On the morning of January 24, 1848, carpenter James Marshall was working on John Sutter's mill in Coloma when he stumbled upon a gold nugget on the south fork of the American River. Despite Sutter's wishes to keep the discovery a secret, word leaked out -- a word that would change the fate of California almost overnight: Gold!

The news spread like wildfire, and a frenzy seized the nation: The Gold Rush was on. Within 3 years, the population of the state exploded, from 15,000 to more than 265,000. Most newcomers were single men under the age of 40, and not far behind were the merchants, bankers, and women who made their fortunes catering to the miners, most of whom went bust in their search for wealth.

Sacramento quickly grew as a supply town at the base of the gold fields. The Gold Country boom lasted less than a decade; the supply was quickly exhausted, and many towns shrank or disappeared. Sacramento, however, continued to grow as the fertile Central Valley south of it exploited another source of wealth, becoming the vegetable-and-fruit garden of the nation.

A trip along Hwy. 49 from the northern mines to the southern mines conveys a sense of what life was like on the mining frontier. Many of the towns along this route seem frozen in time, down to Main Street, with its raised wooden sidewalks, double porches, saloons, and Victorian storefronts. Each town tells a similar story of sudden wealth and explosive growth, yet each has also left behind its own unique imprint. Any fan of movie Westerns will recognize the setting, given that hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of films have been shot in these parts.

At the base of the Gold Country's hills is the sprawling, flat Central Valley. Some 240 miles long and 50 miles wide, it's California's agricultural breadbasket, the source of bounty shipped across the nation and overseas. A lot of state history has revolved around the struggle for control of the water used to irrigate the valley and make this inland desert bloom. Yes, despite its aridity, a breathtaking panorama of orange and pistachio groves, grapevines, and strawberry fields stretches uninterrupted for miles.