Talking about California’s Gold Country evokes images of dusty miners, eager to strike it rich, and Native Americans fighting against the onslaught of stagecoaches and gunslingers. It all started when, in 1848, James Marshall hollered “Eureka!” after spying gold in the American River, sparking the biggest migration westward that this country has ever known. Word quickly spread, and the region became known as the Mother Lode.
Today, the Sierra Nevada foothills are home to much more than just dusty towns that look as if they belong in a Hollywood western movie. Of course, you can still pan for gold here – and if you’re extremely lucky, actually find some – but a visit here offers a lot more than just a chance to get dirty and explore the Golden State’s historical roots. Besides some of Northern California’s best-loved state parks, you can also find cool swimming holes and lakes, deep forests, thought-provoking museums and historical sites, wineries and vineyards, antiques shops, and creative restaurants all throughout the Gold Country.
For road trippers, the main route is California’s Highway 49. This hilly, curving highway winds through the entire Gold Country region, passing through old-timey towns and pastoral wine countries. It’s amazing how far away you’ll feel from 21st-century urban life, even though you’re never more than a couple of hours’ drive from Sacramento, California’s capital city. To drive almost all of Highway 49 through the Gold Country, from the old railway stop at Jamestown all the way north to the hot springs of Sierraville, would take you at least five hours to cover more than 200 miles. But most people decide to dally for at least a couple of days.
The Southern Gold Country covers the territory between Sonora, which is only about an hour’s drive from Yosemite National Park, and Placerville, nicknamed Old Hangtown. This 75-mile stretch of Highway 49 takes at least two hours to drive without stops. Along the way, don’t miss Columbia State Historic Park, where the gold rush days come alive, or strolling the quaint downtown streets of Sutter Creek, Jackson, and Placerville. The Southern Gold Country is also where the region’s standout wineries grow their grapes, with vineyards and tasting rooms that are open to the public around Murphys, Sutter Creek, Amador City, and Plymouth.
The Northern Gold Country starts beyond Placerville, where you’ll cross U.S. Highway 50, a back-door route to Lake Tahoe. But keep following Highway 49 north instead for roughly 130 miles to Sierraville, which takes about three hours to drive non-stop. Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park in Coloma and Empire Mine State Historic Park in Grass Valley are highlight attractions, as is old-fashioned downtown Nevada City. Another historical gold rush town, Auburn is a popular pit stop for road trippers speeding along the I-80 Freeway between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe. A short detour from either Grass Valley or Nevada City takes you to summertime swimming holes on the South Yuba River. Beyond Nevada City, Highway 49 gets wilder and grander, leading to the outdoor adventure towns of Downieville and Sierraville.
The Gold Country gets very crowded during the summer. Spring and fall are more temperate times to visit Gold Country, when weekend crowds buzz around the wine regions and schoolbuses full of kids descend on popular historical sites during the week. Winter is the off-season in the Gold Country, when it’s cold and snowy, and many lodgings, restaurants, and attractions either keep reduced hours or shut entirely until spring rolls around again.
Ready to hit the road? If your time is limited, follow our suggested itinerary for hitting the highlights of California’s Southern Gold Country in a Weekend or California’s Northern Golden Country in a Weekend. With a week to spend in the Gold Country, simply combine those two itineraries, road tripping from south to north. With two full weeks, add on a few days in Yosemite National Park at the beginning of your trip and another couple days around Lake Tahoe and Reno, Nevada at the end. If you’re traveling with kids, browse our Gold Country for Families itinerary. Anyone who likes to play outside should check out our recommendations for experiencing the very best adventures Outdoors in California’s Gold Country.
What’s the best time to visit California’s Gold Country and Sacramento? And how much time should you spend once you get there? The answer is ultimately up to you, but we have plenty of advice and tips to help you figure it all out.
Summer is by far the hottest and the busiest season in the Gold Country. Blazing sunshine is the norm, and it’s even hotter in the valleys around Sacramento then in the marginally cooler foothills of the Sierra Nevada. The biggest downside to a summer vacation is the crowds, which means more expensive lodging rates and a lack of accommodations. Many hotels, bed-and-breakfast inns, and campsites throughout the Gold Country fill up every weekend from the Memorial Day holiday in late May through the Labor Day holiday in early September.
