Gallivanting in the Golden West from Placerville to Groveland on California’s famed Highway 49. Mark Twain never had it this good. See the Celebration Travel Guide Outdoor recreation: California Gold Country for the day-by-day itinerary.
by Donna Peck Gold country attractions segue to heart-racing adventures on the rural highways linking California’s gold-rush towns. Placerville is a stone’s throw from the American River. Murphys oozes historic charm. Angels Camp loves its frog jumping contest, rodeos, parades, Moaning Caverns and giant sequoias. Groveland is home to thrills on the Tuolumne River.
Setting out on a six-day trip, we headed for the American River’s white gold —13 miles of Class II and III rapids—a fun run even for non-swimmers. The rafting guides handed out life vests, yellow helmets and paddles and we launched into the current with our oarsman Riley. We waved to the river rats whizzing past in tiny, slipper-shaped kayaks toward the Class III rapids. We waved to the college students, stripped down to bathing suits and sipping beer. We waved to the Placerville office workers who gossiped and paddled through the minor rapids out of sync. The video camera attached to a woman’s yellow helmet recorded their screams and laughter.
The river carried us through rapids, chutes, falls and gorges with a striking musicality. “People are awed by the river,” said Riley who camps on the river during the rafting season. “The music changes constantly.” He is so well attuned to the river, he could steer through the rapids blindfolded.
Our Eureka moment occurred in a rapid called Satan’s Cesspool. The river rose to a dangerous pitch, yet Riley eyed the rapid with a Buddha’s all-knowing calm. He barked terse commands, “right [paddlers], forward three….left [paddlers], back two.” We plunged our paddles into the heaving froth, our hearts in our throats. “Get in the boat,” he shouted. We catapulted onto the floor and huddled, heads down while the raft twisted and turned. A cascade crashed over our heads and we emerged laughing.
Looking back, the rapid flung up its skirts like a troupe of high-kicking can-can dancers.
Between rapids, the river played a languid rolling percussion. Dipping our paddles, we looked for hawks and kingfishers. Clouds and rocks suggested shapes. A tall granite boulder was a miner’s pickax poised to strike.
In the gorge, the Class I Swimmer’s Rapid, a few of us slipped into the water and bounced along on the shallow bottom. The water jostled the stones in a rat-a-tat-tat rhythm.
Abruptly, in the late afternoon, the river fell silent; our raft stopped. We awaited our tow and soon a jet ski sped across Folsom Lake toward us and towed our raft to the beach.
Placerville in the evening has a welcoming vibe. We wandered into Cozmic Cafe on open-mike night where families and friends gathered to cheer the local performers. A woman sang a sweet ballad that she composed, a tale of small-town life and enduring love. The audience clapped and with a face as red-as-a beet she bounded off stage into her husband’s arms. We also felt part of small-town life at midnight, ensconced in the upstairs rooms at Cary House Hotel. How could it get any better than this.
Don’t look for angels in Angels Camp. Mark Twain walked the mining camp’s wood-planks and recorded the shenanigans of the dreamers, schemers, and ne’er-do-wells in The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.
The goings-0n tickled his fancy and kept his pen active. Under a wooden awning, he may have watched Jim Smiley parade down the street with a basket under his arm, boasting that his frog could out jump any frog in Calaveras County. In the story, Smiley accepted a wager for $40 in gold. As the contest began, his frog was too overloaded with buckshot to leap. When Smiley discovered the swindle, the culprits had hightailed it to the next county with their winnings.
To take part in the annual frog jumping contest we only had to put up $10. “To succeed in life,” wrote Mark Twain, “you need two things: ignorance and confidence.” True for rafting rivers as well as jumping frogs. That’s what you do in Angel’s Camp. Locals kids spend days in the nearby ponds looking for high-hopping frogs. We signed up for the Fun Jump and went behind stage to pick up our rental frogs.
The frog attendant plucked a bullfrog from the bucket and showed up how to squeeze its back gently between thumb and index finger. To befriend my frog, I massaged its legs. I walked on stage and the master of ceremonies, Lee Guidici, announced to a dozen people in the bleachers, “Donna Peck is going to jump Leaping Lizzie.”
I placed Lizzie on the green astroturf, got down on all fours and pounded the stage. The frightened amphibian sprang 5 feet 10 inches. Guidici tipped his hat and handed me a certificate of my modest achievement. In 1986 Guidici’s frog leaped 21 feet 5 3/4 inches, setting a record. Last year’s champion jumped his frog 24 feet.
Among the gold mining camps that grew into towns, Groveland retains a bawdy air. Bandits walked the wooden planks and drank whiskey at the saloon. In local lore, they robbed miners of their day’s work at a place called Murderer’s Bend. Today, the foaming rapids of the Tuolumne River rolling out of the Yosemite wilderness is the town’s bonanza.
Setting out on a full-day trip, we listened in awe to the river’s booming resonance, a sound that evoked soaring eagles and golden-eyed grizzlies. Pleasing acoustics issued from the rock garden rapid where granite boulders formed a natural amphitheater.
But the jarring sound of Clavey Falls, the Class V rapid on the lower Tuolumne, is what I remember most from the trip. So serious were the maneuvers that our oarsman Mark rehearsed the paddling strokes. “Paddle left. Paddle right.” As his tone instilled a measure of fear, we gave him what he wanted: split-second timing. The rapid played our raft like a kettledrum, thumping us against granite boulders, hammering us in the whirlpool. In the end, the cool communion between oarsman and river got us through.
After the heady drama of running a Class V rapid, we paddled toward a sandy beach. The guides popped up a picnic table and soon our water-wrinkled hands were wrapped around thick sandwiches of roast beef, turkey, smoked ham and spicy jack cheese.
Between rapids, Mark directed our attention to the wilderness scenery. Wildflowers blanketed the hillside in record number because a wildfire had burned the undergrowth. An eaglet flapped its wings in a nest, while its mother from an upper branch kept a wary eye. On a steep hillside, the gaping mouth of the Iron Door mine opened into a tunnel from which miners hauled millions of dollars of gold.
At the 18-mile mark, a bridge loomed ahead with the Sierra Mac van. Beside it, a truck with a crank for hoisting the rafts. Very slick. Also rare for a wilderness trip, a clean bathroom to change into dry clothes. After soaking up the town’s nightlife at the Iron Door Saloon, we dropped into sweet oblivion on the Groveland Hotel’s plump featherbeds.
When I returned to my busy city life, these Eureka moments kept playing in my head. A bit more of California has crept under my skin.
—Text and photography by Donna Peck. Rafting photography by Sam Swenson, Rapid-Shooter.