns scattered about the hills wherever gold was discovered, some all but hidden now down shady country roads.
Many became decaying ghost towns, but others have prospered from tourism, like Angels Camp, where Mark Twain was inspired to write The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. The two once-rollicking towns of Columbia and Coloma (site of the first gold discovery) have been carefully preserved as state historic parks, where the Gold Rush story is excitingly told.
The discovery had a profound impact on California and America, uniting the eastern seaboard with the vast western lands that had recently been won from Mexico. As you tour, count the easygoing history lesson as a value-added bonus of the drive.
For us, Gold Country made an ideal add-on to a trip to San Francisco, getting us out of the city and into the quieter countryside. The San Francisco Bay Area's three major airports-San Francisco International, Oakland International, and San Jose International-are reasonably convenient to the drive. Airfares into Oakland and San Jose, served by Southwest Airlines, the nation's largest no-frills airline, tend to be cheaper. No discount airline currently flies into San Francisco.
When we made our arrangements, the Internet showed seven car-rental agencies at Oakland's airport-including Budget (800/527-0700, budget.com), Thrifty (800/847-4389, thrifty.com), and Dollar (800/800-4000, dollar.com)-all offering a compact car for a week with unlimited miles for about $150.
The main road threading Gold Country, California Route 49, is aptly dubbed the "Mother Lode Highway." Mostly two lanes and endlessly winding, it stretches 310 miles north from the foothill town of Oakhurst, just outside Yosemite National Park, to Vinton, north of Lake Tahoe. You may want to tackle the entire route, but I've shortened the itinerary to focus on the most historically interesting and scenic segment. (Lodging rates listed are for two people during summer high season.)
Day one: On the road
San Francisco to Mariposa, 215 miles One good reason to make Mariposa your first stop in Gold Country is that it still has the look of a frontier town that briefly lured fortune hunters from around the world. But the number one reason, I think, is to gaze in awe at the huge, 13-pound Fricot Nugget. One of the largest and finest specimens in the world, it was found in 1865 in the Middle Fork on the American River about 100 miles north. Value: about $1 million to $3 million-if you discount all historical worth. Imagine stumbling across it. Sort of makes you want to spend a little time panning on your own, no matter how strenuous.