Spring and fall are the shoulder seasons in the Gold Country, but they are still popular times to travel (especially on weekends) because the temperatures are milder. In fall, visitors come for the gorgeous autumn foliage and for apple picking. Spring is prime time for wildflowers and whitewater rafting trips. Keep in mind that overnight low temperatures are cooler at the higher elevations during spring and fall, and snow may fall as early in autumn as October or as late in spring as April.
Winter is the quietest and cheapest time to visit Gold Country, but there are some logistical challenges for traveling then. Some attractions, lodgings, and restaurants are only open seasonally and close during winter. If you’re heading to higher elevations, make sure your car has snow tires and always carry tire chains in the trunk. Build some extra time into your travel plans, just in case you get stuck somewhere unexpectedly for a night or two.
Most people visit the Gold Country just for a long weekend, though you might want to take a whole week. It’s possible to see a little of what the region offers in a couple of days, but you’ll have to limit how many places you visit. A full week gives you time to explore the city of Sacramento, to drive all of historical Highway 49, and to do some wine tasting or outdoor activities, anything from cool dips in swimming holes to day hikes or caving. If you have two weeks, you’ll be able to spend some of your vacation simply relaxing instead of always rushing around.
A last-minute trip to the Gold Country is always possible, as long as you stay flexible with your itinerary and aren’t too picky about where you sleep. If you can’t find any reasonably priced lodgings in the Gold Country, you could consider basing yourself in Sacramento and taking day trips along Highway 49 instead. Year-round, Sacramento almost always has affordable accommodations, typically in hotels and motels on the outskirts of town and in the suburbs. Expect to pay more to sleep at hotels and bed-and-breakfast inns near downtown Sacramento and the capitol building, especially during the work week.
Similar to the neighboring Sierra Nevada region, California’s Gold Country experiences all four seasons.
Summers are sunny and hot. Temperatures in the valleys around Sacramento and in the lower Sierra Nevada foothills can spike over 100°F (37°C). Temperatures at higher elevations are usually at least 10°F cooler. Late summer is when the most wildfires, both natural and accidentally human-caused, occur.
Winters are cold and snowy, with daytime highs in the 40s and overnight lows dipping below freezing. In recent years, severe drought has meant that the Sierra Nevada Mountains have not gotten much winter snow, but forecasters predict that the winter of 2015/16 will see higher than average precipitation due to the El Niño effect of warmer ocean currents. During winter, the highest mountain passes and roads are closed from the first snowfall until the snow melts in late spring. Some highways also shut down temporarily during snowstorms, or else require that cars have snow tires and chains.
Spring and fall bring more moderate weather to the Gold Country and the valleys around Sacramento. Snow usually doesn’t start melting until mid-April, possibly even May at higher elevations. In autumn, the first snow usually falls sometime between late October and mid-November.
One other factor that greatly affects the weather in California – and it may impact your travel plans unexpectedly – is wildfire. Wildfires are most common during the hottest months of July, August, and September, but can blaze anytime from spring through fall. For the latest information on wildfires burning in California right now, click here.
Why is California’s wildfire season worse than ever before? Ongoing drought is partly to blame for more frequent and larger fires. But the main culprit is previous decades of forest mismanagement plans, which called for putting out all wildfires instead of allowing some to burn naturally. Since some forests have not burned in over a century, their flammable fuel load is high, which is what creates ever bigger and more dangerous conflagrations. Some wildfires begin naturally with lightning strikes, while others are the result of human carelessness (such as a campfire that is not completely put out).
Tip: Please do your part to help prevent wildfires by making sure that campfires are kept small and closely monitored (or better yet, don’t build them at all). If you smoke, never dispose of your cigarette butts outdoors. Instead, put them in a designated ashtray or douse them with water before throwing them in a trash can.
National & State Holidays
January 1: New Year’s Day
January (third Monday): Martin Luther King Jr. Day
February (third Monday): Presidents Day
March 31: César Chávez Day
March/April: Good Friday (two days before Easter Sunday)
May (last Monday): Memorial Day
July 4: Independence Day
September (first Monday): Labor Day
September 9: California Admission Day
September (fourth Friday): Native American Day
October (second Monday): Columbus Day
November (first Tuesday, in even-numbered years): Election Day
November 11: Veterans Day
November (fourth Thursday): Thanksgiving Day
December 25: Christmas
FESTIVALS & EVENTS
Northern Gold Country
March and April
Passport Weekend, Placerville. This is actually two weekends, but who’s complaining? This popular festival sells out every year, when 22 wineries offer wine tasting, pairings, barrel tasting, and entertainment.
