Though Placerville is technically the center of the Gold Country, it's the small trio of towns a few miles to the south -- Amador City, Sutter Creek, and Jackson -- that are the most appealing destination in this region of rolling hills, dotted with solitary oaks and granite outcroppings. Since the mining boom went bust, most of these restored Gold Rush towns rely solely on tourism (hence the conversion of many Victorian homes into B&Bs), though a few mines have reopened recently.
One of the advantages of staying in this area, 55 miles southeast of Sacramento, is that both the northern and the southern regions of the Gold Country are only a few hours' drive away (via very winding roads).
To reach Amador City, Sutter Creek, or Jackson from Placerville, head south along Hwy. 49 past Plymouth and Drytown. If you're coming straight here from Sacramento, take U.S. 50 to Placerville and head south on Hwy. 49; Hwy. 16 from Sacramento is another option, but only slightly faster. For more information about any of these towns, contact the Amador County Chamber of Commerce, 517 S. Hwy. 49, Jackson Street (tel. 209/223-0350; www.amadorcountychamber.com).
Once a bustling mining town, Amador City is now devoted mostly to dredging up tourist dollars. Although Amador City sounds impressive, it's the smallest incorporated city in California. Local merchants have made the most of a refurbished block-long boardwalk, converting the historic false-fronted buildings into a gallery of sorts; the stores sell everything from early-1900s antiques and folk art to handcrafted furniture, Gold Rush memorabilia, rare books, and Native American crafts. Parking can be difficult, however, especially in summer.
The self-proclaimed "nicest little town in the Mother Lode," Sutter Creek was named after sawmill owner John Sutter, employer of James Marshall (whose discovery of gold triggered the 1849 Gold Rush). Railroad baron Leland Stanford made his fortune at Sutter Creek's Lincoln Mine and then invested his millions to build the transcontinental railroad and fund his successful California gubernatorial campaign.
The town is a charmer, lined with beautiful 19th-century buildings in pristine condition, including Downs Mansion, the former home of the foreman at Stanford's mine (now a private residence on Spanish St., across from the Immaculate Conception Church), and the landmark Knight's Foundry, 81 Eureka St., off Main Street, the last water-powered foundry and machine shop in the nation. There are also numerous shops and galleries along Main Street, though finding a free parking space can be a real challenge on summer weekends.
On Hwy. 49 between Auburn and Placerville, the town of Coloma ★ is so small and unpretentious that it's hard to imagine the significant role it played in the rapid development of California and the West. It was here that James Marshall first discovered that there was gold aplenty in the foothills of California. Over the next 50 years, 125 million ounces of gold were taken from the Sierra foothills, an amount worth a staggering $50 billion today.
Although Marshall and Sutter tried to keep the discovery secret, word soon leaked out. Sam Brannan, who ran a general store at Fort Sutter, secured some gold samples himself -- as well as some choice real estate -- and headed for San Francisco, where he ran through the streets shouting, "Gold! Gold! Gold! From the American River!" San Francisco rapidly emptied as men rushed off to seek their fortunes at the mines.
Coloma was quickly mined out, but its boom brought 10,000 people to the settlement and lasted long enough for residents to build a schoolhouse, a gunsmith, a general store, and a tin-roofed post office. The miners also planted oak and mimosa trees that shade the street during hot summers. About 70% of this quiet, pretty town lies in the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park (tel. 530/622-3470; www.coloma.com/gold or www.parks.ca.gov), which preserves the spot where Marshall discovered gold on the banks of the south fork of the American River.
Farther up Main Street is a replica of the mill Marshall was building when he made his discovery. The largest building in town, the mill is powered by electricity during the summer. Other attractions include the Gold Discovery Museum, which relates the story of the Gold Rush, and a number of Chinese stores, all that remain of the once-sizable local Chinese community. The park also has three picnic areas, four trails, recreational gold panning, and a number of buildings and exhibits relating the way of life that prevailed here in the 19th century. Admission is $5 per vehicle, $4 for seniors; hours are daily from 10am to 3pm, except on major holidays.
Folks also visit for white-water thrills on the American River. (Coloma is a popular launching point.) White Water Connection, in Coloma (tel. 800/336-7238 or 530/622-6446; www.whitewaterconnection.com), runs half- to 2-day trips down the forks of the American River. It's one of the state's most exciting outdoor adventures.
