Roadtrip: Mokelumne River; wild and scenic river, wildflowers, history and quaint towns

The wild and scenic Mokelumni River runs unchecked from high in the Sierra to Pardee Lake.

The hills along Electra Road are alive with California poppies and other wildflowers.
Old homestead dating to late gold rush days along Middle Bar Road.
California poppies blanket a hillside above the Mokelumne River just above Hwy. 49 in late March.

Mokelumne River; wild and scenic river, wildflowers, history and quaint towns

Recent spring rains have brought the Sierra foothills to splendor with verdant greens, California poppies and other wildflowers bursting forth brightly. Add the wild and scenic Mokelumne River, gold rush history and quaint towns that beckon around every turn – you have a roadtrip waiting to happen.

This exploration shows off the Mokelumne River, stretching almost 100 miles from its headwaters in the Sierra, running west to its merge into the Delta just west of Lodi. The river is divided into the Upper Mokelumne River, which stretches from the high Sierra to Pardee Reservoir in the foothills, and the Lower Mokelumne River, the section of the river below Camanche Dam to the Delta. In its lower section, the Mokelumne is heavily drafted for irrigation and water for the east San Francisco Bay Area through the Mokelumne Aqueduct. The river bisects Amador and Calaveras Counties, beautiful this time of year.

Take the 35 mile drive from Stockton to Valley Springs, another 12 miles to Mokelumne Hill, then north seven miles to Jackson. With side road detours for river access and wildflower viewing, you’re looking at about 160 miles and a full day’s adventure.  First stop is Valley Springs, with traveler’s conveniences, restaurants and shops, but press on for more history and river access.

Continue east on Hwy 26 (with a detour for river/trail access down Gwin Mine Road) to the wonderful old town of Mokelumne Hill. “Moke Hill” was named for the Mokelumne River; high above the river sits the old town, with a variety of well-preserved buildings dating to the 1860s. Visit the Leger Hotel; a portion of the building served as Calaveras County Courthouse from 1852 to 1866.  When the courthouse was moved to San Andreas, George Leger made it part of his hotel. Fire damaged the building and it was restored in 1879, renamed the Leger Hotel.  Today if offers quaint rooms and delicious meals in its Whitewater Grill.  Take the time to walk the historic blocks of Mokey Hill and you will feel the ghosts of gold rush days!

From there, follow Hwy. 49 north to Jackson. Just after crossing the river, detour east on Electra Road along the river for wildflower-finding, and just outside Jackson, you can detour down Middle Bar Road back down to the river for more wildflower sightings. Jackson is a vibrant old and new town, with quaint Main Street preserving gold rush history with a variety of cute shops and eateries. Stop at the National Hotel at the south end of Main. Built in 1852 and visited by many noteworthy guests over its history, the hotel was extensively renovated a few years ago; stop in Stanley’s Steakhouse in the hotel’s lower level for libation or lunch.

If time allows, visit the old Kennedy Mine and the historic Kennedy Mine Tailing Wheel #4 north of town, for a short dose of early mining history.  If you like the casino scene, the Jackson Rancheria Casino is a big part of “new Jackson”.

From Jackson, take the Stoney Creek Road west to Pardee Lake (the road crosses Pardee Dam and the Mokelumne River outflow) for another scenic drive through verdant green hillsides and wildflowers, then follow the road back to Valley Springs.

To really see the wild and scenic Mokelumne River, plan side trips to river access points on the Mokelumne Coast to Crest Trail (download marvelous maps from East Bay Municipal Utilities District, ebmud.com; get a trail permit, accessible on-line). To see the free running upper reaches of the Mokelumne River, plan short or longer hikes on the trail from either the Rich Gulch Trail access point on Gwin Mine Road off of Highway 26, or the Middle Bar Trail access point, 3 miles down a bumpy Middle Bar Road off of Highway 49.

Along the Mokelumne Coast to Crest Trail, find old townsites such as James Bar, Middle Bar and Independence Flat – you will have to look hard to find old foundations, for miners, fire, floods and East Bay MUD removed the buildings after placer gold mining played out. The town of Middle Bar was founded in 1850 by English miners, finding gold quartz. A year later, a bridge was built to handle increasing miner traffic; soon it was washed away by a flood and subsequent bridges replaced it (a newer bridge currently marks the spot). Additional trail points of interest include the Hancock and Tibbetts Quartz Mine and several old homestead stone homes along the access roads.

Wildflower sightings can be found along the trail and hillsides above, along the access roads, above Highway 49 as it crosses the river, and above Electra Road heading east off of Highway 49, parallel to the river. You’ll find other backroads worth exploring, as well.

How to get there: From Stockton, take Hwy. 26 to Valley Springs, then continue to Mokelumne Hill. Then, follow Hwy. 49 north to Jackson, and take Stoney Creek Road back to Valley Springs.

For more information: for Amador County tourism, touramador.com; Calavaras County tourism, gocalaveras.com; Mokelumne River Coast to Crest Trail access, permits, maps, East Bay MUD, ebmud.com.

Contact Tim Viall at tviall@msn.com; follow him at recordnet.com/travelblog. Happy travels in your world!

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  • Blog Author

    Tim Viall

    Viall is a local travel writer who retired in 2012 after 10 years as executive director of Stockton, CA's, Emergency Food Bank and six years with the Downtown Stockton Alliance. Previously, a 21-year career in daily newspapers helped shape his ... Read Full
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