Music in the Mountains SummerFest Through July, music events bring heaps of visitors to Nevada City and Grass Valley.
Gold Rush Days, Downieville. For two day in June, expect rowdy crowds, rustlers, gun fights, music, a street dance, and lots of period costumes throughout Downieville, as the town re-creates the era that put it on the map.
Fourth of July Grass Valley and Nevada City take turns hosting the annual parade. Later in the afternoon, everyone heads to the fairgrounds for a party and fireworks.
Downieville Classic Mountain Bike Race and Festival, Downieville. Bikers gather in the foothills for this three-day event.
Nevada County Fair, Nevada County Fairgrounds. Just what you’d expect from a small-town county fair: rides, games, food, and fun.
Sierra BrewFest, Nevada County Fairgrounds. Beers from around the West get to show off their hops at this enthusiastic party.
American River Music Festival, American River Resort, Coloma. This is a little-known festival but so much fun. Three days of music, camping, and fun, right on the river.
Southern Gold Country
Murphys Irish Day, Murphys. Irish musicians and dancers, food, beer and wine, and Irish fare take over Main Street. A parade begins at 11 a.m., when bagpipes, wee folk, vintage cars, and everything green parades through town in the spirit of the Irish. Free.
Columbia Diggin’s Living History Weekend, Columbia. Come view a tent town reenactment, complete with period clothing, actors discussing current events from that time, and gold panning.
Mother Lode Fair, Mother Lode Fairgrounds, Sonora. Celebrate the region with a big ol’ county fair.
Sonora Celtic Faire, Mother Lode Fairgrounds, Sonora. California’s oldest and largest Celtic Faire celebrates Celtic culture with a music festival, with something for the entire family. Irish step and Highland dancers, jousting on horseback, Celtic living history, and plenty of crafts, ethnic food, and drink.
Sutter Creek Ragtime Festival, Sutter Creek. For three days, come to downtown to hear ragtime played in the streets, beneath the balconies of the historic buildings.
Calaveras Grape Stomp & Gold Rush Street Faire, Murphys. The annual grape stomp celebrates the wine community in Murphys Park. Truly a family event, sign up ahead of time for the competitive grape stomping, wear a wild stomping costume, and bring a partner. If you aren’t ready to jump into the barrel, the street fair is a great place to shop, snack, and people watch.
Columbia’s City Hotel Victorian Feast, Columbia State Historic Park. Come enjoy an authentic 1850s dinner, complete with drama and entertainment. This one sells out, so book early.
California is located in the Pacific time zone (GMT-7).
To check the local time in California now, click here.
Daylight Savings Time (DST) begins in spring on the second Sunday in March, when clocks are advanced one hour. In the fall on the first Sunday of November, clocks shift back one hour to standard time. With few exceptions, the entire country (including California) participates in this ritual of “springing forward” and “falling back.”
California’s Gold Country and Sacramento are reasonably affordable places to visit. How much you should budget for your trip depends on your travel style and where you want to go. Up in the Gold Country, many towns along Highway 49 do not necessarily cost much to visit if you camp, cook for yourself or picnic, and take advantage of free activities. But they can also break the bank, if you stay in fancy bed-and-breakfast inns, eat at the best restaurants, and do guided activities like river rafting.
Generally speaking, your biggest travel expense will be accommodations, followed by dining out.
Budget If you’re camping, eating cheap take-out meals, and driving your own car around the Gold Country, you can get by on less than $75 a day. Plan on spending about the same amount in Sacramento if you stay in a hostel.
Moderate If you’re traveling with someone else and renting a car to get around, staying at cheaper motels, visiting a few attractions or parks, and going out for at least a few meals, plan on spending $125 to $150 a day.
Luxury If you’re a luxury traveler, $300 to $350 a day will cover staying at the best bed-and-breakfast inns and historical hotels; dining out for breakfast, lunch, and dinner; enjoying a couple of guided tours and outdoor adventures; and renting a car.
When you choose to travel makes a slight difference in how much you’ll pay. For example, shoulder season prices for accommodations may be less than in high season, and weekdays tend to be cheaper than weekends year-round.
