California’s Southern Gold Country makes a perfect weekend escape from Sacramento or the San Francisco Bay Area. Highway 49 winds through the entire region, which makes navigating a snap. Best of all, you won’t have to plan much of anything in advance, apart from booking overnight lodgings. Whenever you’re feeling like striking it rich, just hop in the car and go. This itinerary follows the historic route from Sonora, Jamestown, and Columbia in Tuolumne County, through Murphys and Angels Camp in Calaveras County, into the wine country of Amador County around Sutter Creek, Plymouth, and Amador City beyond Jackson, and finally rolls to a stop in Placerville in El Dorado County.
On Friday afternoon, cruise into Sonora. Founded during the heyday of the California gold rush in 1848, Sonora was once a cosmopolitan city of lawless renegades, pioneers, and families. Today this lively historical town is a hub for the southern Gold Country and also a stopover for travelers heading to Yosemite National Park via Groveland, a tiny historical mining town on Hwy. 120, just over a half-hour’s drive southeast of Sonora.
Walk around downtown Sonora, with its beautifully preserved historical buildings and the Tuolumne County Museum of local history, and consider a detour to Indigeny Reserve cider works and distillery or Inner Sanctum Cellars for sparkling wines in Jamestown. Then it’s time to check into your lodgings, either the antiques-filled Gunn House in Sonora or the historic National Hotel in Jamestown, or farther afield at the Victorian-esque Hotel Charlotte or Groveland Hotel in Groveland. Another option is to stay overnight with the ghosts at the City Hotel or Fallon Hotel, both restored 19th-century hotels in nearby Columbia. For dinner and drinks, there’s Sonora’s Diamondback Grill, Columbia’s City Hotel restaurant and What Cheer Saloon, or the Iron Door Saloon in Groveland, officially California’s oldest continually operated drinking establishment.
Have breakfast at your hotel, then drive to Jamestown, just 10 minutes south of Sonoma on Hwy. 49. At Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, where several Hollywood Western movies have been filmed, take a tour and a steam train ride. Then head north to atmospheric Columbia State Historic Park, which attracts visitors of all ages. Walk around the open-air collection of restored gold rush-era buildings or try your own hands at panning for gold. Away from the costumed historical reenactors on Main St., stop into Columbia Kate’s bakery and teahouse if you need a mid-morning snack or cuppa.
From Columbia, follow Parrots Ferry Rd. (Hwy. 108) as it winds west, then north past the family-friendly cave adventures at Moaning Cavern to the beloved Sierra Nevada foothills town of Murphys. Time moves more slowly here as you stroll between the boutiques, cafes, restaurants, and a dozen wine-tasting rooms along Main St. Old vine Zinfandel is the stand-out wine crafted in this region, but sun-loving Italian and Spanish varietals also thrive. Just outside town, Ironstone Vineyards has a small museum and summer concerts. After lunch, you could squeeze in an optional side trip to the marvelous giant sequoias of Calaveras Big Trees State Park, around 15 miles east of Murphys, uphill on Hwy. 4.
Then drive west on Hwy. 4 to quaint Angels Camp, the setting for Mark Twain’s celebrated 1865 short story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” Show up for the Jumping Frog Jubilee at the Calaveras County Fair, held just outside town every May. Keep going north on Hwy. 49 past Mokelumne Hill, another tiny historical mining town, to the busy town of Jackson, with its historical buildings, restaurants, old-fashioned fudge shops and ice-cream parlors, and a Native American-owned casino resort.
From Jackson, you could detour east along country roads to the one-horse town of Volcano, passing Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park en route, to have dinner or stay overnight at the cozy Volcano Union Inn + Pub. Otherwise, it’s just a 10-minute drive north along Hwy. 49 from Jackson to the quaint town of Sutter Creek, where you can check into the downtown Hotel Sutter or a romantic B&B or inn. Another atmospheric lodging option is the Imperial Hotel and Restaurant in Amador City, a quick drive north along Hwy. 49.
Have breakfast at your hotel or inn, then ramble down Main St. in Sutter Creek, pleasantly crowded with galleries, antiques shops, boutiques, and wine-tasting rooms. Plan to spend most of the day exploring the countryside of Amador County, a bonanza of vineyards and wineries, as well as more natural attractions like Daffodil Hill and Black Chasm Cavern. The little museum and nature trails at Indian Grinding Rock Historic Park are also open during the day, if you didn’t already stop by the park yesterday.
On Hwy. 49, the quaint gateway towns to wine country are petite Amador City, a five-minute drive north of Sutter Creek, and Plymouth, which is another 10 minutes by car beyond that. Plymouth is little more than a rural crossroads, where you’ll find exquisite Taste restaurant and the Amador Vintage Market for deli lunches and take-out picnics. Many of Amador County’s wineries are located in the beautiful rolling hills east of Hwy. 49. Sample the region’s signature full-bodied, fearless red wines — Zinfandel is especially renowned — at modern Andis Winery, classic Renwood Winery, pastoral Wilderotter Vineyard, and family-run Amador Cellars.
Keep going north on Hwy. 49 to Placerville, nicknamed Old Hangtown. Midway between Sacramento and South Lake Tahoe off Hwy. 50, here the downtown streets are always thronged with visitors perusing the shops and stopping into the cafes and bars inside well preserved 19th-century buildings. On the northern outskirts of town, families can take an underground mine tour at Gold Bug Park & Mine. Back downtown, have a healthy lunch at the Cozmic Cafe (which opens into a historic mine shaft!), do dinner at friendly Heyday Cafe, or knock back beers with grizzled old-timers at the Liars’ Bench, a dive bar. Alternatively, it’s a 45-minute drive west to Sacramento for dinner and drinks in the capital city.