Prospectors, schemers and dreamers left an enduring mark on the towns along Highway 49. I followed in their footsteps, exploring California’s historic gold country from Placerville to Groveland on a six-day road trip. The gold discovery on the American River launched a worldwide stampede. Now visitors flock there for white-water thrills, giant sequoias, and artisanal wineries. Read about my celebration trip in California: Golden West.
Plan Your Trip. Stay one night in Placerville, one in Arnold, one in Columbia, two in Groveland. Book rafting trips on the American River with Adventure Connection and on the Tuolumne River with Sierra Mac. Download a map of the hiking trails in Calaveras Big Trees State Park.
Download the wine tasting guide and map to your iPhone or iPad. Calaveras County grows 38 grape varietals in 12 microclimates. Wineries have attractions other than tasting rooms. Ironstone Winery has the Heritage Museum with a 44-pound crystalline gold leaf specimen on display and hosts summer concerts. Check online for the performance schedule at the Fallon House Theatre.
Learn More. Read about the towns you will visit in California’s Sierra Foothills. Click the links for: Placerville, Coloma, Lotus, Angels Camp, Murphys, Arnold, Groveland. Visit Gold Country online for listings on events, sights, lodging and restaurants. You’ll get ideas from the itineraries posted on the Calaveras County and Tuolumne County websites. Pick up a copy of California Whitewater: A Guide to the Rivers by Jim Cassady.
DAY 1 Placerville. Coloma.
Drive to Placerville. Check into the Cary House one night.
Placerville is 2 hours east of San Francisco, midway between Sacramento and South Lake Tahoe. We booked rooms with kitchenettes on the second floor. The hotel locks up at 9 p.m. so be sure to take your keys. After you visit the breakfast buffet, eat outside in the courtyard.
Historic Cary House Hotel
312 Main St., Placerville
Raft the South Fork of the American River.
Drive to Coloma on Hwy. 49. Melting snow from the High Sierras creates this 21-mile whitewater river in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. The 11-mile Gorge half-day whitewater rafting trip meets at noon and finishes around 4 p.m.
mailing address P.O. Box 475, Coloma, CA 95613
Have dinner in Placerville at Brick’s.
Gold country restaurants focus on hearty dishes for hungry folks. Try the lobster and white fish in a creamy cheese sauce over cavatappi (corkscrew) pasta. The chicken sautéed with tomatoes, shallots, artichoke hearts, garlic & basil is a lighter dish. Locals recommend the grilled lamb chops with tarragon Dijon sauce and mashed potatoes.
482 Main Street, Placerville
Stroll along Main Street. Listen to live music at Cozmic Cafe.
Miners purchased flavored, carbonated water from the soda works factory, now the Fountain-Tallman Museum, home to a rich collection of Gold Rush artifacts. The building survived the 1856 fires that leveled Placerville. Five places on Main Street have been open since the 1800s. Cary House Hotel, Placerville Newsstand, Placerville Hardware Store, Randolph Jewelers and Combellack’s, an apparel shop. Thursday is open-mic night at Cozmic Cafe.
Historic Main Street Placerville
304 Main Street, Placerville
Jim Powers Gallery
360 Main Street, Placerville
595 Main Street, Placerville
DAY 2 Angels Camp. Vallecito. Douglas Flat. Murphys. Arnold.
Drive to Angels Camp. Pick up info at Calaveras Visitors Bureau.
Canvas tents once dotted the hillsides of Calaveras County where some of the richest digs were located. Early miners made several good strikes including a gold nugget that sold for $12,000. From populations of up to 30,000, these gold rush towns dwindled to quiet historic main streets with many original buildings. Angels Camp was named after Henry Angel who ran a trading post. The town is honeycombed with tunnels from hardrock mining. Nine miles east of Angels Camp off Highway 4, Murphys is named for Daniel and John Murphy who sold supplies at inflated prices.
Calaveras Visitors Bureau
1192 S. Main Street, Angels Camp
Event, third weekend of May
Jumping Frog Jubilee
County Fairgrounds, 101 Frogtown Rd.,Angels Camp
Tour Calaveras County wineries:Twisted Oaks, Ayrael Vieux, Chatom.
Visit the wineries between Angels Camp and Murphys. Sign up for a tour of Twisted Oaks. We tasted wine from the barrels with winemaker Mark Kunz who is known for the River of Skulls red wine. We also tasted his award-winning Mourvedre from Dalton Vineyard. Bob Eisenman, owner of Ayreal Vieux showed us his vineyards planted with Zinfandel and the “vino Nobile di Montepulciano” clone of Tuscany. His 2008 Sangiovese tasted of strawberry, violet, ripe cherry, vanilla and cinnamon. Chatom Vineyards has award-winning Zinfandel and unusual wines: Semillon, Cinsault, Tempranillo, Petite Sirah, Mourvedre and Touriga.
Twisted Oak Winery
4280 Red Hill Rd., at Hwy. 4, Vallecito
Ayrael Vieux Vineyard & Winery
1690 Monge Ranch Road, Douglas Flat
1969 Highway 4, Douglas Flat
Have dinner in Murphys at V restaurant.
Enjoy a delicious dinner at Murphys’ top restaurant, starting with the truffle parmesan fries and the bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with bleu cheese. You could easily wile away the evening on the fountain courtyard eating through the menu. Try the roasted beet salad and for entrees the duck breast pan roasted with cauliflower, candied apple, couscous, honey ginger; and the Jamaican jerk fish.
V Restaurant Bistro
402 Main Street, Murphys
Drive to Arnold. Check into Arnold Black Bear Inn one night.
