“Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!” Sam Brannan yelled as he walked along San Francisco’s Montgomery Street in May, 1848. The news was electric and within a year, gold fever was a worldwide epidemic. Hundreds of thousands of gold seekers traveled from the four corners of the Earth to California’s Gold Country. 150 years later, they’re still coming.
Today, they come to experience the legacy of the gold country, rather than to pan gold from its icy streams, and that legacy is best found on a circle tour of the Gold Country’s top destinations: Sacramento, Ironstone Vineyards and Yosemite National Park. This tour can be accomplished in as little as three days, though a week provides a more leisurely and satisfying journey.
One can no longer travel from San Francisco to Sacramento by paddle wheeler as would have been done in the 1800s. Back then, riverboats steamed 90 miles up the meandering Sacramento River delta to the bustling waterfront of what is now called “Old Sacramento,” a riverside commercial district that looks much as it did during the height of the gold rush with wooden sidewalks, cobblestone streets, saloons, and iron-shuttered shops.
Old Sacramento is truly where the Wild West began. At the intersection of 2nd and J Streets, the sounds of horse-drawn carriages passing transport you back to the late 1800s. Here, the bronze statue of a Pony Express rider, recalls the exuberant young men who galloped east, carrying mail to St. Joseph, Missouri, a job so dangerous that the company advertised for riders who were orphans. The Pony Express had a brief but thrilling life, but like the frontier was eventually subdued by technology… in its case, the telegraph. As ironic counterpoint, opposite the statue is an authentically preserved Wells Fargo & Co. assay office, with displays containing telegraph equipment, assay instruments, strong boxes, gold dust and memorabilia of the period. Further gilded age technology is memorialized at the Discovery Museum where history, technology and science come to life in interactive displays. Next door, Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, Mark Hopkins and Charles Crocker met to finance the Central Pacific Railroad that would cross the continent. Fittingly, the California State Railroad Museum stands nearby. Its beautiful steam engines have been detailed to showroom perfection, their massive bodies colorfully painted and glistening. Train rides are offered every weekend, April through September.
As the capital of California, Sacramento is loaded with great museums and historic sites, 16 of them, to be precise. California weapons, uniforms and descriptions of campaigns are found at the California Military Museum on Second Street. A few blocks away, early California paintings are featured at the Crocker Art Museum, the oldest public arts museum west of the Mississippi River. For a taste of what makes California different, head to the Golden State Museum at 10th and O streets with its involving and elaborate interactive exhibits drawn from the State Archives. The 1859-era state capitol building at 10th and L streets functions as a living museum where laws are passed for the fifth-largest economy in the world. Guided tours include entry to the colorfully decorated State Assembly and Senate rooms and historic offices. Tours of the gingerbread Victorian Governor’s Mansion at 1526 H Street gives visitors a look into how 13 California governors (including Ronald Reagan) lived. And for an earlier look at life on the frontier, visit Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park at 2701 L Street, where reenactors depict Sacramento’s earliest settlement, founded in 1839. An online guide to all these places is found at http://www.sacmuseums.org.
Sacramento has lots of places to stay, from a riverboat docked along the waterfront, to Arts and Crafts bungalows and Victorian homes that have been converted into trendy inns, to a carload of moderately priced motels, to full- service luxury hotels. A complete listing of them is found at http://www.discovergold.org.
Considering Sacramento’s charms, its hard to imagine that the ’49ers stocked up and rushed right out of town. Their intent, understandably, was to get rich by the fastest means possible. Author Mark Twain was one of those. Like others who struck it rich during the California gold rush, however, Twain’s fortune didn’t come from mining. In 1865, he reworked a tale he had heard in the gold fields, and within months the author of “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” had become a national sensation.
Twain’s subject is reached by driving east along State Route 16, from Sacramento to the Sierra foothills and turning south on SR 49. This historic road connected Gold Country towns like links on a golden chain. Within a few months of the gold discovery, 546 mining towns had sprung up. About 250 still remain. Many look much as they did when “The Mother Lode” was booming. Merchants in these supply towns usually became richer than the miners, because the miners were in constant need of supplies. A shovel would draw $50 from a miner’s thin wages. Worse yet, a slice of bread could cost $1… $2 if it was buttered. Today, the old mining towns are populated with antique shops, art galleries and bed and breakfast inns, yet their prices are far more reasonable.
In addition to a pan full of historic sites, Calaveras County is home to superb golf courses, snow and water skiing, whitewater rafting on the Stanislaus River, the giant sequoias of Calaveras Big Trees State Park, tours of spectacular caverns and wine tasting at several exceptional wineries. Many of the region’s wineries have roots that extend back to the gold rush. European miners often found it more profitable to make wine and brandy for the miners than dig in the mines and the Gold Country became California’s first economically successful winemaking region. Today, several award-winning wines are being made here; the most famous producer of them is Ironstone Vineyards in Murphys.
