Even though it’s one of California’s least traveled regions, California’s Northern Gold Country is an easy weekend escape from Sacramento, the San Francisco Bay Area, or even Reno, Nevada. Highway 49 connects the rich 19th-century mining sites, historical towns, and frontier outposts of this wild and remote-seeming region. You’ll also get a whopping big dose of nature out here: visualize cool rivers, craggy mountains, and thick forests. This itinerary follows the historical route from Placerville in El Dorado County, through Coloma and Auburn in Placer County, north to Grass Valley and Nevada City in Nevada County, and beyond to Downieville and Sierra City in Sierra County near Lake Tahoe.
Start your Gold Country tour in El Dorado County, named for the fabled South American city that Spanish conquistadors believed held glorious riches. It’s less than an hour’s drive from Sacramento, the state capitol, along Highway 50 to Placerville. You can’t pass up a stroll through Old Hangtown, where shops, cafes, and bars abound inside atmospheric 19th-century buildings lining historic Main Street. If you haven’t had breakfast yet, drop by Sweetie Pie’s for homemade goodness. On the outskirts of town, families can stop off for an underground mine tour at Gold Bug Park & Mine.
A brief sojourn in Coloma, where gold was first discovered in 1848, is a must. It’s a winding, 20-minute drive north of Placerville through rolling hill country on Highway 49, the Gold Country’s main artery. Get out and take a walk around Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, where you can see the spot where James Marshall first spotted flecks of gold in the American River and try your own hand at panning for gold.
It’s another half-hour drive north on Highway 49 to the city of Auburn, Placer County’s gateway to Lake Tahoe. Though its historic downtown is worth a look, most people merely stop for pie at beloved Ikeda’s or for a beer and pub grub at downtown’s Auburn Alehouse or newcomer Knee Deep Brewing out by the airport. After lunch, go for a lazy afternoon swim at Auburn State Recreation Area on the southern outskirts of town.
Before sunset, drive north on Highway 49 to your overnight destination, Nevada City. The hilly county seat of Nevada County was founded at the height of California’s gold rush in 1849. Bookstores, restaurants that draw urban foodies, and plenty of Victorian-era charm make Nevada City’s historic downtown unique. Bed-and-breakfast inns are plentiful all around town, but be sure to book ahead, as they often fill up, especially on weekends. Dinner at the heralded New Moon Cafe is also worth making reservations for in advance.
After a huge filling breakfast in downtown Nevada City at Ike’s Quarter Cafe, backtrack south on Highway 49 to Grass Valley. Its historic downtown dates back to the 1850s, when the underground mines nearby produced over 900 million dollars worth of gold. Detour to Empire Mine State Historic Park, a short drive east of Highway 49, to inspect an impressive mineyard, take a guided tour, or go for a woodsy hike.
Grab lunch in downtown Grass Valley or Nevada City, then it’s time to make a decision. Your first option is to head for the swimming holes at South Yuba River State Park, only about a dozen or so miles away. But if you’re feeling ambitious, leave the pressing weekend crowds behind and take a scenic drive nearly all the way to the end of Highway 49.
Heading north on Highway 49, Sierra County is known as the “Lost Sierra.” Here some of the most beautiful landscape in Northern California remains relatively untrammeled. Characterized by alpine lakes, national forests, and friendly folks, this remote area is a haven for hiking, mountain biking, fishing, and kayaking. The small town of Downieville is an adventure hub and the place to stock up on supplies. Sierra City lets you soak in hot springs before hopping on I-80 back to Sacramento or driving south to Lake Tahoe.