The timber-frame inn is tucked into the Stanislaus National Forest at 4,000 feet. Bruce and Wendi Davison served blueberry goat cheese and Stilton cheese at the wine & cheese hour with a delicious glass of Chatom Semillon. The five-room inn has king-size bed and patios. Ask for a room that opens onto the green lawn so you can run across to the hot-tub pavilion. There is a two-night minimum on weekends.
Arnold Black Bear Inn
1343 Oak Circle, Arnold
DAY 3 Arnold. Vallecito. Columbia.
Have breakfast at Arnold Black Bear Inn. Hike in Calaveras Big Trees State Park.
The breakfast bell rings in the great room with its massive stone hearth and leather chairs. You may smell French toast made with brioche sizzling in the pan in Bruce’s open-air kitchen.
After breakfast, hike the North Grove trail and crane your neck at these graceful giants. The trunks flare at ground level in a bell-like shape giving them a beautiful symmetry.Just beyond the visitors center, a wooden staircase leads up to the Big Stump, determined by ring count to be 1,244 years old when it was cut down in 1853. The gold rush attracted get-rich-quick schemers. The bark of a Giant Sequoia was shipped to London and reassembled in Covent Garden. Londoners lined up for days, paying .25 to see the tree. Hike the South Grove trail to see the park’s largest tree, which soars 250 feet.
Calaveras Big Trees State Park
Hwy. 4, Arnold
209.795.2334 Park Office
209.795.3840 Visitor Center
Ride the zip line and tour the caves at Moaning Caverns.
The 3-hour adventure tour begins with zip-lining from one hilltop to another, then rappelling 165 feet into California’s largest vertical cavern. The stalagmites look like mounds of melted chocolate.
Moaning Cavern Adventure Park
5350 Moaning Cave Road, Vallecito
Check into Fallon Hotel at Columbia State Historic Park for one night.
Sleep in a real 1850s gold rush town. Check in at the City Hotel at 22768 Main Street in Columbia. The Fallon’s rooms have large balconies and wrought-iron beds. One- two- and three-bedroom cottages are also available. You can have tea and lunch at the saloon and sarsaparilla at the soda shop.
11175 Washington St., Columbia
DAY 4 Columbia. Jamestown. Groveland.
Tour Columbia State Historic Park.
Columbia grew from a tent town in 1852 to a gold-rush town of 30,000. Merchants operate businesses in the historic buildings as close as possible to their original purpose. At Nelson’s Columbia Candy Kitchen, Janice the owner showed me century old candy-making equipment. Hooks to pull and twist giant candy canes and big copper pots for fudge and chocolate. Visit the authentic smithy shop and the Seven Sisters Soap and Candle Shop. Hail the Densmore Wagon for a stagecoach ride.
Columbia State Historic Park
Seven Sisters Candle Shop
22719 Broadway St., Columbia
Nelson’s Columbia Candy Kitchen
Manufacturing & retail
Main St., Columbia
Have lunch in Jamestown at National Hotel Restaurant. Browse the shops and wine-tasting rooms.
You’ll love the old-time ambiance of this historic 1859 hotel. The gazpacho and cobb salad are perfect on a summer day. They also serve steamer clams and a tasty garlic rosemary tri tip in burgundy sauce.
At Inner Sanctum Cellars, we tasted Tempranillo from Spanish grape clones planted in Tuolumne County. The wine has flavors of mocha, licorice and blackberry and blueberry. I also loved the Marsanne. Chuck Hovey, the most highly respected winemaker in the Sierra Foothills, is the wine maker for both Inner Sanctum and Gianelli. At Gianelli, taste the chardonnay, a sought-out varietal in the Sierra Foothills.
National Hotel & Restaurant
18183 Main Street, Jamestown
Inner Sanctum Cellars Tasting Room and Lounge
18204 Main St., Jamestown
Gianelli Vineyards Tasting Room
18263 Main St., Jamestown
Drive to Groveland. Check into Groveland Hotel for two nights. Stop at Iron Door Saloon.
I asked for a room with a large bathroom and was pleased with Cassaretto, No. 10. It takes a good hour to peruse the memorabilia in The Iron Door Saloon and histories of its illustrious patrons. Black Bart was a gentleman bandit who never harmed drivers or passengers and left bits of original verse behind signed P08. I enjoyed the tour with a satisfying glass of Chardonnay. I sank onto sweet oblivion on the featherbed mattress topper that night.
18767 Main Street, Groveland, CA
Iron Door Saloon
18761 Main St, Groveland
DAY 5 Groveland.
Raft the Tuolomne River with Sierra Mac.
When I show up for an adventure outing with my sunscreen and water bottle, and frankly not a clue as to what I signed up for. The thrills draw countless city dwellers to the wilderness. Tumbling down the Tuolumne River on its superb long rapids, yes. But we need handholding. Sierra Mac provides a good time in the primitive wilderness. (The Tuolumne is notorious for its roadless isolation and limited access.) Sierra Mac owner Marty McDonnell provides what you want from an adventure outfitter: top-notch equipment, gourmet lunch, and a clean changing room. I don’t mind getting wet, but please, give me my dry clothes ASAP once we are off the river.
Sierra Mac River Trips
P.O. Box 264, Groveland, CA 95321
Have dinner at Charlotte Bistro & Bar
An advantage in small towns, no one disputes the best places to eat. In Groveland, the hotel clerk, the shopkeeper, the local firefighters will tell you to have dinner at the Hotel Charlotte. Chef Doug Edwards prepares garden-to-table cuisine in the dining room of a gold-rush hotel. Try the pork loin chop crusted with mustard, seared local greens and cannellini beans; and the seared sea scallops topped with preserved ginger and leeks. City dwellers will like the prices.
Charlotte Bistro & Bar
18736 Main Street, Groveland
—Text and photography by Donna Peck. Rafting photography by Sam Swenson, Rapid-Shooter.