Tip: When room occupancy is low, polite bargaining may be possible for walk-in visitors at some roadside motels and hotels.
Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.
Price ranges are quoted in U.S. dollars ($).
See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $10 to $25 per person
$$$ => Tickets over $25 per person
$ => Rooms less than $100 for a double room
$$ => Rooms $100 to $300 for a double room
$$$ => Rooms over $300 for a double room
$ => Up to $15 for average main at dinner (or lunch/breakfast if no dinner is served)
$$ => $15 to $22 for average main at dinner (or lunch/breakfast if no dinner is served)
$$$ => More than $22 for average main at dinner (or lunch/breakfast if no dinner is served)
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $10 to $25 per person
$$ => Tickets over $25 per person
Airfares are a fickle thing. When you need them to be low, they’re high. And when prices dip, what happens? You have no free time to travel. Sigh.
But you can get notifications from online booking websites like Kayak, which will email you when airfares drop. Type in your destination and the dates you are watching, and boom! When there’s a deal, you’ll hear about it immediately via your email inbox.
Sites like Momondo also display prices for multiple airlines, so you can compare rates without visiting individual airline websites.
That said, it’s advantageous to also visit an airline’s own website before booking. Why? Because some of their really great deals don’t show up on the aggregator sites. Most airlines share time-limited, super-discounted specials via their social media pages or in email blasts. So it pays to be their “friend” or subscribe to their e-mail lists.
Keep in mind that Sacramento is only about an hour’s drive from the San Francisco Bay Area. Sacramento’s smaller regional airport has fewer flights, so fares can be more expensive than for flights into San Francisco International Airport (SFO). It’s also worth checking airfares for flying into the Bay Area’s two smaller regional airports, Oakland International Airport (OAK) and Mineta San José International Airport (SJC). OAK is slightly closer to Sacramento than SFO, while SJC is slightly farther away. International car rental agencies operate at or nearby all of these airports.
Like airlines, car rental rates are all over the map. Online booking websites like Hotwire and Kayak offer comparison price shopping. So does the Costco Travel website (for members only).
There are also name-your-own-price sites, like Priceline, where you tell them what you want to pay and maybe they can hook you up with a car rental company who fits the bill. They have some great deals, if you are not too picky about the make and model of your rental or which company you rent from.
If you’ll be traveling around the Gold Country in winter when snowstorms are possible, consider paying more to rent a high-clearance car with 4WD or AWD (all-wheel drive). Ask your rental-car agency if the vehicle has snow tires, which may be required on mountain highways during winter when there’s snow on the ground. Tire chains can often be bought or rented, though not cheaply, in roadside towns as you drive up into the Sierra Nevada foothills.
Hopefully, your trip to and around California goes without a glitch. But what if an unexpected situation arises? Will you lose the money you invested in the trip? Will you need quick cash to cover sudden costs?
Travel insurance policies are meant to cover these unexpected costs and assist you when problems arise. The fee is typically based on the cost of the trip and the age of the traveler.
Most travel insurance providers offer comprehensive coverage that usually includes protection for the following common events:
Trip Cancellation About 40 percent of all claims fall in this category.
Medical Health services in the U.S. are expensive for the uninsured. This is a major reason to consider purchasing insurance. Whether you break a leg or need a blood transfusion, you will likely incur costs far higher than you might pay in other countries. And what if you have an accident that requires transport to a major medical center? Air ambulances alone could set you back $15,000 to $30,000. U.S. travelers should check if their medical insurance at home will cover them while traveling in California.
Trip Interruption For example, if you become ill during your trip or if someone at home gets sick, and you have to cut your trip short, the insurer will often pay up to 150% of the cost of your trip to get you home.
Travel Delay Insurance usually covers incidentals like meals and overnight lodging while you wait to travel home.
Baggage Insurance will typically cover lost and mishandled baggage (up to a certain amount only).
Some insurance companies allow you to purchase a policy that allows you to cancel for any reason. This may cost more (often 10% or more), but it is worthwhile for certain travelers.
Do I need travel insurance?
If your trip costs $4,000 to $6,000 (or more), it’s probably a good idea. Your age and health are important factors. So is your destination. If you’re traveling to a storm-prone area during winter, for example, you’ll probably want some coverage “just in case.”
