Travel Guide to California

gold country

A Mother Lode of attractions in the Sierra Foothills

by john flinn

It was a flash in the pan that changed the world. The sparkling nugget that caught the eye of James W. Marshall as he tended a sawmill in the Sierra Nevada foothills in January 1848 set off a gold rush that drew more than 300,000 would-be prospectors the following year from the eastern U.S., South America, Europe and even China. They were known as the 49ers.

Overnight, the Gold Rush transformed San Francisco from a sleepy port to a rollicking city and persuaded Congress to put California—wrested from Mexico by war just two years earlier—on the fast track to statehood. Most of the gold was found in a 300-mile belt that extended through the Sierra foothills, from Downieville in the north to Coarsegold in the south. Miners called it the “motherlode.”

In a state working tirelessly to invent the future, the Gold Country remains the most visible manifestation of its not-so-distant past, with towns sporting wood-plank sidewalks, swinging saloon doors, hitching posts and red-brick buildings. You’ll quickly discover that the best preserved of these belonged to Wells Fargo and, oddly, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows.

Today you can still pan for gold—it’s often said there’s more left in the ground than the original 49ers ever took out—but you can also raft some of California’s frothiest rivers, explore caverns and sample Chardonnay and Syrah in uncrowded, up-and-coming wineries.

insider's tip

The signatures of everyone from Mark Twain to Ulysses S. Grant to Charles Bolles (better known as Black Bart) are on display in the register of the historic MURPHYS HOTEL, one of the oldest continually operating hotels in California. murphyshotel.com

City & Town 

Sacramento was the terminus of the Transcontinental Railroad. From there, passengers completed their journey to San Francisco by ferry and barge—and the city still plays a vital role as the jumping-off point for exploring the Gold Country. Since the arrival of the 49ers, the small towns of the Gold Country proper have morphed through several distinct stages: from rough-and-tumble boomtowns, to somnolent hamlets, to destinations for biker rallies and, finally, to genteel venues for weekend getaways sporting comfortable B&Bs, sophisticated restaurants, antique stores and nearby wineries. Among the most popular are Sutter Creek, Nevada City and Murphys. The two largest towns of the Sierra foothills—Sonora and Placerville—offer all this, plus a large selection of motels, restaurants and shops in all price categories.

The Great Outdoors 

From May to mid October, the American River is California’s top venue for whitewater rafting. The river flow is controlled by releases from upstream reservoirs, so rafters are assured of good conditions. Outfitters offer half-day, full-day and multi-day journeys through a choice of several classes of whitewater. In the northern Sierra, the town of Downieville has become a center for mountain biking. Local bike shops offer rentals and shuttles on old mining roads and single tracks from the casual to the technical, including a 15-mile ride with a 4,000-foot descent. Houseboaters flock to vast, sprawling Gold Country reservoirs such as New Melones Lake, Don Pedro Lake and Lake McClure.

5 Must See, Do

COVERED BRIDGE The longest covered bridge west of the Mississippi stands at Knight’s Ferry, an old-time motherlode town so picturesque that scenes for Bonanza and Little House on the Prairie were filmed there. knightsferry.com

HAVE A SARSAPARILLA Step back to the 1800s at Columbia State Historic Park, with its wood-planked sidewalks, historically costumed shopkeepers and strict “horse-drawn vehicles only” policy. visitcolumbiacalifornia.com

APPELLATION TRAIL Leave the tippling crowds behind as you taste rich, jammy Zinfandels and other wines at dozens of wineries in California’s up-and-coming wine region: Amador, El Dorado and Calaveras counties. discovercaliforniawines.com

APPLE WATCH Allow the aroma of freshly baked apple pies, fritters, turnovers and strudel to lure you off Highway 50 east of Placerville to a place called Apple Hill. More than 50 growers participate in a celebration of the apple harvest—and of autumn itself—with cider, hayrides, pumpkin patches, hay mazes and other family fun. It runs from Labor Day to Christmas.  applehill.com

CALIFORNIA UNDERGROUND Rappel into the darkness and explore a chamber large enough to hold the Statue of Liberty in Moaning Cavern near the town of Vallecito. moaningcaverns



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