I’ve been in California for fourteen years, and until now Gold Country was simply something standing between me and the mountains. We’d drive through quaint old west towns on our way to the high country, and I’d always tell myself that one day we’d come back to explore. Last weekend was finally the time for that exploration. Over two days, we drove from Sonora to Auburn via the historic highway 49. Along the way we learned a lot about the history of California’s gold rush, explored antique shops, stayed in a ‘haunted’ hotel, and spent a night on the town in one of the bigger remaining cities along the route.
We started Saturday morning at Columbia State Historic Park, one of the many settlements that sprung up during the California Gold Rush. Columbia’s setup seems optimized for school groups and casual touristy shopping, but we enjoyed poking around the old cemetery and David spent quite some time chatting with the blacksmith at the working shop.
Next, we continued north along 49 through the towns of Amador City (home of Mark Twain’s jumping frog), Volcano, and Sutter Creek. Many antique shops were explored.
We ended the day in Placerville, one of our regular mountain ‘drive through’ towns. The Cary House Hotel in downtown Placerville was our hotel of choice, standing since 1857 and reputed to be haunted. The old gated elevator still runs and we took it one-by-one to our comfortable room on the 4th floor. After dropping off our luggage we set off to explore the streets of downtown Placerville.
Several antique shops entertained us, followed by a fantastic dinner at the Heyday Cafe. After dinner we listened to some live music at a local wine bar nearby and chatted with some locals. It was a fun night in our typical ‘pass-through’ town!
On Sunday morning we drove up to the Marshall Gold Discovery State Park. This was more ‘park-like’ than Columbia, featuring hiking trails and history over shops and touristy gimmicks. This park sits along the American River and is the site of the gold discovery that ignited the mass rush to California. I vividly remember learning about this important moment in American History when I was in elementary school. For some reason it stuck with me. Maybe something in me felt that same pull to California, except my gold is the mountains.
We explored some of the old buildings along the river, stopping by the blacksmith shop (of course) for an extended visit. After David got his fill, we hiked the Monroe Ridge Trail in a ~3 mile loop along the edge of the park and enjoyed overlooking the valleys below. The trail ended at the memorial to James Marshall.
James Marshall was a carpenter and sawmill operator who was building a new mill for John Sutter, founder of a Fort in a location that would later become Sacramento. The mill was being built to supply building timbers for the construction of the fort. During regular construction tasks along the river, Marshall noticed gold flecks in the sand. The rest is history. Neither man was a miner and despite being the catalyst for tremendous gold riches, both died in poverty.
The mill no longer exists, but the trench that was being dug when the gold was discovered is still evident and gold panning activities regularly happen in the park. We did not have the luck of James Marshall.
This wasn’t our typical mountain outing but I really enjoyed taking a slower pace and getting to know the state I’ve called home for almost 14 years. Sometimes it’s fun to play tourist!