Your English language skills are also an important factor. Insurance policies often include free concierge services with 24-hour hotlines that can connect you quickly with someone who speaks your language.
How do I choose an insurance provider?
Do your homework — check around.
The largest insurers in the U.S. include Travel Guard, Allianz, and CSA Travel Protection. Smaller reputable companies include Berkely, Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, Travel Insured International, and Travelex. You may also find deals through aggregator sites like InsureMyTrip.com and Squaremouth.
Many airlines and travel companies also offer travel insurance when you book your flight; it’s often contracted with the above major players.
If you have pre-existing health conditions Many policies have exclusion policies if you have a pre-existing medical condition. But they also offer waivers that overwrite the exclusion if you purchase the policy within a certain timeframe after paying for your trip (e.g., within 24 hours of buying your package). Again, it’s best to check the fine print.
Credit card insurance If you buy your airfare or make other travel bookings with a credit card, you may be partially covered by the credit card’s issuing bank. Check directly with the company to find out exactly what’s covered, as many have “stripped down” coverage and restrictions.
The travel insurance business is expanding and evolving rapidly. As “shared space” lodging options like Vacation Rentals By Owner (VRBO), HomeAway, and Airbnb become more popular in the travel and leisure market, so does the need for insurance for both property owners and travelers.
For more information, contact the US Travel Insurance Association.
The U.S. dollar fluctuates against other world currencies, but its value has steadily risen since early 2015. For current exchange rates, click here.
U.S. dollars come in $1, $5, $10, $20, $50, and $100 bills. They are all the same size and color, so non-Americans may have a tricky time telling them apart. The $2 bill is in circulation but rarely seen.
Coins in wide circulation include the penny (one cent), nickel (five cents), dime (10 cents), and quarter (25 cents). The 50-cent and one-dollar coins are seen occasionally.
Smaller businesses may not accept $50 or $100 bills, so have twenties or smaller bills in hand. ATMs usually dispense $20 bills.
Most Californians do not carry a large amount of cash with them on an everyday basis, and neither should you. If you need to cash traveler’s checks (especially in foreign denominations) or exchange international currency, take care of this first in Sacramento at the start of your trip.
If you withdraw cash from an ATM machine, most banks apply a surcharge of around $3 per transaction. Check with your bank before you leave home to find out which, if any, banks in California will allow you to get cash without an extra charge. Some grocery stores, gas stations and major retail outlets such as pharmacies will allow you to get a limited amount of “cash back” when paying for your goods with your debit card – this is an easy way to get some cash while on the go without paying a surcharge.
Be aware that ATMs are harder to find outside of major towns in the Gold Country.
Credit & Debit Cards
Credit and debit cards are accepted widely throughout the U.S.
Don’t forget to call your debit and/or credit card issuer before you travel to inform them of your planned itinerary. This goes for U.S. residents traveling out of state, and even Californians traveling far from home. If you don’t do this in advance, you risk having your card declined when you try to use it at your destination in California.
You should also call your bank or credit card issuer immediately to report loss or theft. The numbers to call are usually on the back of the card – which doesn’t help if it is lost or stolen. Make a note of them and store them where you’ll have easy access, for example, by taking a photo of the back of the card with your smartphone.
Recently cards with embedded chips to deter counterfeit fraud have been issued. Banks and merchants that don’t offer chip readers may be held liable for fraud. Check with your bank and credit card company for details about your specific cards.
Tipping is a cost you must build into the budget for any California trip. Tipping is most relevant to dining out and hotel stays, but a few other special situations also apply.
For excellent service, plan to tip 20% of the total bill, before taxes. For less-than-stellar service, 10% to 15% is customary, as an imperfect experience is often not solely the responsibility of the server. In most places, servers work for below minimum wage and live mostly on tips, so consider the ramifications of your tipping decisions.
Oh, and one more complication: Sometimes a tip is automatically included, usually for groups of six or more people. But at least it will be itemized on the bill – if you look closely for it, that is.
Bellhops normally receive $1 to $2 per bag that they assist with, but if someone carts all of your bags up to your room, tip them $5 to $10.
Tips for housekeeping are also good form. The rule of thumb is $2 to $3 per day, left under the card on in the envelope provided. Tip $5 per day at higher-end properties.
Spa employees (massage therapists, aestheticians, etc.) deserve a 20% tip for their services when performed well, whether at the spa or in your hotel room.