Jackson, the county seat of Amador County, is far livelier than its neighboring towns to the north. (It was the last place in California to outlaw prostitution.) Be sure to stroll through the center of town, browsing in the stores and admiring the Victorian architecture. Although the Kennedy and Argonaut mines ultimately produced more than $140 million in gold, Jackson initially earned its place in the Gold Rush as a supply center. That history is apparent in the town's wide Main Street, lined by tall buildings adorned with intricate iron railings.
The Amador County Museum, a huge brick building at 225 Church St. (tel. 209/223-6375), is where Will Rogers filmed Boys Will Be Boys in 1920. Today the former home of Armistead Calvin Brown and his 11 children is filled with mining memorabilia and information on two local mines, the Kennedy and the Argonaut, which were among the deepest and richest in the nation. Within the museum is a working large-scale model of the Kennedy. The museum is open Wednesday through Sunday from 10am to 4pm; admission is pay-as-you-wish. Tours of the Kennedy Mine model cost $1 and are offered Saturday and Sunday on the hour from 11am to 3pm.
To see the real thing, head to the Kennedy Tailing Wheels Park, site of the Kennedy and Argonaut mines, the deepest in the Mother Lode. The mines have been closed for years, but the tailing wheels and head frames used to convey debris over the hills to a settling pond remain. To reach the park, take Main Street to Jackson Gate Road, just north of Jackson (no phone).
A few miles south of Jackson, on Hwy. 49, is one of the most evocative towns of the region: Mokelumne Hill. The town consists of one street overlooking a valley with a few old buildings, and somehow its sad, abandoned air has the mark of authenticity. At one time, the hill was dotted with tents and wood-and-tar-paper shacks, and the town housed a population of 15,000, including an old French quarter and a Chinatown. But now many of its former residents are memorialized in the town's Protestant, Jewish, and Catholic cemeteries.
About a dozen miles east of Jackson on Hwy. 88 is the enchantingly decrepit town of Volcano, one of the most authentic ghost towns in the central Sierra. The town got its name in 1848, after miners mistook the origins of the craggy boulders that lie in the center of town. The dark rock and the blind window frames of a few backless, ivy-covered buildings give the town's main thoroughfare a haunted look. Sprinkled between boarded-up buildings, about 100 residents do business in the same sagging storefronts that a population of 8,000 frequented nearly 150 years ago.
The tiny, now-quiet burg has a rich history: Not only was this boomtown once home to the state's first lending library and astronomical observatory, but Volcano gold also supported the Union during the Civil War. Residents smuggled a huge cannon to the front lines in a hearse (it was never used). The story goes that had the enthusiastic blues actually fired it, it was so overcharged that "Old Abe" would have exploded. The cannon sits in the town center today, under a rusting weather vane.
Looming over the small buildings is the stately St. George Hotel (tel. 209/296-4458; www.stgeorgehotel.com), a three-story, balconied building that testifies to the $90 million in gold mined in and around the town. Its ivy-covered brick and shuttered windows will remind you of colonial New England. In 1998, new owners took over the run-down 20-room hotel and have totally turned it around. The restaurant serves brunch on Sunday and dinner Thursday through Sunday. Even if you're not hungry, stop in for a libation at the classic old bar, the Whiskey Flat Saloon.
In summer, the Volcano Theatre Company performs locally written and produced comedies and mysteries at the town's outdoor amphitheater, hidden behind stone facades on Main Street, a block north of the St. George Hotel. It's a wonderful Gold Country experience. For information on performances, call tel. 209/296-2525 or visit www.volcanotheatre.org. In early spring, people come from all around to picnic amid the nearly half-million daffodils in bloom on Daffodil Hill, a 4-acre ranch 3 miles north of Volcano (follow the sign on Ram's Horn Grade).
Volcano is also the site of one of the National Park Service's National Natural Landmarks -- the Black Chasm (tel. 866/762-2837), a cave with stalactites, stalagmites, flowstones, and rare helictite crystals. The 50-minute Landmark Family Tour leaves every 45 minutes throughout the day, open year-round, adults $14, children $7.15. It follows a series of platforms, stairs, and walkways to preserve the cave environment. Aboveground, kids can mine for gemstones at a mining flume, guaranteed to find some real gemstones, $5 for a small bag. The new Visitors Center provides information on the cave's history and contents, as well as on Black Chasm's connection to the Matrix trilogy. The cave site is at 15701 Pioneer-Volcano Rd.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.