Rediscovering Gold in the Sierra Foothills
History lovers and wine buffs alike will find something to love in California's Sierra Nevada Mountains.
Although the California Gold Rush of 1849 is long past, the quaint towns and fertile land of the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains still whisper "gold." Peaches, pears, apples, nuts, Christmas trees, and wonderful wines are the prizes of today. But the colorful lore of the California Gold Rush lives on in parks, caves, and museums throughout the area. It's a unique opportunity to explore and learn about this exciting but brief chapter in American history -- and to fall in love with the wines along the way.
El Dorado County
Start your journey in the town where gold was first unearthed by millwright James Marshall in 1848. He and his partner, John Sutter, tried to keep the discovery quiet, but within a year newcomers were arriving to Coloma every day. The California Gold Rush was on -- writing an important chapter in the histories of the Sierra Foothills, the state of California and the nation at large. Visit Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park and see the spot where Marshall identified the first flecks of gold. There's a replica of the original sawmill, along with many historic buildings, including mining, house, school and store exhibits. You can actually pan for gold in the river, hike or picnic in the shade. Find wineries nearby along the south fork of the American River.
Just down Highway 49 and a mile north of Highway 50 on Bedford Avenue, you'll find Hangtown's Gold Bug Park and Mine; a hard rock mine open for guided and self-guided tours. If you take the guided tour, you can try your hand at single-jacking -- the method miners used to make holes for dynamite. There's also an original stamp mill, which was used to withdraw gold from the rocks. Once you've gotten familiar with the technique of extracting gold, you might want to stretch your legs on a hiking trail or sit down and have a picnic. Find wineries nearby in the Apple Hill region northeast of Placerville.
Remain east of Highway 49 and follow the winding road south through the towns of Pleasant Valley and Somerset. Originally settled by two gentlemen, the town of Fair Play allegedly found its name after the pair fell into a rather non-gentlemanly fight. The quarrel ended when some of the other newly arrived residents appealed to them for "fair play." The town grew as more rich deposits of gold were found in the nearby streams and ravines. Later, minable veins of copper were discovered in the neighboring hills. Find wineries nearby around Fair Play to Mount Aukum.
For a close-up look at life-size horse-drawn wagons, farm implements, winemaking tools, furniture and antiques from Gold Rush days, visit Sobon Estates' Shenandoah Valley Museum on Shenandoah Road. The museum is housed in one of the original D'Agostini Winery buildings, dating from 1856. Admission is free and the museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Find wineries nearby in the Shenandoah Valley, north of Plymouth.
From Plymouth, head south on Highway 49. You'll come to Sutter Gold Mine just before you reach the town of Sutter Creek. The mine offers one-hour tours that take you 450 feet underground in a little mining car through a mined-out quartz vein and offer glimpses of flecks of gold imbedded in the quartz. Above ground, there's a 100-foot-long mining flume for gold panning and gemstone mining. Screen-bottomed boxes are used for gemstone mining, designed for younger or less patient "miners." Find wineries nearby to the north of Dry Creek just off Highway 49 near Drytown.
Continue south on Highway 49 to Jackson and stop at the Kennedy Gold Mine. At 5,912 feet, it is one of the world's deepest gold mines. The mine is open every Saturday, Sunday and holidays between March and October. Guided and self-guided tours are available. One of the highlights is a video with historic footage featuring miners working. A local theater troupe also performs plays in the amphitheatre during summer months. Find wineries nearby north of Jackson off Highway 49 on Ridge Road.
At Angels Camp Museum, you can wander through a carriage house, see 31 carriages -- including a horse-drawn hearse -- wagons, gold-mining equipment and, if feeling inquisitive, you're welcome to climb on the old farm equipment. Or just sit in air-conditioned comfort and watch a documentary about the history of the Jumping Frog Jubilee or study the model train showing the route of Angels Branch of the Sierra Railway. Find wineries nearby to the west along Highway 4, and to the north along Highway 49.
Ironstone Vineyards' impressive winery estate includes the Ironstone Heritage Museum, which was established as a tribute to the Gold Rush and the Native Americans who have lived for centuries in the Sierra Foothills. In addition to a fascinating presentation of Native American art, books, gold-mining maps, personal letters and other artifacts, the museum displays the largest crystalline gold leaf specimen (weighing in at 44 pounds) in the world. Crystalline gold is the rarest form of gold and a rare treat to see. Find wineries and tasting rooms on Main Street in downtown Murphys, and north and west of town.
Guided walks and tours are offered at Moaning Caverns every day of the year. Visitors descend to see this cavern's beauty on a walking tour, a 165-foot rope rappel into the main chamber, or a three-hour adventure tour, with only a lighted helmet to help them find their way. Above ground, you can pan for gold and ride the exciting zip lines, either solo or with a buddy. Find wineries nearby to the east near Douglas Flat and to the north along Highway 15.