Sierra Gold Country

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Vines with purple grapes, ready for harvest, stretch across the landscape, with hills and a tree in the background, of a vineyard in Amador County in northern California. Amador County is located in the heart of the Gold Country (Mother Lode Country), in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, where gold was discovered in the middle 1800's, triggering the historic California Gold Rush. The County is thus home to of some California's oldest vineyards

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.

Getting started

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.

The crystalline nugget, bright and shiny, is displayed at the California State Mining and Mineral Museum (adults, $2), where exhibits provide a good introduction to gold-mining techniques. The first forty-niners sifted the rivers flowing down the western slopes of the Sierras for placer gold, flakes, and nuggets swept from the mountains as gravel by raging currents. By the mid-1850s, however, the easy gold was gone, and big investment money was needed to tunnel for the hard-rock gold that remained. To learn more about this aspect of the frantic gold quest, step into the museum's 175-foot-long simulated mine tunnel. It's so realistic, I sort of hurried through, fearful that the ceiling might cave in.

Save time, too, for the Mariposa Museum and History Center ($3), which displays even more gold-mining artifacts, including a typical one-room miner's cabin, a giant freight wagon, and a stamp mill-a monster machine that crushed ore to particles of sand, releasing the gold from the quartz. Excerpts from miners' letters sent back home to family and friends detail the hardscrabble life in a mining camp.

Details

From San Francisco, take I-80 and I-580 east to I-5 south. At Gustine, head east on Route 140 via Merced to Mariposa. The stretch from Gustine to Merced cuts through the San Joaquin Valley, one of the world's most productive agricultural areas. In summer, sniff the rich scent of ripening fruit and vegetables. In Mariposa, stay at the eight-room Sierra View Motel (800/627-8439), $59; the 28-room E.C. Lodge Yosemite (209/742-6800), $69; or the 77-room Miner's Inn Motel (888/646-2244), $75. Dine at the Miner's Inn Motel; the barbecued-chicken plate is just $9.95. Information 888/554-9013, homeofyosemite.com.

Day two: A Hollywood favorite

Mariposa to Jackson, via Calaveras Big Trees State Park, 145 miles Just north of Mariposa, Route 49 plunges for about 50 miles into a mostly untouched land of deep canyons and rumpled hills blanketed by sunburned grass. Here and there cattle graze. Traffic is light, and providently so. At times, the road edges steep precipices, ultimately dropping down the side in ten-miles-per-hour hairpin turns.

At Coulterville, detour briefly off the highway to stroll Main Street. The sleepy little village, where adobe structures dating back to 1851 still stand, calls itself "the most unspoiled Gold Rush town in California." Indeed. We turned into a parking space just off Main and flushed a covey of wild quail. Still a gold-mining town, Coulterville doesn't discourage the legend that "When it rains, sometimes you find gold in the streets."

Jamestown, another Old West charmer, is a Hollywood star. It served as a backdrop for High Noon and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, as well as countless other movies and TV shows. Here, Railtown 1897 State Historic Park ($2 for a tour) re-creates turn-of-the-century mountain railroading. Its historic steam locomotives and cars claim title as "the movie railroad," having appeared in Little House on the Prairie and other TV shows and films.

In Columbia State Historic Park catch a 12-minute ride ($5) into the piney woods on a stagecoach. But watch out for Trigger Mortis, who might pop out from behind a monster boulder. He's a not-so-threatening masked bandit easily talked out of robbing passengers of wallets, watches, chewing gum, and other valuables. At ride's end, parched from the sun and dust, we slaked our thirst at the Douglass Saloon, downing a mug of homemade sarsaparilla, on tap for $1.

Gold was first discovered in the area in 1850, and in one month 6,000 fortune hunters arrived. Before the placer deposits ran out, Columbia produced about $87 million in gold, most of it weighed on the set of scales displayed in the Wells Fargo office.

Unlike many early settlements, the town, which grew to 15,000 in its heyday, never succumbed to fire, vandalism, or the elements, nor was it ever completely deserted. The best preserved of the boomtowns, its oak-shaded Main Street, stretching four blocks, is lined with two- and three-story wood and brick buildings housing a mixture of museums and shops. Over-hanging balconies and wood sidewalks reflect the frontier heritage.

At Matelot Gulch Mine Supply Store, sign up for a gold-panning lesson ($5) and learn for yourself that panning is harder than it looks. For the price, you get a pan and a packet of sand "salted" with a fleck of gold so you recognize what you are looking for. Dip the pan in water and swirl gently again and again, trusting that the gold, which is heavier than the silt, sinks to the bottom of the pan.

From Columbia, continue on to Angels Camp, and then detour east here for 23 miles on Route 4 into the lofty Sierras. The goal is Calaveras Big Trees State Park ($2 per car) and its impressive stand of giant sequoia redwoods. To see them up close, take the easy one-and-a-half-mile hike on North Grove Trail, where some sequoias-the largest living things on earth-grow nearly 30 feet in diameter at the base. In 1852, a grizzly hunter stumbled into the grove; his was the Western world's first recorded glimpse of these magnificent trees. Like gold, they astonish those who lay eyes on them as yet another remarkable feature of California.

