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.
That evening, gussied up for a night on the town, we stumble upon an impromptu block party. Three locals drinking in their truck try to enlist us in a practical joke that involves telling a bartender that I'm his friend's girlfriend from San Diego. Starving, we head to the restaurant at theBridgeport Inn, a gorgeous Gold Rush–era hotel where the menu veers from prime rib to shrimp tempura. I stick with the safe-bet spaghetti and meatballs, while Kim goes for the wild-card chicken satay, and we both feel lucky. After dinner, we decide to check outRhino's Bar & Grille, where I'm supposed to pretend to be somebody's visiting girlfriend. But as soon as we walk in, I realize that I'm not only wearing a red coat and a green cowboy hat, but also carrying a rose. I feel like a prom queen—and not in a good way. So we race back to our hotel and jump into bed for a movie night instead.
425 Main St., Bridgeport, 760/932-7060, redwoodmotel.net, from $54
Bridgeport Inn 205 Main St., Bridgeport, 760/932-7380, thebridgeportinn.com, spaghetti $17
Tahoe Biltmore Lodge & Casino
5 State Hwy. 28, Crystal Bay, Nev., 775/831-0660, tahoebiltmore.com
Emerald Bay State Park
Hwy. 89, 530/541-3030, parks.ca.gov, $7 per car
Travertine Hot Springs
Jack Sawyer Rd., off Rte. 395, a half mile south of Bridgeport, free
Rhino's Bar & Grille
226 Main St., Bridgeport, 760/932-7345
The only bummer about arriving at theWhoa Nellie Deliat 10 a.m. is that specials like the wild-buffalo meat loaf aren't being served yet. There is something called Big-Ass Cowboy Steak and Eggs, but I opt for a sesame bagel topped with a tower of smoked trout. Kim's scrambled eggs could feed a family of four; now we know how the place got its name.
As we approach theSouth Tufagrove at Mono Lake, the limestone formations look like relics of an ancient civilization. In the 1940s, L.A.'s water authorities diverted the tributaries that fed the basin, halving its volume and exposing the rocky towers, or tufas, that had been submerged. Environmentalists successfully challenged the practice, and the water levels are rising again. Signposts on the trail to the tufas show the lake's depth over the years. It's hard to believe the parking lot—a half mile away—is where the shoreline once was.
We would linger, but we have a date with a horse wrangler named Irene atRock Creek Pack Station, north of the nearby town of Bishop. Before the railroad arrived, outposts like this were where people went to send freight via pack animals to the coast. These days, the place gives visitors a taste of life on the range through activities such as six-day pack trips and cattle drives. Kim and I have opted for a slightly shorter endeavor: a four-hour horse ride in search of herds of wild mustangs. As we amble along, Irene expounds on everything from Indian trade routes to mustang ways (apparently, when a stud wants to show another who's boss, he pees on his rival's manure). Irene is a gossip, too—she says John Wayne wore a neckerchief to hide his wattle.
After a while, we spot a mustang off in a field, likely a male that has been kicked out of his herd by a competitor. As the beast starts to move toward us, Irene explains that the poor sap—horny and lonely in horse exile—can smell Vera, the mare I'm riding. I edge Vera closer to entice our guy within photo range. He obliges, looking so forlorn I feel guilty for being a tease. Then Vera whinnies and strains against her halter, so we retreat. "If the stud had gotten any closer," Irene says on the way back, "I hope you girls would have known to drop the reins and run."
Out of the saddle, Kim and I hobble to our car, looking forward to taking a soak when we get to theInn at Benton Hot Springs. Our room has brass beds, floral wallpaper, and vases fashioned out of boots. But the best part is the hot-spring-fed tubs in the garden. The water temperatures range from sizzling to lobster pot, exactly what two saddle-weary gals need.
Inn at Benton Hot Springs
55137 Hwy. 120, Benton, 760/933-2287, historicbentonhotsprings.com, from $99
Whoa Nellie Deli
22 Vista Point Rd., Lee Vining, 760/647-1088, whoanelliedeli.com, bagel with trout $10
Hwy. 120 E., 11 miles southeast of Lee Vining, monolake.org, $3
Rock Creek Pack Station
10 miles off Hwy. 395, north of Bishop, 760/935-4493, rockcreekpackstation.com, trail ride $70
Inspired by the scenery on our morning jaunt south through the Owens River valley—purple desert lupine and granite boulders set against snowcapped mountains—Kim announces she'd like to sing "America the Beautiful." It's early, but I join in, trying not to mangle the song. We follow that with "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" but stop short at "The Star-Spangled Banner" because neither one of us can reach the high notes.
The Alabama Hills in the southwestern part of the valley have been the setting for more than 400 movies, includingGunga Din,How the West Was Won, and, most recently,Iron Man. At theMuseum of Lone Pine Film History, we watch a clip about the region's cinematic past and check out the vast collection of movie posters, plus costumes worn by Gene Autry and Dale Evans and the stunning 1937 Plymouth coupe that Humphrey Bogart drove inHigh Sierra. By the time we leave, I'm making a mental list of westerns I want to see and nursing a crush on Gary Cooper.
With a few more minutes to spend in Lone Pine, Kim and I stroll down Main Street, past low-slung wooden and adobe storefronts. It doesn't feel very removed from the Gold Rush days. In fact, I can almost hear the sounds of wranglers galloping into town. And there's not a Pilates studio in sight.
Beverly and Jim Rogers Museum of Lone Pine Film History
701 S. Main St., Lone Pine, 760/876-9909, lonepinefilmhistorymuseum.org, $5
FINDING THE WAY
Flying into Reno is the quickest way to jump on Highway 395, the main route through the Sierras. San Francisco is also a fine starting point. Some mountain passes are closed through the late spring. Check dot.ca.gov for road conditions.