At bars, tip bartenders and cocktail servers at least $1 or $2 per drink, up to 15% to 20% per round.
Airport porters are normally tipped $2 or $3 per bag.
Taxi drivers are tipped 15% to 20% of the total fare, rounded up to the next whole dollar amount. Limo drivers expect a minimum $20 tip.
Tip parking valet staff a minimum of $2 when they hand back the keys to your car.
SALES TAXES, LODGING TAXES & RESORT FEES
In California, the combined total for state and local taxes on all retail goods and services varies from 7.5% to 10%, depending on where you are. Taxes are not usually included in display prices, unless otherwise stated.
Lodging tax also varies by location in California, ranging from 6% to 14%. This tax applies whether you are staying at a private vacation rental, a bed-and-breakfast, or a full-fledged hotel. Taxes are not usually stated up front in the advertised room rate. Neither are the mandatory nightly “resort fees” being charged by a few larger hotels and resorts. Sometimes this fee covers internet access, parking, and a few incidentals, while at other times it’s merely a surcharge for amenities that should be free. Beware that third-party booking agents, especially online, often don’t include resort fees in their reservation charges, so you may be unhappily surprised by the final bill when you check out.
The most popular way to get to California is to fly, though some out-of-state visitors drive here. Most people fly directly into Sacramento, the San Francisco Bay Area, or possibly Reno, Nevada, then rent a car and take a road trip to the Gold Country. Amtrak trains are a scenic option for getting to Sacramento and Reno, as well as to the town of Auburn in the Gold Country. For rail passengers, connecting Amtrak Thruway bus service to Placerville is available. Long-distance Greyhound buses are a reliable, though less comfortable option for getting to Sacramento that will save you money. Even if you are on a tight budget, however, airfares to California are often cheap enough that it makes more sense to fly, given how much time you’ll save by doing so.
By Car Although you can get around Sacramento by bus, light rail, and taxis and on foot, a car is convenient – and sometimes essential – for exploring the Gold Country. If you’ll be traveling during winter when snowstorms are possible, consider paying more to rent a high-clearance car with 4WD or AWD (all-wheel drive). Ask your rental-car agency if the vehicle has snow tires, which may be required on mountain highways during winter when there’s snow on the ground. Tire chains can often be bought or rented, though not cheaply, in roadside towns as you drive up into the Sierra Nevada foothills.
By Bus Although you can reach a few of the region’s most popular destinations on public buses, getting around without a car is logistically difficult, and sometimes it’s impossible. Regional bus services are often infrequent, with the most runs during weekday commuter hours. On weekends, especially on Sundays, many bus routes don’t operate at all. This sporadic network of regional buses don’t always connect either, which means you could end up stuck somewhere if you don’t plan your trip carefully. Fares are relatively cheap, however.
In the city of Sacramento, the Sacramento Regional Transit District runs both bus routes and light-rail lines.
Regional bus services include:
Gold Country Stage Serving Grass Valley, Nevada City, and Auburn.
El Dorado Transit Serving Sacramento and Placerville.
Amador Transit Serving Jackson, Sutter Creek, Amador City, and Plymouth.
Calaveras Transit Serving Jackson, Mokelumne Hill, and Angels Camp.
Tuolumne County Transit Serving Sonora, Jamestown, and Columbia.
By Bicycle Bicycle touring in the Gold Country is an option, but it’s challenging, given the elevation changes involved, the seasonal weather extremes, and the narrow, twisting mountain roads with heavy traffic and sometimes not much of a shoulder to safely ride on. Cycling is the perfect way to get around downtown Sacramento, however. It’s a mostly flat city with many bicycle lanes and an active cycling community. Check with the Sacramento Area Bicycle Advocates for more information.
The history of California’s Gold Country and Sacramento is a large part of the story of how the Golden State came to be. On January 24, 1848, a sawmill builder named James Marshall noticed flecks of metal in the American River at Coloma. Though Marshall tried to keep his discovery of gold a secret, it wasn’t long until the rest of the country heard about the endless riches waiting to be mined in the Sierra Nevada foothills. California’s famous gold rush brought around 80,000 immigrants here in 1849, followed by tens of thousands more miners over the next few years. Seeking riches, the miners hailed not just from around the country, but all over the world. Not surprisingly, California was fast-tracked for admission to the U.S.A., becoming a state in 1850.
