Californians today claim the brains behind such ventures as Silicon Valley and other good aspects of their state all stem from the Gold Rush Days back in the 1850s, when the strong, the daring and the bright stormed into the hills above Sacramento from around the world, eager to find the world's most sought-after metal in the ground there. Today, a parade of travelers with expensive autos, as well as residents of the surrounding areas find their way back looking for beautiful scenery, cool mountain air, whitewater rafting, wine tasting and a little history on the side.
You can be a part of this reverse Gold Rush, too, and yet stay in the comfort of your big-city hotel in Sacramento, or even in San Francisco, though the latter is another 90 minutes farther west than the Golden State's capital from the scene. Wherever you spend the night, I highly recommend a day or two or three visiting the Gold Country for the same reasons the neighbors do.
In Placerville, the Farmer's Market takes place May through October, and there are monthly Third Saturday Art Walks. July sees their summer sale, August a crafts fair, September an antique street fair, October an art & wine festival, and so on. For more info, contact the Placerville Downtown Association (530/672-3436; www.placerville-downtown.org).
In Sutter Creek, there is the Amador Vintners Barrel Tasting in February, a craft fair in March, Home Tours in April, Main Street Theatre Works in June (also July and August), a Ragtime Festival in August, a Blues & Brew Festival in September, a Harvest Wine Festival in October, and more. Contact the Sutter Creek Visitors Center (209/267-1344; www.suttercreek.org; e-mail email@example.com).
In Amador City (tel. 209/267-1985; www.amador-city.com), events include a craft fair the last weekend in April, Gold Camp Days the second weekend in June, and Calico Christmas, the first weekend in December.
There's Still Gold in Them Thar Hills
Locals say there's plenty of gold in the hills here, but that it would cost more than the mineral is worth to extract it. (Most mining stopped in the 1940s and 1950s.) But you can find a kind of tourist gold just by visiting the towns and sites where men and women knocked themselves out nearly 150 years ago to find the precious stuff. Most important, of course, is the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park (tel. 530/622-3470; www.parks.ca.gov) in Coloma, where James Marshall found some gold flakes in the streambed of the South Fork of the American River. The date was January 24, 1848, and his find changed history.
John Sutter, the founder of Sacramento, partnered with Marshall to start a lumber mill, in the midst of large ponderosa pine trees and along a river (for the power). From the fall of 1847, a few men, including Native Americans and some ex-Army Mormons heading for Utah, worked on the mill, digging up part of the river to make better use of the mill wheel. It wasn't the first time gold was discovered in California, but it was the beginning of a Gold Rush, started after the news got to San Francisco in May. When President Polk confirmed the findings later that year, the frenzied scramble to get to California began, thousands streaming in from the rest of the USA, Europe and even Asia. The mill was abandoned in 1850 and Marshall died broke, a promised pension never being paid after the sixth year. But Golden California was born and prospered ever after.
Today at Marshall Park, you can see a replica (1968) of the unfinished mill, not far from the original site and the spot where the gold was first discovered, as well as a few of the original cabins erected here in the early days. There's a Gold Discovery Museum, a blacksmith shop, post office and other buildings as well. Open daily. Live History Days are Thursday and Fridays from March through October, and Sawmill Programs daily throughout the year.
Down the road (State 49) a piece (ten miles) is Placerville, a pretty town with an historic Main Street, located just about halfway between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe. Above the fog line and below the snow line, Placerville says it has an ideal climate with four distinct seasons. Several famous names got their start here with shops along Main Street, including Phillip Armour (meat packing), Mark Hopkins (railroad mogul) and John Studebaker (automobile maker). Placerville makes an ideal spot for your day's center of activities, containing at least seven antique shops, 11 clothing stores, eight art galleries, 23 restaurants and cafes, and more.
One mile north on US 50 is the Gold Bug Park (tel. 530/642-5207; www.goldbugpark.org), the chief attraction of which is the Gold Bug Mine, opened in 1888. You can visit this elaborate hole in the ground either self-guided or on guided tours, with wood flooring and lighting to make sightseeing easier. You can picnic here, or use the gift shop, hiking trails and more. Open daily, weather permitting. The mine is open only weekend afternoons November through April, daily the rest of the year. Admission $4, children less. And of course you can pan for gold here for only two bucks.
Sutter Creek & Amador City
Sutter Creek was founded by John Sutter in 1844, while he was looking for timber, not gold. But it is now a Gold Country town, with many 19th-century brick and stone buildings remaining from the first days. Leland Stanford was an early resident, before he became governor and founded the university in honor of his son. The houses reflect the origins and tastes of early settlers, with buildings showing styles of Greek Revival, the Victorian Era, and classic New England. Along Main Street and several intersecting that avenue are at least 11 places to eat and drink, as well as several dozen shops.
Just six miles from the Shenandoah Valley Wineries, Amador City (tel. 209/267-1985; www.amador-city.com)is 40 miles southeast of Sacramento on State 49. It's another Gold Rush town with several 19th-century buildings housing a variety of shops, restaurants, museums and inns.
The Wines of Amador, El Dorado & Apple Hill
Not as well known as their counterparts in Napa and Sonoma, the wineries of the Gold Country counties east of Sacramento are beginning to attract a lot of attention lately. The good news is that none of the wineries mentioned here, I was told, charge anything for tasting, and they are certainly user-friendly. The bad news is that several produce very small amounts, some as few as 2,500 cases per year (Dobra Zemlja) or even less, it is said. Here are just a few that you can reach easily from California's capital city during a day trip.
