Modern California holds sprawling metropolitan areas, the biggest population of all the United States, and the eighth largest economy in the world. But prior to the mid-1800s, California was a land of sleepy settlements. Now densely populated, San Francisco had only 459 residents in 1847. Everything changed when gold was discovered east of Sacramento in 1848, and the rush of gold prospectors that followed gave rise to California as we know it today.
For California natives and visitors alike, this historically important region that once drew thousands of gold seekers from around the world is today, again, largely undiscovered. But those who make the trip to Gold Country will find fascinating history and abundant charm tucked away in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains.
For my off-the-beaten-path excursion to the wonders of historic Gold Country, the Gold Rush-era mansion that houses the Sacramento Hostel serves as an apt base an hour away or less from some of the region's main sites. I spend breakfast chatting with a fellow hostel guest before heading out of the morning political bustle of Sacramento's Capital District.
Historic Highway 49
As I drive along Highway 50, I leave the small-city feel of Sacramento, pass through suburbs, and enter the countryside. A winding road through hills dotted with oak trees and farmhouses takes me to historic Highway 49, the gateway to exploring Gold Country. For my day trip, I'm visiting just a small part of Highway 49; there are several more attractions (some listed at the end of this article) along the road's 300-mile stretch. The "49" is no coincidence; the highway got its number from the "Forty-Niners," a common nickname for the droves of people who once flocked to the area seeking their own bit of gold fortune.
Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park
Fittingly, my first stop is the place where it all began -- the Marshall Gold Discovery site in Coloma. As soon as I arrive, I feel like I've driven into the 1800s. On both sides of the highway are structures from the era, including a former miner's residence, an old schoolhouse, and gold mining equipment.
I start my exploration of the park at the museum and visitor center where I get an overview of the site before and during the Gold Rush. Here there are life-size 3D scenes detailing Gold Rush history, photographs, and artifacts, including a rare L. Downing & Sons stagecoach built in the mid-1800s. The museum also covers less-discussed aspects of Gold Rush history such as the negative impact it had on the Native American population.
From the visitor center I make my way along the Gold Discovery Loop Trail which is shaded by trees and runs parallel to the South Fork of the American River. I first visit a replica of the Sutter Mill, an impressive structure that was built based on photographs and drawings of the original sawmill. I walk further, pausing every so often to look at placards detailing the events of the gold discovery. The next sight I come across is a gigantic cobblestone monument that marks the spot of the original Sutter Mill.
It's a peaceful and scenic location along the American River, so I stop and take it all in. Rafters paddle down the river, and further upstream people are panning for gold. Every so often I see flocks of geese flying by and landing in the river. Gold Country has more than just history -- it's beautiful as well.
A short walk later, I reach the exact spot where James Marshall found gold as he was examining the grounds. It's hard to believe that a discovery in this incredibly quiet place sparked the rapid growth of California. But after gold was discovered here and confirmed to be real, over the course of a few years, approximately 300,000 people swarmed into California.
After making my way back on the Gold Discovery Loop Trail, I take the Monument Trail to the top of a hill where there's a statue of James Marshall pointing to the spot where he discovered gold. In addition to hiking and exploring the historic buildings, consider bringing along a picnic lunch as there are ample places to dine at a table under the oak trees.
Since I'm visiting on one of the hottest days of the year, I opt to eat something light in a cool, indoor space. I drove down a windy road and make a pit stop in Placerville for lunch at the Cozmic Cafe. With an emphasis on local, organic produce and a colorful and artsy interior, the Cozmic Cafe adds something of a hippie vibe to the town's old-school Western feel. The building that houses the cafe is also a part of local history -- it once served as a soda factory and there is a historical gold mine in the back of the building.
Gold Bug Park and Mine
After filling up with a wholesome lunch and recharging with iced coffee, I take a short drive over to Gold Bug Park. I get there just in time for a tour of the Joshua Hendy Stamp Mill. There, a certified blacksmith in period costume takes us step-by-step through the grueling process of extracting gold from ore. Our guide is full of entertaining anecdotes, and his deep knowledge of the stamp mill history helps us imagine what it might have been like to work in the dangerous and difficult conditions there.
When the stamp mill tour is over, I take a separate tour of the Gold Bug Mine. For this experience, I'm required to wear a hard hat while an animated audio-tour guide named "Duffy" leads me through a dark, damp tunnel. Inside the mine, it's several degrees cooler than outside. It feels good on this toasty day, but probably warrants extra layers on a cooler day. At each numbered stop, I listen to intriguing bits of information about mining life and the rock formations inside the tunnel.
When my gold mining exploration has ended, I return to the backwater town of Placerville. Walking along the Gold Rush-era storefronts, I get a closer look at the quirks of this place that was once known as Hangtown. The establishment of Placerville is directly related to the gold discovery in Coloma, and during the Gold Rush, the now-sleepy Placerville was the third largest town in California after San Francisco and Sacramento.
Along with the fortunes being made came waves of crime from those who sought to strip merchants and miners of their riches. Without any law enforcement at the time, locals banded together to decide how to deal with this problem. According to the City of Placerville, in 1849 an "impromptu citizens' jury" determined that hanging was an appropriate form of punishment for three people accused of robbery. The name Hangtown was acquired because of this incident and the many hangings that followed. Today the town is significantly tamer, and its historic Main Street is an antique collector's dream filled with stores carrying furniture, rusty old mining tools, and other products from bygone eras.
Walking along Main Street I'm drawn into an old-fashioned candy shop by a sign advertising ice cream. In the back I find a friendly attendant who informs me that the ice cream is from Gunthers, an award-winning, Sacramento-based purveyor. The sherbet I order is indeed delicious, and I enjoy it in the shade of a hidden courtyard as the sun and heat begin to wane.
Later as I head back to Sacramento, not only do I feel like I have a deeper understanding of California's history, I'm relaxed after spending a day in the quiet beauty of the American River and the Sierra Nevada Foothills. The Forty-Niners have come and gone, but Gold Country is still golden and teeming with historical, natural, and cultural treasures.
More Highway 49 highlights
Empire Mine State Historic Park - The largest and most successful of all the California gold mines, where you can take a mine tour, learn about the mining process, and hike 12 miles of trails.
Old Town Auburn - Gold Rush-era facades and museums offer up Gold Country history.
Columbia State Historic Park - A "living, restored gold rush town," where trained docents don period costumes.
Auburn State Recreation Area - A variety of recreational opportunities including DIY gold panning, hiking, horseback riding, and more along the scenic American River.
Cave and Mine Adventures - Three caves -- Black Chasm Cavern, California Cavern, and the Moaning Cavern -- are all located off Highway 49 and open for exploring their natural rock formations.
Ekua Impraim is our Marketing and Communications Intern. A California native, she’s an avid traveler who enjoys discovering her local surroundings just as much as exploring far-flung corners of the world.
Stay at the Sacramento Hostel, in the Gold Rush-era Llewellyn Williams mansion.