The Gold Rush Trail: California Highway 49

Travel back to the Gold Rush era on Highway 49 where charming mining towns dot the route, surrounded by the panoramic vistas and bubbling streams of the western Sierra Nevada foothills

As the world comes to a standstill as we try to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 (Coronavirus), we encourage all of you to hunker down right now, too. In the meantime, we’ll keep posting articles to help you navigate the state of RV travel as well as stories about places for you to put on your bucket list once it’s safe to get back on the road again.

California is called the Golden State possibly for many reasons, among which, and in addition to its abundant sunshine, is the Gold Rush with its exciting and colorful history.

Amador City © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Boys, by God, I believe I’ve found a gold mine,” said James W. Marshall to his mill workers on January 24, 1848 after he discovered shining flecks of gold in the tailrace of the sawmill he and John Sutter were constructing on the South Fork of the American River.

Sutter Creek © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gold! The cry went up from Sutter’s Mill and brought a mass migration of people into California from the four corners of the world. This discovery in 1848 changed the course of California’s and the nation’s history. This event led to a mass movement of people and was the spark that ignited a spectacular growth of the West during the decades to follow.

Jackson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

By August, the hills above the river were strewn with wood huts and tents as the first wave of miners lured by the gold discovery scrambled to strike it rich. Prospectors from the East sailed around Cape Horn. Some hiked across the Isthmus of Panama, and by 1849, about 40,000 came to San Francisco by sea alone.

Angel’s Camp © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most of the 49ers never intended to remain in California permanently. Most meant to seek their fortune and return to wherever they called home. But many sent for their families and stayed, causing a culturally diverse population to grow rapidly. Between 1848 and 1852, four short years, California’s population grew from 14,000 to 223,000.

Murphys © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Gold Rush expended 125 million troy ounces of gold, worth more than $50 billion by today’s standards. It is estimated that more than 80 percent of the gold in the Mother Lode is still in the ground.

Moke Hill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These 49ers established hundreds of instant mining towns along the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Most mining camps were nothing more than temporary encampments established where a section of a river was panned or sluiced until the gold ran out. Permanent towns developed in areas where more extensive operations spent decades tunneling deep into the hills. 

Placerville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many of these historic and picturesque towns still exist, linked by California Highway 49, the Gold Rush Trail.

The original mining-era buildings in these towns are now home to unique shops—but my interest lay elsewhere, in the gold mining history of these towns.

Far Horizon 49er Village RV Resort © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Using Far Horizon 49er Village RV Resort in Plymouth (see above) and Jackson Rancheria RV Resort (see below) in Jackson as our home bases, we explored parts of El Dorado, Amador, and Calaveras counties along State Highway 49.

Jackson Rancheria RV Resort © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Throughout its length, the Gold Rush Trail winds through many of the towns that sprung up during the Gold Rush as it twists and climbs past panoramic vistas. Rocky meadows, oaks, and white pines accent the hills while tall firs, ponderosa pine, and redwoods stud higher slopes. Dozens of lakes, rivers, and streams compliment the stunning background of rolling hills.

Amador City © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We made stops in many old mining towns along the Trail. They retain their early architecture and charm—living reminders of the rich history of the Mother Lode. Placerville, Amador City, Sutter Creek, Jackson, Mokelumne Hill (Moke Hill), San Andreas, Angels Camp, and Murphys all retain their 1850’s flavor.

Sutter Creek © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The historic town of Placerville is just minutes from over 50 farms and ranches of the Apple Hill area as well as award-winning wineries.

Today, where gold once reigned, some forty family owned wineries and vineyards dot the winding roads of the fertile Shenandoah Valley in northern Amador County. The valley offers unique tasting rooms and outdoor event venues, bed and breakfast inns, and relaxing environments for locals and visitors.

Jackson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Interesting places to stop are never far apart, and the drama of living history appeals to all ages. There’s no end to the nuggets you’ll discover in California’s Mother Lode Country.

Worth Pondering…

There are not many places in the world where you can get to the beach in an hour, the desert in two hours, and snowboarding or skiing in three hours. You can do all that in California.

