California Gold Country

California Gold Country

Nancy Hoyt Belcher

Tourists strike it rich in historic mining towns along the 49er Trail


One hundred and fifty years ago, when California became a state, most of the people didn’t live in San Francisco or Los Angeles, but in tiny mining towns hastily built in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

In 1847 the population of California was 14,000; by 1850 more than 100,000 dreamers and adventurers had arrived from all over the world–all because James Marshall had picked up a couple of small golden flakes from the tailrace on the American River near John Sutter’s sawmill in 1848. Mexican miners called the major gold veins La Veta Madre (The Mother Lode) and the name stuck.

Camps and towns (historians claim there were 546) sprang up wherever gold was found, then were abandoned when it ran out. Today almost 300 have vanished or are ghost towns in arrested decay. Many that remain are just a quick pit stop at a picturesque name: Rough and Ready, Fiddletown, Cool, Chinese Camp, Drytown (where there were once 26 saloons).

The route of the 49ers, State Highway 49, about 150 miles east of San Francisco, stretches 321 miles through nine small counties (Mariposa County doesn’t even have a stop sign).

Today’s treasure hunters will find other rewards in the still-flourishing small towns clustered throughout the area–handsomely restored Victorians housing restaurants, boutiques, antique shops, and art galleries; charming 19th century inns; historic museums, many specializing in Mother Lode memorabilia; award-winning wineries (grapes, not gold, now glitters in “them thar hills”). Many towns offer walking tours, steam train excursions, and horse carriage rides.

You’ll discover even more wealth when you meander onto a scenic back road–a richness of lakes and rivers (some of the West’s best for whitewater rafting); giant sequoias, pines, cottonwoods, and oaks dotting the landscape; abandoned rusted machinery, weathered wooden buildings, and tailings sprawling across fields; emerald green hillsides with wildflowers in the spring–or a sea of gold on Daffodil Hill in Amador County when 40,000 daffodils bloom.

Dozens of historic markers along the route beckon you to stop and learn about the era. Near Angels Camp you can read about Mark Twain’s cabin (and drive to a replica), where he wrote his first published story, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. The town parties every May during its Jumping Frog Jubilee.

You can still pan for flecks of gold at many sites along the way, including where it all began, at Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park in Coloma. The park, which sprawls along both sides of Highway 49, features mining exhibits, a restored Main Street, a replica of Sutter’s sawmill (with some of the original hand-carved timbers on display), and a marker for the actual discovery site in a remnant of the original tailrace.

One of the best preserved historical districts in the Gold Country can be found in Nevada City. Neon signs aren’t allowed; gaslit lamps line the main streets; even board sidewalks remain.

The town, well known for its great shopping and restaurants, is a favorite weekend getaway for San Francisco Bay Area residents. The still-operating Nevada Theatre, the state’s oldest theater, once hosted Mark Twain and Jack London on stage. Silver ore from the legendary Comstock Mine came to Ott’s Assay office, and the Miners Foundry looks much as it did when it was manufacturing mining equipment and the Pelton Water Wheel. Today it’s a cultural center and hosts dozens of events throughout the year, including an International Teddy Bear Convention.

Placerville (once Hangtown and the first major Gold Rush town) is the starting point for a popular farm trails driving tour. A saunter down Main Street offers a glimpse into the past, including the oldest continuously operating hardware store west of the Mississippi River and the Cary House Hotel, once a Wells Fargo statecoach stop.

It seems as if every town has preserved an old locomotive. In Coulterville, it’s Whistling Billy on display under the Hangman’s Tree. Billy’s entire life in the late 1880s was a four-mile run from the Mary Harrison Mine to a stamp mill.

But railroad buffs shouldn’t miss Railtown 1897 State Historic Park in Jamestown. The former headquarters of the Sierra Railway, which hauled freight and passengers into the Mother Lode, now houses an impressive collection of locomotives, passenger coaches, cabooses, and track cars. Original buildings include an enormous roundhouse.

There also are plenty of old mining buildings left to explore; most are open to visitors. Near Sierra City you can tour the restored Kentucky Mine (now a museum), while Sutter Creek showcases the Knight Foundry, one of the few water-powered foundries left in the country. Jackson’s Kentucky Mine once laid claim to being the deepest mine in North America. Malakoff Diggins (a state historic park) near Nevada City still shows the ecological damage done by what was once the world’s largest hydraulic gold mine.