There’s no mistaking Ironstone as some faux Loire Valley chateau. John Kautz and his family have unabashedly designed the Ironstone Winery as a tribute to the California gold rush. The winery’s architecture resembles a stamp mill where ore would have been crushed, and its grounds include placer (hydraulic) mining equipment, flumes, water wheels and miner’s cabins, recreating the look of the period. A museum inside the winery displays the Ironstone Crown Jewel, a 44-pound crystalline gold nugget that is stored in a vault surrounded by shatterproof glass and lit to dazzling intensity.
There is so much to see and do at Ironstone Vineyards that one might overlook tasting the winery’s great wines, if they weren’t so good. Several have won international acclaim, and medals signaling their excellence hang throughout the tasting room. Ironstone owns over 5,000 acres of vineyards including the largest plantings of Cabernet Franc in the United States. Much of Ironstone’s wine is aged in large caverns that were hand-blasted into a hillside. The trickling sounds and delicate lighting of the cave’s waterfall serves as a beautiful background for wine tasting and the winery’s award-winning gardens. When this all becomes too much and you need a good night’s rest, the 1856 Murphys Hotel is just minutes away. It’s the same place where President Ulysses S. Grant and Mark Twain rested on their Gold Country sojourns. More information is found at http://www.ironstonevineyards.com and http://www.murphyshotel.com.
The circle tour continues on Highway 49, past the gold towns of Sonora, Jamestown, Chinese Camp and Groveland, up into the High Sierra (on State Route 120) and Yosemite National Park. Yosemite Valley was first entered in 1850 by the Mariposa Battalion a group of impromptu soldiers enlisted to suppress attacks on miners by Indians who lived in the Valley. Five years later, the first tourist party entered and visitors have been returning ever since. It’s little wonder. The Valley’s towering granite walls, domes and waterfalls are so breathtakingly beautiful that seeing them often moves visitors emotionally.
Increasingly today however, park visitors are not satisfied with sightseeing; they seek deeper meaning and understanding about Yosemite National Park, its wildlife and special places. Responding to this interest, the Yosemite Guides, a private guide service, provides privately guided trips from the Yosemite Gateway Visitor Center at the Yosemite View Lodge in El Portal near the west entrance to Yosemite National Park (SR 140). There, mountaineer Peter Mayfield and naturalists lead small groups on individualized trips into the wilderness. They cater sunset picnics on Sentinel Dome with alpenglow-painted views of Yosemite Valley, Half Dome and the High Sierra, lead morning bird walks across meadow boardwalks in Yosemite Valley to hear the song of the yellow warbler, guide fly fishermen from around the world to float cast upon alpine eastern Sierra lakes, and pilot hikers to the quiet solitude of the Merced Grove of Giant Sequoias. Visit http://www.yosemiteguides.com for more information.
Many of these trips explore the wild and scenic Merced River Canyon. In March and
April, Hite Cove, midway down the canyon and recognized as having one of California’s best displays of wildflowers, wears a bright blanket of green grasses, decorated with iridescent yellow, pink, red, purple, orange and blue blossoms, and visited by hundreds of fluttering butterflies, Mariposa County’s namesake. Neon-colored paddlers add to the show as they challenge the Merced’s whitewater, in splashing, laughing choruses, through spring and into early summer.
Farther down Highway 140 is Mariposa, the final Gold Country stop on this circle tour. At the California State Mining and Mineral Museum, 13,000 minerals, rocks, gems historic artifacts, and fossils are maintained in a collection that was begun in 1865. The pride of the collection is the crystalline-gold Fricot nugget, which at 201 ounces, was the largest crystalline nugget found during the Gold Rush. Though millions of travelers pass through Mariposa on their way to Yosemite each year, this isolated gold rush town has been largely unaffected and retains its small town atmosphere, as evidenced at the Mariposa County Courthouse which is the oldest county courthouse in continuous use west of the Rockies. After all, taking the circle tour is all about uncovering gold country nuggets like this one.
It is often difficult to obtain acceptable accommodations inside Yosemite National Park, particularly on short notice, but not so along Highway 140. Luxury accommodations with kitchenette units, gas fireplaces, double spa tubs, swimming pools and river views are easily obtained at the Yosemite View Lodge, while the Cedar Lodge in El Portal and the Yosemite Best Western Waystation in Mariposa provide quality accommodations at moderate prices. Virtual tours, online reservations and more information about these accommodations are found at http://www.yosemite-motels.com.
The final leg of this circle tour travels through the rich agricultural fields of California’s Central Valley, before returning to San Francisco. With so much to see and experience, it may not be long before a new gold fever becomes contagious. That is, a fever to take this Gold Country Circle Tour.