In Northern California, you'll find a modern mother lode - full of modern day gold prospectors and gold panners.
Every time I drive Interstate 80 into the California Gold Country - about an hour east of Sacramento, two from San Francisco - I feel a tug when I see the stately dome of the Placer County Courthouse. It stands proudly on a hill above the old town of Auburn. One day I decided to see what's under that dome. Gold, it turns out.
On the first floor of the 100-year-old building, in a former jail, I discovered the Placer County Museum, which features displays about Gold Country history, as well as a stagecoach, an Indian basket collection, and, of course, the reason the world rushed to California 150 years ago: gold - rare crystalline specimens, quartz embedded with the precious metal, and some nuggets I wished I could take home.
I drove deeper into Gold Country down State 49, which dips steeply into a ravine to cross the beautiful North Fork of the American River. Climbing into piney hills, the quiet two-lane road winds its way alongside the river's South Fork, where I stopped at a gentle bend in the waterway. Here, in January 1848, James Marshall found gold clogging the millrace of John Sutter's sawmill.
The original mill washed away in the 1850s, but a replica sits next to the river, part of Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park in Coloma. The park sprawls across both sides of the highway, encompassing a museum as well as a ghost town of restored period buildings and Gold Rush artifacts. On historic demonstration days - the next one is June 12 - volunteers give gold-panning lessons. I picked up a free hiking map and headed into the hills for a view of Coloma Valley before taking a stroll along the riverbank in search of stray gold nuggets.
Failing to strike it rich, I followed the highway into Placerville. Hundred-year-old buildings line Main Street, making the town, like Auburn, a good place for a leisurely walk and some prospecting for antiques. At the Wine Smith, which sells local vintages and microbrews, I found the treasure I was after: a glass of El Dorado County Zinfandel that was worth its weight in gold.
If you're inclined to soak up the Gold Country's history at a more leisurely pace, spend the night at the Coloma Country Inn Bed & Breakfast, an 1852 farmhouse surrounded by 5 acres of gardens and a pond. Or try the Shafsky House Bed & Breakfast Inn, a 1902 Queen Anne-style building in Placerville. For dinner, try Latitudes, across the street from the Placer County Courthouse: an eclectic menu and charming surroundings show you how far Gold Country dining has come since the days when miners lived on beans and bacon.
GOLD COUNTRY PLANNER
Auburn is 30 miles east of Sacramento, 127 miles east of San Francisco. The drive from Auburn to Placerville along State 49 is 28 miles one-way. Area code is 530 unless noted.
Museums and Parks
Placer County Museum, 101 Maple St., Auburn; free admission; 889-6500.
Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, State 49 in Coloma; $5 parking; 622-3470 or www.windjammer.net/users/isg/coloma.
Eats and Sleeps
Wine Smith, 346 Main St., Placerville; 622-0516.
Latitudes, 130 Maple, Suite 200, Auburn; 885-9535.
Coloma Country Inn Bed & Breakfast, 345 High St., Coloma; from $90; 622-6919.
Shafsky House Bed & Breakfast Inn, 2942 Coloma St., Placerville; from $95; 642-2776 or www.shafsky.com.
El Dorado County Chamber of Commerce, 524 Main, Placerville; (800) 457-6279 or www.placerville.com.
Placer County Visitor Information Center, 13464 Lincoln Way, Auburn; 887-2111 or www.placer.ca.gov.
excerpted: COPYRIGHT 1999 Sunset Publishing.
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