Grass Valley’s 780-acre Empire Mine (another state park) was California’s richest; by the time it shut down in 1957, hardrock mining had produced more than $2 billion worth of gold (at today’s prices). It’s also one of the Mother Lode’s most enjoyable mines to visit; tours include the owner’s beautiful home and formal gardens.

Many of the early mining towns, flimsily constructed of wood, suffered devastating fires, so firehouses and equipment, from hand-pulled hose carts to motorized pumpers, were an important part of every community. You’ll find relics and firefighting memorabilia throughout the Gold Country.

Columbia, another state historic park, even celebrates Fireman’s Muster every May. The town, the most popular in the Gold Country, looks like a movie set (parts of High Noon were filmed here). You can ride a stagecoach down Main Street; observe costumed interpreters working in the blacksmith, candle, and carpentry shops; watch a live theater production at the restored Fallon House Theatre; and take a walking tour along streets lined with lovingly restored buildings. Here, more than any other town in the Mother Lode, the 49ers’ dreams are preserved and displayed.

For additional information or to request the comprehensive brochure, “California’s Gold Country Visitors Map,” contact Gold Country Visitors Assn. (TravelAmerica Magazine), P.O. Box 637, Angels Camp, CA 95222; (800) 225-3764.

RELATED ARTICLE: Southern Yosemite Boasts Many Attractions

Just south of Gold Country and on the southern edge of Yosemite National Park, the Southern Yosemite area is an often overlooked gem. Unique mountain communities, spectacular vistas, and countless outdoor adventures await the traveler.

The area’s Native American culture is best featured at the Sierra Mono Indian Museum in North Fork, where hand-woven baskets and original artifacts are displayed. The museum is historically the cultural center of the Mono Indians, and pow wows–with traditional dances and arts and crafts–are held there every year.

Pioneer history is recounted at Fresno Flats Historical Park in Oakhurst. This historic “town” recreates life in the area during the late 1800s with homes, carriages, a smithy, schoolhouse, and logging equipment. Also in Oakhurst, the Little Church on the Hill was built as a community effort in 1892 and remained the area’s only house of worship for nearly 50 years. Other area museums include Madera Court House Park and the Children’s Museum of the Sierra.

The Logger Train of the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad is an original locomotive once used to transport lumber from the mountains to the valley. It has been refurbished and now carries tourists on a scenic four-mile excursion through the Sierra National Forest. The “Moonlight Special” includes dinner and entertainment. If you prefer water to woods, the Bass Lake Queen offers tours of picturesque Bass Lake.

How about taking a tour of a working cattle ranch, a cotton field, a grape vineyard, or an almond orchard? Learn where your food comes from while sampling the area’s agricultural bounty. The Pizza Farm in Madera is laid out in the shape of a pizza to show how farmers grow all the ingredients used to make pizza.

The area’s natural beauty is easily appreciated on the Sierra Vista Scenic Byway, which winds 100 miles through the Sierra National Forest. Don’t miss Mile High Vista, which gives a gorgeous view of the Sierra Crest including the Minarets, Mount Ritter (13,157′), and Mammoth Mountain, as well as Mammoth Pool, the San Joaquin River, Balloon Dome, and Fuller Buttes. Redinger Overlook and Fresno Dome also offer outstanding views. Natural wonders on the route include the Balls, great glacier-carved granite domes; Globe Rock, a large balanced boulder; and Arch Rock. Also of interest is the 1860s Ross Cabin. Near the end of the byway, visit Nelder Grove Giant Sequoia Preservation Area, home to Bull Buck, one of the largest and oldest trees in the world.

Some of the area’s roads are closed in winter, but that doesn’t stop the fun. Downhill skiing at Badger Pass is great for the whole family. Snowshoe or cross country ski on trails and unplowed roads throughout the area. Ice skating and sleigh rides are other options in the winter wonderland of Southern Yosemite.

Area accommodations include remote campsites, quaint bed and breakfast inns, hotels, full-service resorts, and even a castle (the sumptuous Chateau du Sureau).

–Christina Victor

For more information, contact: Yosemite Sierra Visitors Center (TravelAmerica Magazine), 40637 Hwy. 41, Oakhurst, CA 93644; (559) 683-4636;

COPYRIGHT 2000 World Publishing, Co. (Illinois)

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group