No other region in the Gold Country offers more to see and do than these towns in the south, 86 miles southeast of Sacramento. From exploring caverns to riding in the stagecoach and panning for gold, the neighboring towns of Angels Camp, Murphys, Columbia, Sonora, and Jamestown offer a cornucopia of Gold Rush-related sites, museums, and activities. It's a great place to bring the family (kids love roaming around the dusty, car-free streets of Columbia), and the region offers some of the best lodgings and restaurants in the Gold Country. In short, if you're the Type A sort who needs to stay active, the southern Gold Country is for you. For information about lodging, dining, events, and the arts and entertainment in the area, contact the Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau, 542 W. Stockton Rd., P.O. Box 4020, Sonora, CA 95370 (tel. 800/446-1333 or 209/533-4420; www.tcvb.com).
To reach any of these towns from Sacramento, head south on Hwy. 99 to Stockton, and then take Hwy. 4 east into Angels Camp. (From here, it's a short, scenic drive to the other towns.) For a longer but more scenic route, take U.S. 50 east to Placerville, and then head south on Hwy. 49, which takes you to Angels Camp.
You've probably heard of Angels Camp, the town that inspired Mark Twain to pen "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County." This pretty, peaceful community is built on hills honeycombed with tunnels. In the 1880s and 1890s, five mines were located along Main Street -- Sultana, Angel's, Lightner, Utica, and Stickle -- and the town echoed with noise as more than 200 stamps crushed the ore. Between 1886 and 1910, the mines generated close to $20 million.
But a far more lasting legacy than the town's gold production is the Jumping Frog Jubilee, started in 1928 to mark the paving of the town's streets. The ribbiting competition takes place every third weekend in May. The record, 21 feet, 5 3/4 inches, was set in 1986 by Rosie the Ribbiter, beating the old record by 4 1/2 inches. Livestock exhibitions, pageants, cook-offs, arm-wrestling tournaments, live music, carnival rides, a rodeo, and plenty of beer and wine keep the thousands of spectators entertained between jumpoffs. (You can even rent a frog if you forgot to pack one.) For more information and entry forms (around $5 per frog), call the Jumping Frog Jubilee headquarters at tel. 209/736-2561, or check www.frogtown.org.
From Angels Camp, a 20-minute drive east along Hwy. 4 takes you to Murphys, one of my favorite Gold Country towns. Legend has it Murphys started as a former trading post set up by brothers Dan and John Murphy in cooperation with local Indians (John married the chief's daughter). These days, tall locust trees shade gingerbread Victorians on narrow streets. Be sure to stroll down Main Street, stopping in Grounds (tel. 209/728-8663; www.groundsrestaurant.com) for a bite, or a cool draft of Grizzly Brown Ale -- direct from the Snowshoe Brewing Company (tel. 209/795-2272; www.snowshoebrewing.com) in nearby Arnold -- at the saloon within Murphys Historic Hotel and Lodge at 457 Main St.
While you're here, you might also want to check out Ironstone Vineyards, 1894 Six Mile Rd., 1 mile south of downtown Murphys (tel. 209/728-1251; www.ironstonevineyards.com), a veritable wine theme park built by the Kautz family. It's open daily from 10am to 6pm.
Also in the vicinity -- just off Hwy. 4, 1 mile north of Murphys off Sheep Ranch Road -- are the Mercer Caverns (tel. 209/728-2101; www.mercercaverns.com). These caverns, discovered in 1885 by Walter Mercer, contain a variety of geological formations -- stalactites and stalagmites -- in a series of chambers. Tours of the well-lit caverns take nearly an hour. From Memorial Day to September, hours are Sunday through Thursday from 9am to 5pm, Friday and Saturday from 9am to 6pm; from October 1 to Memorial Day, hours are 10am to 4:30pm daily. Admission is $12 for adults, $7 for children ages 5 to 12, and free for children 4 and under.
Fifteen miles east of Murphys up Hwy. 4 is Calaveras Big Trees State Park (tel. 209/795-2334; www.parks.ca.gov), where you can see giant sequoias that are among the biggest and oldest living things on Earth. It's a popular summer retreat that offers camping, swimming, hiking, and fishing along the Stanislaus River. It's open daily; admission is $6 per car for day use.
Though a little hokey, Columbia State Historic Park (tel. 209/588-9128; www.columbiacalifornia.com or www.parks.ca.gov) is the best-maintained Gold Rush town in the Mother Lode (and one of the most popular, so expect crowds in the summer). At one point, this boisterous mining town was the state's second-largest city (and only two votes shy of becoming the state capital). When gold mining no longer panned out in the late 1850s, most of the town's 15,000 residents departed, leaving much of the mining equipment and buildings in place. In 1945, the entire town was turned into a historic park.
As a result, Columbia has been preserved and functions much as it did in the 1850s, with stagecoach rides, Western-style Victorian hotels and saloons, a newspaper office, a blacksmith's forge, a Wells Fargo express office, and numerous other relics of California's early mining days. Cars are banned from its streets, giving the shady town an authentic feel. Merchants still do business behind some storefronts, as horse, stagecoach, and pedestrian traffic wanders by.
If Columbia's heat and dust get to you, pull up a stool at the Jack Douglass Saloon on Main Street (tel] 209/533-4176), open daily from 10am to 6pm (till 7pm on Fri). Inside the swinging doors of the classic Western bar, you can sample homemade sarsaparilla and wild cherry, drinks the saloon has been serving since 1857. The saloon has sandwiches and various snacks; it serves dinners on Friday night and has live music every weekend afternoon from May to September. The storefront's large shuttered windows open onto a dusty main street, so put up your boots, relax awhile, and watch the stagecoach go by.
Free historical tours of the park depart from the Main Museum Saturday and Sunday at 11am. Every second Saturday, the park presents Gold Rush Days from 1 to 4pm, when costumed docents take you down Main Street and into dusty old structures that are off-limits to the general public. Special docent-led tours are available by reservation for $2 per person.
A few miles south of Columbia, Sonora is the largest town in the southern Gold Country. (You'll know you've arrived when traffic starts to crawl.) In Gold Rush days, Sonora and Columbia were the two richest towns in the Mother Lode. Dozens of stores and cafes line the main thoroughfare. If you find parking, it's worth an hour or two to check out the sites, like the 19th-century St. James Episcopal Church, at the top of Washington Street, and the Tuolumne County Museum and History Center, 158 W. Bradford Ave. (tel. 209/532-1317; www.tchistory.org), in the 1857 County Jail. Admission is free, and it's open daily.
About 4 miles southwest of Sonora on Hwy. 49 is Jamestown, a 4-block-long town of old-fashioned storefronts and two rustic turn-of-the-20th-century hotels. There's gold in these parts, too, as the marker commemorating the discovery of a 75-pound nugget attests (panning nearby Woods Creek is a popular pastime among both locals and tourists). If Jamestown looks eerily familiar to you, that's probably because you've seen it in the movies or on television. It's one of Hollywood's favorite Western movie sets; scenes from such films as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were shot here.
Jamestown's most popular attraction is the Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, a train buff's paradise featuring three Sierra steam locomotives. These great machines were used in many a movie and television show, including High Noon, Little House on the Prairie, Bonanza, and My Little Chickadee. The trains at the roundhouse are on display daily year-round. Call for information on weekend rides and guided tours. The Depot Store and Museum are open daily from 9:30am to 4:30pm (10am-3pm Nov-Mar). The park is located near the center of town, on Fifth Avenue at Reservoir Road (tel. 209/984-3953; www.csrmf.org/railtown or www.parks.ca.gov).
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.