Some of "the world's finest Zinfandels" are created here, say local authorities, a portion "crafted from 19th-century vines." Recently, too, vineyards in the county are adding on Syrah, Viognier, Barbera and Sangiovese varieties. You'll find many of Amador wines about 30 miles east of Sacramento on US 50 and State 16 to Plymouth, then mostly northeast along the Shenandoah Valley. Their largest festival is the Big Crush on the first weekend in October, though there's a Behind the Cellar Door weekend, the second in February, also. Many of Amador wines are in the Sierra Foothills AVA (American Varietal Appellation), while others are in the Amador County Appellation. More information (and ask for their map) at 888/655-8614 or 209/267-2297, website www.amadorwine.com, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Deaver (tel. 209/245-4099; www.deavervineyard.com) has daily tastings (11 to 5) and gift shop, with picnic foods for sale and a lakeside picnic area where you can relax.
Renwood Winery (tel. 800/348-VINO or 209/245-6979; www.renwood.com), open since 1993, has some of those single-vineyard Zins "from some of the oldest vineyards in America." Robert and Rene Smerling left New England to come here to make wine and to welcome groups for parties and such. They produce over 60,000 cases a year of 16 wines, one of which they say is the only Zinfandel ice wine in the world. Others include regular Zinfandel, Syrah, Barbera and Sangiovese varieties. Open daily 10:30 to 4:30.
Sobon (tel. 209/245-6554; www.sobonwine.com; e-mail email@example.com) (1856), said to be the oldest producing winery in the state, is open for tastings daily from 9:30 to 5. They also offer the Shenandoah Valley Museum, with a free self-guided tour. Shaded picnic area, too. The family has a spin-off, Shenandoah Vineyards (tel. 209/245-4455; www.shenandoahvineyards.com; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org), established in 1977 and producing wines "at affordable prices, all from organically-grown grapes."
Among other estates to visit here are Amador Foothill, Bray (1996), Clos du Lac Cellars, Cooper, Dillian, Dobra Zemlja, Domaine de la Terre Rouge & Easton Wines, Drytown Cellars, Frenz, Il Gioiello, Karly, Karmere, Montevina (1970), Nine Gables, Nua Dair, Sonora (1986), Story (1973), Sutter Ridge, TKC and Vino Noceto.
One firm offering tours is Amador Vintage Market (tel. 209/245-3663; www.amadorvintagemarket.com).
El Dorado County
One hour east of Sacramento, in the heart of Gold Country, for the most part around Placerville and southeast of it, are 24 wineries of El Dorado (El Dorado AVA as well as a county appellation), noted for their Passport Weekend each spring. Grown and produced here are Barbera, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Petit Syrah, Pinot Gris & Pinot Noir, Syrah and Zinfandel, to name only a few varieties. All wineries are closed for the Big Three holidays of Christmas, New Year's and Thanksgiving days. For more information and to get their map, contact the El Dorado Winery Association (tel. 800/306-3956; www.eldoradowines.org; e-mail email@example.com).
Boeger Winery (tel. 800/655-2634 or 530/622-8094; www.boegerwinery.com) is well worth a visit, and it's open daily from 10 to 5. In business since 1972, Greg Boeger has the distinction of founding the first modern winery in the area, introducing over 30 different varietals such as Merlot in 1978 and Barbera in 1982, "when they ere virtually unheard of in California," according to the winery. Bottles here range from $8 and up, several in the $12 to $25 area. Grounds include a stream, patio, pond, redwood grove and an 1872 cave. I liked their Barbera a lot! They will also let you taste their reserve wines (5 of them) for $8.50, or $1 each. Discounts for half and full cases.
Charles B. Mitchell Vineyards (tel. 800/704-WINE or 530/620-3467; www.charlesbmitchell.com; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org) opens daily (11 to 5) for both tasting and barrel sampling, and offers lunch or dinner in their Fair Play Bistro. The owner is the winemaker, too.
Other wineries in El Dorado County include Chateau Rodin, Colibri Ridge, Coulson, Fitzpatrick, Fleur de Lys, David Girard, Gold Hill, Granite Springs, Holly's Hill, Jodar, Latcham, Lava Cap, Madrona, Mount Aukum, Narrow Gate, Oakstone, Perry Creek, Sierra Vista, Single Leaf, Sogno, Venezio and Windwalker.
In nearby Apple Hill are two additional wineries (and four already mentioned): Primus (tel. 530/647-WINE; www.primusvineyards.com), is a boutique operation with four varietals, where you'll find their open and closed hours. Not far away is Wofford Acres (tel. 530/626-6858; www.wavwines.com), with a picnic area overlooking the American River Canyon in Camino. Open weekends year round.
Halfway between Placerville and the Marshall State Park is an American Whitewater Expeditions (tel. 800/825-3205; www.americanwhitewater.com) site, where you can join daily or multi-day whitewater paddle rafting adventures, from as short a period as a half day or as long as three days, with prices as low as $69 for young people (6-16 years). With five paid rafters, the sixth is half fare, or with every 11 paid rafters, the 12th is free. You raft on one of the forks of the American River.
Although it's possible to stay at modest lodgings in several Gold Country towns, there is little to do in the evening up in the hills except eat and sleep, so I would recommend staying in Sacramento and making one or more day trips here, especially as the drive from the capital can be pleasant and easy. US 50, for instance, east of the city runs for much of its course through rolling green hills for miles with nary a billboard to mar the vistas.
Bed & Breakfast Inns of Amador County (tel. 800/726-INNS or 209/267-1719; www.amadorinns.com) is one selection of often cute hostelries, 18 of them in fact, many with their own 800 phone numbers, but all served by the group.
The Sacramento Visitors Bureau (tel. 800/292-2334 or 916/808-7777; www.discovergold.org) has five suggested Gold Country Day Trips, covering nearly two dozen destinations.