Road Trip Through California's Gold Country
Hot-springs hotels and movie museums are now on the scene, but central California's old boomtowns are still the Wild West. Cowboy hats and bar brawls optional.
The former mining towns in California's Gold Country fall into two distinct categories: the half-forgotten hamlets with little remaining evidence of their past, and the places that have been gentrified to look like Hollywood backlots. In early spring, as my friend Kim and I set off from San Francisco to explore the region, our first stop is a spot decidedly in the latter camp. Grass Valley has a very old-timey-looking downtown, but behind the reconstructed wooden façades are pricey boutiques and Pilates studios. Not that I'm complaining. Kim and I are both city girls, from the Bay Area and Brooklyn, respectively. Had we dived right into a ghost town, we might have turned back.
Grass Valley became a boomtown after gold was discovered in the nearby hills 150 years ago, attracting a mob of hopeful miners from Cornwall, England (there are still Cornish parties every Christmas). Now the land is covered with grapevines—wine is the new moneymaker in these parts. Craving a bit of historical authenticity with our lunch, Kim and I wander into theHolbrooke Hotel, a Victorian inn—President Ulysses S. Grant once slept here—that has the oldest continuously operating saloon west of the Mississippi. The menu at the Restaurant at the Holbrooke, however, is contemporary Californian.
"Do you think Cobb salads were popular with the Cornish miners?" I joke to Kim.
I hate doing touristy things, so I planned to bypass the nearbyEmpire Mine State Historic Park, but Kim really wants to go. And, of course, it turns out to be one of our most memorable stops. Between 1850 and 1956, when the mine closed, 5.8 million ounces of gold were extracted from tunnels thousands of feet underground. I feel claustrophobic just peering into the shaft where the men were lowered into the earth, so Kim leads me out to the park, now a popular place for weddings. We both find it ironic that people get married on the very spot where miners died, which leads to a lengthy discussion about blood diamonds in Africa. This is the kind of thing we talk about on vacation—when we're not shopping or eating.
Lake Tahoe is about 70 miles to the east. I booked us a hotel in advance, expecting the area to be packed at the tail end of the ski season. But when we arrive, the strip of motels alongside the water is alive with neon vacancy signs. Our place, theMourelatos Lakeshore Resort, is owned by a friendly Greek family; however, I feel a bit of renter's remorse when I see the satin bedspreads, gold-trimmed pillows, and thick wall-to-wall carpeting. Falling asleep in our gilded confines that night, I dream of Greek gods and sooty-faced miners.
Mourelatos Lakeshore Resort
6834 N. Lake Blvd., Tahoe Vista, 800/824-6381, mlrtahoe.com, from $130
Restaurant at the Holbrooke
212 W. Main St., Grass Valley, 530/273-1353, holbrooke.com, Cobb salad $9
Empire Mine State Historic Park
10791 E. Empire St., Grass Valley, 530/273-8522, empiremine.org, $3
Across the border in Nevada, Kim and I decide to do some prospecting of our own at theTahoe Biltmore Lodge & Casino. Kim has never been to a casino and I'm hardly a card shark, so we luck out by sitting at an empty blackjack table opposite Victor, a softhearted dealer who explains the rules to us. (Note to the pit boss: I disguised Victor's identity so you can't fire him for taking pity on a couple of rubes.) Even with Victor's tutelage, we manage to lose $25 in no time—a sure sign that we'd better hit the road.
We come back in California and drive toEmerald Bay, one of the most photographed sights in the Sierras. We hike down to the water's edge and find a spot where we can see Fannette Island in the middle of the bay. The sun is melting the last of the snow, and the air smells of pine.
As beautiful as the scenery is, I can't wait to show Kim the less-traveled parts of the state to the south, where my family spent many vacations when I was young. Gold and silver deposits were discovered in this mountain nook in the late 1850s, luring miners to outposts like Bridgeport and Bodie. We hoped to visit the latter, now a ghost town, but the road is snowed in. So we arrive early at theRedwood Motel, recognizable by its bucking-bronco statue out front. With the manager's hand-drawn map, we head toTravertine Hot Springs, south of Bridgeport, and slowly lower ourselves into a pool set amid sagebrush and russet rocks. The only thing that could make it better is if the couple in the pool next to ours were to share their bottle of wine.