—Alex Pettyfer

Murphys: Charming Queen of the Sierra

Its nine miles up Highway 4 from Angels Camp to the neighboring mining town of Murphys, founded in 1848 by John and Daniel Murphy

Murphys’ rich and colorful past came alive in 1848 when John and Daniel Murphy established a trading post and gold mining operation in the area that is now their namesake. They were part of the first immigrant party (Stephens-Townsend-Murphy) to successfully bring wagons over the Sierra in 1844, paving the way for westward migration.

Murphys © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

It is reported that the brothers took two million dollars in gold ore from the Murphys Diggins in one year’s time, making them millionaires before the age of 25.

During the first year, 50 tents, several lean-tos, and two blockhouses were erected, and by 1850, the camp had a population of 1,200. In 1852 there were 3,000 people, close to the present-day population.

Murphys © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Murphys was one of California’s richest diggins. During one winter, five million dollars worth of gold was taken from a four-acre placer area, and the town grew prosperous despite the usual cycle of devastating fires and rebuilding.

Once a hodgepodge of miners’ tents and lean-tos, Murphys has aged well.

Murphys © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The picturesque village is known today for its many natural attractions including caverns for public viewing, a charming Main Street with friendly merchants and unique shops, spectacular wineries, and art galleries.

Murphys © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

A stroll down tree-lined Main Street transports visitors back to the mid-1800s with buildings bearing thick stoned walls, iron shutters, and pastoral gardens. Its leafy streets are lined with white picket fences, oaks and sycamores, eateries, and tasting rooms.

Murphys © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The Sperry & Perry Hotel—now known as Murphys Historic Hotel & Lodge—opened to guests in 1855. Ulysses S. Grant slept here; so did Mark Twain, Horatio Alger, and Charles Bolton, aka Black Bart, the poetry-writing bandit who successfully robbed 28 Wells Fargo stagecoaches before his arrest in 1883. Locals line up along the saloon’s bar. In the morning, follow the divine smells across the street to Biga Murphys Bakery.

Unique from any other wine region, you can literally do wine country on foot in Murphys. There are over 25 wineries here and 20 of them have tasting rooms within walking distance from one another along Murphy’s historic downtown. Picturesque vineyards and destination wineries are nestled in the nearby rolling hills.

Murphys © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Ironstone Vineyards, on the outskirts of Murphys, attracts visitors year-round with wine tastings and events such as the daffodil festival in the spring. Explore the seven-level winery, its extensive wine caves, museum, and outdoor mining exhibit, before you grab lunch at the deli and picnic on the grounds.

Ironstone Vineyards © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Then, belly up to the elegant 1907 bar to sample Ironstone’s Obsession Red Blend, Cabernet Franc, and Zinfandel. You can see a fully restored 769-pipe theater organ, originally made in 1927 for Sacramento’s now-defunct Alhambra Theater.

Ironstone Vineyards © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Don’t miss the 44-pound specimen of crystalline gold leaf, which, its sign claims, is the “largest single piece of gold mined in North America.” Ironstone also has weekend gold panning, concerts, and fly-fishing classes.

Ironstone Vineyards © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

For a more intimate tasting, drive a few miles north of Murphys on Sheep Ranch Road to bucolic Stevenot Winery. In the tasting room, buy a bottle of Tempranillo, a medium-bodied red wine, and assorted chocolates in the gourmet section.

Ironstone Vineyards © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Also on Sheep Ranch Road is Mercer Caverns. It has all the awesome cave accessories: stalactites, stalagmites, draperies, and columns. It’s 161 feet, down several flights of stairs, to the bottom. When you emerge from this dark hole in the ground, consider a visit to something soaring high above ground—the giant sequoias.

Ironstone Vineyards © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

You’ll find them 14 miles up Highway 4 from Murphys in Calaveras Big Trees State Park. It’s both humbling and thrilling to prowl among the planet’s largest living things. Tourists from around the world follow the well-trampled trails through the North Grove.

Worth Pondering…

My travels led me to where I am today. Sometimes these steps have felt painful, difficult, but led me to greater happiness and opportunities.
—Diana Ross