Of course, hurly-burly ’49ers were not the first new arrivals to this region of California. In the early 19th century, the first foreigners whom local Native American tribes, including the Miwok and Maidu, met were Spanish explorers, who considered this land part of New Spain. The town of Sacramento sprang up nearby the Sacramento River, its name taken from the Spanish word for sacrament, referring to the Catholic religion of the conquistadors. Alta California, the province first ruled by Spain, changed hands in 1821 when Mexico won its war of independence against its Spanish colonial overlords.
The Sacramento area wasn’t colonized, however, until the arrival of John Sutter, a Swiss pioneer who was also a Mexican citizen, in 1839. He built a fort the following year and founded the colony of New Helvetia, complete with a private army made up mostly of Native Americans. Sutter’s land was transferred from Mexican to U.S. control after the Mexican-American war ended with the Treaty of Hidalgo in 1848. By signing that treaty, Mexico ceded all of Alta California to the U.S.A. It made little difference to John Sutter, who continued to build his colony and sent James Marshall into the Sierra Nevada foothills to build a sawmill. After Marshall made his famous discovery of gold, miners soon overran Sutter’s New Helvetia, making way for the city of Sacramento to be founded in 1850, the same year that California achieved statehood.
California defines casual. The uptight rules of etiquette that you might find on the East Coast (or “back East,” as Californians says) rarely apply here. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. On the one hand, in California you can wear a Hawaiian shirt to dinner at a celebrity chef’s restaurant and have surprisingly frank and intimate conversations with people who were strangers until just 10 minutes ago. On the other hand, you might make plans to go out and have fun with someone here, only to have them cancel at the last minute by text or never show at all. (Californians are notoriously flaky.)
Still, elements of the social contract are essential to life in a state as diverse as California, where almost 40 million residents speak 140 different languages. Being laid-back is arguably the most important virtue among Californians, followed by tolerance for everyone else’s religious and political views, gender and sexuality, and choices of body piercings, tattoos, and hairstyle.
Smoking As in many areas of the U.S., smoking is banned inside all public buildings, which includes hotels, restaurants, bars, and shopping malls. Smoking may be permitted on outdoor patios at restaurants and bars, but not always. Ask before you light up and look around for ashtrays first.
Shoes When visiting someone’s home in California, or when staying in a bed-and-breakfast or private vacation rental, expect to take your shoes off at the door. Wearing shoes indoors isn’t commonplace, especially along the coast.
Tipping One unquestionable rule of etiquette that even Californians abide by: tipping is not optional.
Here are just a few good books to get you inspired before your trip and to help you learn more about the region’s rich history:
The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream by H. W. Brands (2008)
The Shirley Letters: From the California Mines, 1851-1852 (1998)
California Indians and Their Environment by Kent G. Lightfoot & Otis Parrish (2009)
Many rural areas of the Gold Country, including along Highway 49 (which is the region’s main route), do not have much, if any cell (mobile) phone reception for either voice or data. This can be problematic if you’re relying on your smartphone or tablet for navigation and driving directions. It’s always a good idea to download or print directions in advance for any rural destinations, including bed-and-breakfasts, wineries, and state parks. Also bring along a paper driving map in the car as a back-up.
Members of the American Automobile Association can pick up good driving maps for free from any AAA travel office, including in Sacramento. Otherwise, try local visitor centers and tourist information offices, including the following:
Sacramento Convention and Visitors Bureau With a walk-in office in Sacramento near the city’s convention center.
Amador County Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau Based in Jackson.
Mariposa County Tourism Bureau Based in Mariposa.
Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau Based in Sonora.
Other helpful websites and maps for Gold Country visitors include the following:
Gold Country Visitors Association
A one-stop website for free regional tourist information.
Historic Hwy 49
A free online visitors guide with historical photos, maps, and more.
The state’s official tourism website by the California Travel & Tourism Commission.
California Highway Information
Enter the highway number you’ll be traveling on to get up-to-date information about road closures and construction. It’s invaluable in winter, especially in the mountains and along remote stretches of the coast. The toll-free phone number is (800) 427-7623.
DeLorme’s California Atlas & Gazetteer
When your GPS fails or you lose your cellphone data signal and Wi-Fi, you’ll be glad to have this along on any road trip.