In a cavern, in a canyon, excavating for a mine / Lived a miner, forty-niner . . . Rarely do state highway numbers have historical significance, but California State Hwy. 49 does. Winding through the hills west of Sacramento, CA 49 is the main road through a string of Wild West towns that sprang up overnight in the California Gold Rush of 1849. As if frozen in time, their Main Streets still have raised wooden sidewalks, buildings with double porches, saloons, and Victorian storefronts. Touring the Gold Country, the kids will feel transplanted to a movie western (hundreds of films have been shot here), to a time when the promise of an easy fortune lured thousands of adventurers to risk their all in a raw new territory. Soon enough the boom went bust -- but not before it had jump-started the settlement of the whole West Coast.
It's about 100 miles along CA 49 from Nevada City in the north to Angels Camp in the south; visiting the whole area could take several days. Here are the highlights: Start where the Gold Rush itself began -- just north of Placerville in quiet, pretty Coloma at the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park (tel. 530/622-3470; www.coloma.com/gold). Here, on the south fork of the American River, on January 24, 1848, carpenter James Marshall was building John Sutter's sawmill when he chanced upon a gold nugget. On Main Street, the largest building in town is a replica of the sawmill; exhibits at the Gold Discovery Museum lay out the story of the frenzy that ensued once the news got out. Notice the number of Chinese stores on Main Street, the remnants of a once-sizable community of Chinese who immigrated here to provide labor for the mines.
Some 40 miles south of here, you can tour the Sutter Gold Mine, 13660 CA 49, Sutter Creek (tel. 866/762-2837 or 209/736-2708; www.suttergold.com). You'll wear a hard hat, ride on a mining shuttle, and "tag in" just like a miner. Down in the shaft, you may be able to spot gemstones and gold deposits still embedded in the quartz of the Comet Vein. The other face of the Gold Rush shows at two nearby ghost towns -- Mokelumne Hill, nowadays one street overlooking a valley with a few old buildings, and decrepit Volcano, which looks almost haunted with the dark rock and blind window frames of a few backless, ivy-covered buildings. Once it had a population of 8,000; today, it's more like 100. That's what happens when a boom goes bust.
Another 30 miles farther south, Gold Rush country's most popular site, Columbia State Historic Park, 22708 Broadway, Columbia (tel. 209/588-9128; www.columbiacalifornia.com), re-creates a boom town at its lively height. Kids love roaming around its dusty car-free streets, where they can take stagecoach rides or visit a newspaper office, a blacksmith's forge, a Wells Fargo express office, or a Victorian-era saloon.
Nearest Airport: Sacramento International, 55 miles from Placerville.
Where to Stay: $$ City Hotel, 22768 Main St., Columbia State Historic Park (tel. 800/444-7275 or 209/532-1479; www.cityhotel.com). $$ Imperial Hotel, 14202 CA 49, Amador City (tel. 209/267-9172; www.imperialamador.com).