Sierra foothills cruisin’; late summer/early fall foothills destinations in Gold Country

View of Sutter Creek's Main Street, alive with shops, restaurants and wine-tasting, from Hotel Sutter balcony.

Band plays most Friday and Saturday eves at Helwig Winery in the Shenandoah Valley.

Fiddletown's old community center, with giant fiddle over the door, stands guard over the old downtown.

Replica of Sutter's Mill on the American River in Coloma honors the site where gold was discovered in California in 1848.

Kids can pan for gold in Columbia; they'll usually turn up agates, and, occasionally, the preciouse gold metal!

The Wells Fargo stagecoach offers rides to young and old in scenic old Columbia!

With kids back in school and the summer crush of tourists waning, it’s time for a weekend getaway in the nearby Sierra foothills.  Highway 49 is just an hour away, so take a day or weekend tour of Gold Country and sample history, quaint towns and scenic attractions along the route!

Start your tour at the place of gold discovery in California. In the 1840s, Captain John Sutter of Sacramento hired men to develop saw mills to supply lumber to his growing empire.  James Marshall chose Coloma (to local Nisenan Indians, Cullumah) to cut timber and mill lumber on the South Fork of the American River.

Marshall’s discovery of gold on January 24, 1848 would change the course of the nation and speed California’s statehood.  Coloma almost overnight swelled to thousands; fueled by gold fever, California’s population would jump from 100,000 in 1850 to over 400,000 by the 1860s!

The Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park should be a “first stop” for any visitor or Californian seeking to understand the gold rush that brought tens of thousands of new immigrants to the state.  Visitors can see a replica of the old saw mill that Sutter commissioned and over 20 historic buildings including the jail, mining digs, stamp mills that crushed quartz so gold could be mined, houses, blacksmith shop and old stores.

Touring south on Hwy. 49, Placerville, the old “hang town” where frontier justice too often prevailed, offers a quaint and walkable downtown.  For a good lunch stop try the Powell’s Steamers Restaurant in an 1890s building. In the fall, visit Apple Hill, just east up Hwy. 50 from Placerville, a fine detour for all things apple, from cider to pies to apple wine!

Plymouth traces its history to the 1870s when prospectors stopped there in search of quartz and gold. For gourmet travelers, the new Taste Restaurant in Plymouth draws rave reviews from around the region. The city has a cute public park with bandstand, the old Plymouth Hotel and other eateries, all crowding several blocks.

From Plymouth, take a detour eight miles east on Fiddletown Rd. to Fiddletown; which predates Plymouth. Established by prospectors from Missouri in 1849, it quickly grew in the 1850s and 1860s as a center of trade for many mines located nearby. Visit the Shenandoah Valley, a growing wine region just east of Plymouth.  The area’s 30+ wineries offer tastings (some of them no charge), weekend entertainment and, with late summer/early fall beginning to turn the leaves yellow and orange, it’s gorgeous country.

Just off Hwy. 49 are the richly preserved Gold Rush boom towns of Amador City and Sutter Creek. Amador City blossomed with thousands of miners, shopkeepers and restaurant/saloon workers.  The Keystone Mine was formed in 1853 by consolidating several smaller claims and produced over $25 million in gold with the main shaft reaching 2,600 feet into the Sierra hillsides.

Just south, Sutter Creek’s quaint Main Street offers a walkable stretch with a wealth of historic buildings dating from the 1850s, many of them marked by plaques offering historical anecdotes – all of them home to busy shops, restaurants and wine-tasting rooms.

Stop for lunch or dinner at the Hotel Sutter/Bellotti Inn. Opened in 1860, it is one of the oldest hotels still in continuous operation in the state. Three blocks east of Main on Eureka is the old Knight Foundry, the only water-powered foundry in the US, that, until recently, was in continuous operation since 1873. Sam Knight designed the water wheel which was used world-wide, powering early hydroelectric plants throughout California, Utah and Oregon.

Jackson and Mokelumne Hill are both worthwhile historical stops on your way to another “must stop”, Columbia State Historic Park. Columbia was founded March, 1850 by Dr. Thaddeous Hildreth and others who settled and began prospecting. Soon, Hildreth Diggin’s had found the precious metal and more than a 1,000 miners descended on the area. Renamed Columbia, the Park preserves the town as a museum of living history!

Columbia’s business district is closed to cars – foot- and horse-traffic only – and businesses, shops and volunteers bring the town to life, much as it appeared in 1855!  Pan for gold, take a stage coach ride, visit blacksmith and livery shops, get a free tour led by period-dressed docents, grab lunch or an ice cream and take in life as it was more than 150 years ago! Best of all, admission, parking and guided tours are free, and open seven days a week all year, a day spent here is easy on the wallet!

How to get there: To reach Coloma, take I-5 or Hwy. 99 north to Sacramento, go east on Hwy 50 to Placerville, then north eight miles on Hwy 49 to Coloma; it’s about two hours from Stockton.  From there, follow Hwy. 49 south to Placerville, Plymouth (an 8 mile detour on Fiddletown Rd. to Fiddletown), and all the way to Columbia State Historic Park. You can make this Gold Rush circuit in one long day, but better to plan two!

Nearby attractions: Indian Grinding Rocks State Park offers insight into Native Americans, Murphys and Ironstone Winery, Black Chasm Caverns offer an opportunity for would-be spelunkers to ply their craft, and fishing in New Melones Lake. Parrott’s Ferry Bridge is just west of Columbia – take a close look at the center-span of the graceful concrete bridge and note the five foot droop that caused the contractor to have  to shore up the bridge with additional steel girders!

Where to stay: Most of these towns have a host of motel, hotel and bed and breakfast accommodations,  restaurants, bakeries and grocery stores for provisioning. A number of public and private campgrounds offer scenic camp sites.

For more information: Coloma, parks.ca.gov/?page_id=484, the Marshall Gold Discovery Museum and Visitor Center, 310 Back Street, Coloma, CA 95613, (530) 622-3470; Plymouth and Fiddletown, historichwy49.com/amador/plymouth.html; Amador City, amador-city.com/, or city staff, (209)267-0682; Sutter Creek, suttercreek.org; (209) 267-1344; Columbia, parks.ca.gov/?page_id=552, (209) 588-9128.

For additional travel inspiration, follow me at recordnet.com/travelblog, or contact me at tviall@msn.com.

Happy travels in the west!

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