Gold! Gold! Gold! You would think Frank Norris’ 1899 novel McTeague was back in print (probably best remembered for today as the source material for the classic Erich von Stroheim silent film GREED). [Available for download: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/165] Instead, with the rise in the spot price of gold more and more people are fantasizing about discovering their own ala the ’49ers of the California Gold Rush period.
You can experience all this and more today starting just 45 minutes outside of Sacramento in California’s Gold Country [www.calgold.org] that runs all the way to Yosemite and Central Sierra, stretching from Nevada County to Tuolumne County. The rough and tumble Wild West is long past but picturesque Northern California is still a treasure to discover. For the sightseer, self-guided historic walking tours and visits to gold mines, in addition to the plethora of local museums, would be a vacation to remember. For the more adventurous, a few days learning to pan for gold in the original California Gold Rush streams (beginning with the first discovery in Sutter’s Mill) is where it’s at. Add to that the opportunity to metal detect deserted ghost towns (with permission of course) and tailing piles will give you the possibility of striking it rich with the modern treasure hunting tools unavailable 150 years ago, even five years ago in some cases with the latest technology. [See: www.FisherLab.com, www.Garrett.com, www.Minelab.com, www.Tesoro.com, www.Tekneticst2.com and www.WhitesElectronics.com]
To begin your adventure you first have to fly (or drive) into beautiful Sacramento, the gateway to Napa Valley and Lake Tahoe. If you have a couple of extra days take some time to visit the California Automobile Museum [www.calautomuseum.org], the California State Military Museum [www.militarymuseum.org], the Sacramento Zoo [www.saczoo.org], the Crocker Art Museum [www.crockerartmuseum.org] and the Leland Stanford Mansion [www.stanfordmansion.org], to name a few.
After renting your car (I’d suggest 4WD for the rugged country) head north to Nevada County. Grass Valley, which dates from the 1850’s, produced more than $900 million in gold. A visit to the 780-acre Empire Mine State Historic Park should be the first stop on your destination. Downtown Nevada City is considered one of the best-preserved Gold Rush towns in California with 90 storefront and Victorian homes. For your first experience in gold panning, South Yuba River State Park on Saturday and Sundays is the place to be (leave your metal detector in the car as this location is “hands and pans” only).
Heading south will take you to Placer County, which is practically littered with historic mining communities in the foothills. From there your journey will take you to El Dorado County, the home of Sutter’s Mill which started it all which can be visited at the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park in Coloma, CA. Across the river on the South Fork of the American River is the holy grail of gold panning. Onward to Placerville, CA (during its notorious past better known as Hangtown) is the Gold Bug Mine & Park. A side trip should be to one of the three acclaimed micro breweries in the region (Gold Hill Brewery, Jack Russell Brewing Co. and Placerville Brewing Co.), I won’t tell you my favorite so you’ll have to sample all three and decide for yourself.
For those who have to cut their trip short, the halfway mark in Gold Country is Sacramento County. Your journey puts you on the aptly named Highway 49 honoring the 49ers who used Sacramento as their jumping off point if they arrived via the Pacific (some travelled around Cape Horn while others took a shortcut through Panama on the Panama Railroad pre-Panama Canal). Amador County is a short ride away to the East. Hidden in the rolling hills are numerous mines and caves of which many offer tours, for a break you can partake at a number of the vineyards in the area. Make sure you visit the famous Sutter Gold Mine. Southward you will come to Calaveras County located in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, home of the California Gold Rush, the Jumping Frog made famous by Mark Twain and one of nature’s great beauties, the giant Sequoias.
The next to last stop of your treasure adventure will be Tuolumne County, where the former gold camp Columbia beckons. Ghosts of the gamblers, outlaws and miners are said to be prevalent here. Chinese Camp, one of the most notable Gold Rush towns settled by the first Chinese laborers is not that far away as is Groveland, one of the county’s earliest towns. You have to be rested as you’ll end your journey in Mariposa County, home of the first hard rock gold mine that was said to have been discovered in part by frontiersman Kit Carson who was John C. Fremont’s guide in the American West. Fremont was one of the largest landowners in Gold Country. The best known mines in Mariposa County includes the Josephine, Pine Tree and Princeton; all of which were some of the most productive in the motherlode. A stop at the Mariposa and Coulterville Museums will be an exciting coda to your journey. Coulterville is considered to be one of the most unspoiled gold rush era towns in California. Before heading back home to relive your experiences in Gold Country, pay pilgrimage to one of America’s greatest treasures, Yosemite National Park.