Strike it rich with adventure, his­tory and wine

Travel Guide to California - - CONTENTS - BY JOHN FLINN

It was a flash in the pan that changed the his­tory of Cal­i­for­nia, and of the world. The sparkling nugget that caught the eye of James W. Mar­shall as he tended a sawmill in the Sierra Ne­vada foothills in Jan­uary 1848 set off a gold rush that drew more than 300,000 would-be prospec­tors the fol­low­ing year from the east­ern U.S., South Amer­ica, Europe, even China. They were known as the 49ers.

Overnight, the Gold Rush trans­formed San Fran­cisco from a sleepy port to a rol­lick­ing city and per­suaded Congress to put Cal­i­for­nia—wrested from Mex­ico by war just two years ear­lier—on the fast track to state­hood. Most of the gold was found in a 300-mile belt that ex­tended through the Sierra foothills, from Down­ieville in the north to Coarsegold in the south. Min­ers called it the “Mother Lode.”

In a state work­ing tire­lessly to in­vent the fu­ture, the Gold Coun­try re­mains the most vis­i­ble man­i­fes­ta­tion of its notso-dis­tant past, with towns sport­ing wood-plank side­walks, swing­ing sa­loon doors, hitch­ing posts and red-brick build­ings. (You’ll quickly dis­cover that the best pre­served of these be­longed to Wells Fargo and, oddly, the In­de­pen­dent Or­der of Odd Fel­lows.)

To­day you can still pan for gold—it’s of­ten said there’s more left in the ground than the orig­i­nal 49ers ever took out—but you can also raft some of Cal­i­for­nia’s froth­iest rivers, ex­plore cav­erns and sam­ple Chardon­nay and Syrah in un­crowded, up-and-com­ing winer­ies.

City & Town

Sacra­mento was the ter­mi­nus of the Transcon­ti­nen­tal Rail­road—from there, pas­sen­gers com­pleted their jour­ney to San Fran­cisco by ferry and barge—and the city still plays a vi­tal role as the jumpin­goff point for ex­plor­ing the Gold Coun­try. Since the ar­rival of the 49ers, the small towns of the Gold Coun­try proper have mor­phed through sev­eral dis­tinct stages,

from rough-and-tumble boom­towns, to som­no­lent ham­lets, to des­ti­na­tions for biker ral­lies, to, fi­nally, gen­teel venues for week­end get­aways sport­ing com­fort­able B&BS, so­phis­ti­cated restau­rants, an­tique stores and nearby winer­ies. Among the most pop­u­lar are Sut­ter Creek, Ne­vada City and Mur­phys. The two largest towns of the Sierra foothills—sonora and Plac­erville—of­fer all this, plus a large se­lec­tion of mo­tels, restau­rants and shops in all price cat­e­gories.

The Great Out­doors

From May to mid Oc­to­ber, the Amer­i­can River is Cal­i­for­nia’s top venue for white­wa­ter raft­ing. The river flow is con­trolled by re­leases from up­stream reser­voirs, so rafters are as­sured of good con­di­tions. Out­fit­ters of­fer both half-day and full-day trips through Class III white­wa­ter, end­ing up at Mar­shall Gold Discovery State His­toric Park or Fol­som Lake. In the north­ern Sierra, the town of Down­ieville has be­come a cen­ter for moun­tain bik­ing. Lo­cal bike shops of­fer rentals and shut­tles on old min­ing roads and sin­gle tracks from the ca­sual to the tech­ni­cal, in­clud­ing a 15-mile ride with a 4,000-foot de­scent. House­boaters flock to vast, sprawl­ing Gold Coun­try reser­voirs such as New Melones Lake, Don Pe­dro Lake and Lake Mc­clure.

THE GOLD COUN­TRY has many his­toric build­ings, in­clud­ing the Em­po­rium in Jamestown, op­po­site, and this red brick gem in Ne­vada City, above; kayak­ing on the Amer­i­can River, El Do­rado County, left.

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