California wildflowers and Gold Rush history; start with gold’s discovery along American River

California poppies blanket a hillside near the Mokelumne River last March.

Towering Foresthill Bridge passes 730 feet over the North Fork, American River, just outside Auburn.
The historic Slate Mountain Mine stamp mill, used to crush quartz rock for its gold content, stands on edge of downtown Georgetown, CA.
Docents Terry and Gayle Gay are ready to share Gold Rush lore in Marshall Gold Discovery State Park.
Sutter’s Mill replica stands beside the American River in Marshall Gold Discovery State Park in Coloma.

Gold Rush and wildflower exploration; start with gold’s discovery in Coloma

With recent rains and warmer weather, the Sierra foothills are a verdant green and soon to burst forth with blankets of wildflowers. Plan a tour in the next few weeks, and also touch on the heart of Gold Rush history. Your exploration should include Sutter’s Mill in the James Marshall Gold Discovery Park, just 80 miles from Stockton and a great place to tour nearby historic towns and find fields of wildflowers.

Last March, the hills above Sierra streams were a blanket of bright orange poppies, so take your binoculars and cameras. California Poppies, lupine, mule ears, dogwood and more all come into flower, depending on rainfall, exposure and rising temperatures. Check with El Dorado or Stanislaus National Forests for up-to-date forecasts and best viewing locations.

John Sutter, a Swedish immigrant, received a Mexican land grant in 1839 giving him rights to develop a good portion of the Sacramento and American River Valleys. As his empire expanded from Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento, he needed lumber to fuel his construction projects. Partnering with James Marshall to find and build a nearby lumber mill in the Sierra foothills, California’s history was about to change.

Marshall, with John Sutter’s Native American guide, Nerio, found accessibility in the valley of the Cul-Luh-Mah, plenty of pine trees and a river (the South Fork of the American) flowing strong to power a sawmill. Since the area around Sutter’s Mill was beyond his grant, he signed an agreement with the Nisenan Indians.

Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento received the first boards milled in March, 1848, though millwork would continue until only 1850. Marshall found gold in the tailrace of the mill on January 24, 1848; with the discovery, the Gold Rush was on and the land soon became too valuable. California’s population would quadruple in the next ten years and land around the mill was sold for gold claims. The mill’s dam was removed, the mill fell into disuse and the floods of 1862 destroyed what remained.

Docents usually staff the park, like Gayle and Tom Gay, to offer the story not only of Sutter’s Mill, but of gold mining in the Sierra from 1849 until the latter part of that century. They can explain the Nisenan Village and how Sutter’s expedition lived and worked with Native Americans, who would soon lost control of their ancestral land.

The park features the huge nozzle of an hydraulic water monitor (cannon) to wash down the hillsides so gold could be placer-mined. After streams, rivers and even the San Francisco Bay began to silt-up, hydraulic mining was outlawed by the state in 1884. To reach nearby Georgetown, established August 7, 1849, head 12 miles north on Marshall Road for more wildflower exploration options. The old city offers a quaint walkable downtown and features a huge stamp mill from the Slate Mountain Mine, used to crush gold-laden quartz rocks to extract the precious mineral. From Georgetown, follow CA Hwy. 193 back to CA Hwy. 49, then head north to Auburn.

Auburn, the county seat with stately historic courthouse, circa 1894, offers shops, boutiques and restaurants galore in its courtly downtown. If a hot day, stop at Tango Yogurt, 940 Lincoln Way, for a cool treat; nearby Awful Annie’s, 13460 Lincoln, is a fine lunch choice. Head east on Foresthill Road to the towering Foresthill Bridge, crossing 730 feet above the North Fork of the American River, for a breathtaking finale.

Should you choose to return to San Joaquin County via Hwy. 49, a host of lovely Gold Rush towns await. Plymouth, with several blocks of Gold Rush history also features the regionally-acclaimed Taste restaurant –reservations usually required. Nearby Shenandoah Valley features 40+ wineries for sampling of Zinfandel and other regionally noteworthy wines.

Heading further south on Highway 49, Amador City and Sutter Creek are worthy stops. Amador City was home to the Keystone Mine, organized in 1853, eventually producing $24 million in gold before closing in 1942. Portions of the old mine, including the rusty headframe, can still be seen towering on the hillside above the town’s visitor parking lot. The city offers a quaint five-block walking tour including the Amador Hotel, the Imperial Hotel, the Amador School House, a host of old homes and the mine. A fine place for lunch or dinner in the city is the Imperial Hotel and Restaurant.

Just two miles away is a favorite, Sutter Creek. The old city offers a 10 block stretch of old Main Street complete with bed-and-breakfasts, tasting rooms, shops and restaurants. The Hotel Sutter on Main Street is a fine place for lunch or dinner; great pizzas can be found at Gold Dust Pizza, just off Main on Eureka Street. Columbia State Historic Park further south along Hwy. 49 is a wonderfully preserved Gold Rush town.

How to get to Marshall Gold Discovery Park: From San Joaquin County, take I-5 or Hwy. 99 north to Sacramento, then head east on Hwy. 50 to Placerville, then north 8 miles on Hwy. 49 to the park.

For more information: Coloma and Marshall Gold Discovery Park,, (530) 622-3470; El Dorado National Forest,, (530) 622-5061; Stanislaus National Forest,, (209) 532-3671.

Contact Tim at, follow him at Happy travels in the west!

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