En route back to Angels Camp, take a walk through Murphys, another former mining camp turned vibrant weekender's retreat, and then end your day in Jackson. On Main Street at California Street, we recently discovered Hein & Co., a huge warehouse of bargain-priced used books. We stuffed every pocket of our suitcases with the armful we carried away.

Details

From Mariposa, take Route 49 north to Jackson. The detour on Route 4 from Angels Camp to Calaveras Big Trees, 23 miles (each way), adds about two hours to your day if you hike the trail. Stay in Jackson at the 36-room Jackson Gold Lodge (209/223-0486), $55 weekdays/$65 weekends; or the 119-room Best Western Amador Inn (800/543-5221), $79 weekdays/$84 weekends. Dine on Mexican dishes with the locals at Jos,'s; the chile relleno plate, $9.95. Information 209/223-0350, amadorcountychamber.com.

Day three: Where it all began

Jackson to Auburn, 60 miles Don't let the short distance fool you; the day ahead is full.

If you are in Jackson on a Saturday or Sunday, you can enjoy a leisurely breakfast before catching the 10 a.m. opening of the Kennedy Gold Mine ($9). It's reputed to have been the richest and deepest gold mine in California. Preserved as a museum of Gold Rush history, the above-ground structures-the mine office, the changing house, the dynamite storage shed, the stamp mill-can be seen on 90-minute escorted or self-guided tours. If the mine is closed, take Jackson Gate Road (Main Street extended) behind the mine to see the Kennedy Tailings Wheels, four massive, Ferris wheel-like structures (two standing, two collapsed) that once lifted tons of gravel over two hills. They are an especially photogenic relic. You can frame the hillside mine structures through the giant spokes of the standing wheel.

In the town of Plymouth just ahead, look for Shenandoah Road, a turn to the right. It's the gateway to Amador County Wine Country, a cluster of more than 20 fine wineries with tasting rooms that don't charge a penny to sip. Their red zinfandels are said to be among the finest in the world. In summer, the rolling hills are traced by rows of vines hanging heavy with ripening grapes. We thought we were in Tuscany.

And then, just ahead is Villa Toscano (209/245-3800, general information), a vineyard-encircled winery with a tasting room designed to look like an ancient Tuscan villa. Classical statues line the walkway and fountains splash in the garden. Even wine, we recently learned, has a link to forty-niner gold. Newly rich, the lucky miners spurred a new economy providing them with comfortable lodgings and fine dining. Soon enough, Gold Country boasted more wineries than the rest of the state. Justification enough, we figure, to stop at two more wineries before heading on.

In a topsy-turvy way, you'll arrive at the site where the Gold Rush began-now the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park ($4 per car) in Coloma-only near the end of the drive. No matter; you will have acquired the background to fully appreciate the significance of what happened here.

In the 1840s, John Sutter was assembling an empire for himself in the nearby Sacramento Valley. He needed wood, so he went into partnership with James W. Marshall to build a sawmill in the Coloma Valley along the American River. The mill was almost complete when Marshall found his gold. Hordes scurried to Coloma, creating an overnight town of thousands. From Coloma, miners spread out to other streams and canyons north and south pursuing reports of other strikes. The rush was on. By 1857, however, the placer gold had given out, and Coloma became a quiet grape-growing town.

Still quiet, much of Coloma is now incorporated into the park. In mid-summer, the American River, which slices through the preserve, draws big crowds to raft, wade, or swim in its rock-strewn channel. On the far shore, an area is set aside for recreational gold panning, and a park concessionaire provides lessons.

"Does anyone ever find gold?" I recently asked John Hutchinson, a senior park aide. "Some do," he said, "if they work hard enough and long enough." On occasion, he has scored a bit of gold himself.

Though a swim is tempting, Sandy and I set out dutifully to walk the park's interpretive trail, which follows the shoreline. A replica of Marshall's sawmill sits back from the water next to a weathered cabin used by his workmen. Further on, the trail turns abruptly toward the river's edge. On a gravelly bank behind a sheltered backwater, we reached the discovery site. Except for a small sign, it's simply a riverbank.

North of Coloma, Route 49 snakes through a rugged mountain realm, offering some of the most dramatic scenery on the drive. Initially, the road traces the American River, where white-water rafters go splashing past. Climbing high above a deep gorge, it suddenly tops a summit and then quickly descends into Auburn, one of California's prettiest little cities.

Details

Except for the wine-sampling detour in Plymouth, stick to Route 49. In Auburn, stay at the 52-room Super 8 (530/888-8808), $59 weekdays/$63 weekends; or the 57-room Motel 6 (530/888-7829), $62 weekdays/$68 weekends. Dine at Tio Pepe's Restaurant; the hefty taco plate includes taco, enchilada, burrito, tostadas, and rice and beans for $7.95. Information 530/887-2111, visitplacer.com.

Day four: Auburn to San Francisco, 120 miles

Return quickly to San Francisco on I-80 to catch your flight home. Or for more Gold Rush lore, continue north 130 miles on the Mother Lode Highway to its terminus at Vinton. Either way, you might reflect on this thought:

A state-park ranger once told me that practically every inch of the streams and rivers of the Sierras has been worked for gold at one time or another. But more washes down from the mountains every spring, when melting snow turns placid streams into racing torrents. The lure of California gold may have diminished, but it is far from gone.

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