Jackson: Heart of the Mother Lode

At the heart of the Mother Lode, Jackson will be one of your favorite stops, one you will return to again and again

We remain optimistic about this year’s RV travel season despite its rough start due to the COVID-19 outbreak. We’re cautiously hoping that as this starts to pass, there’ll be enough cabin-fever to make people want to pack up the RV and head out on a road trip.

Jackson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stretching from El Dorado County south to Mariposa County, the Mother Lode is a continuous 120 mile long zone of hard rock gold deposits. Although most of the mining camps faded after the mines closed, tourism has brought some of them back to life. 

Jackson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nestled between 1,200 and 1,600 feet elevation in the Sierra Nevada foothills in the “Heart of the Mother Lode” is the historic town of Jackson. The city that produced more than half the gold pulled from the Mother Lode, Jackson is home to the deepest mines on the continent, the Argonaut and the Kennedy both in excess of 5,000 feet deep.

Jackson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Argonaut operated until 1942, reaching a vertical depth of 5,570 feet via a sixty-three degree shaft and produced more than $25 million in gold.

Kennedy Mine, Jackson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Kennedy has approximately 150 miles of underground tunnels, a great deal of surface equipment, which once included the famous Jackson Gate elevator wheels, and miles of flumes. The total production was $34,280,000. The Kennedy was closed in 1942 by order of the government while in full production.

Amador County Wine Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, where gold once reigned, some forty wineries produce a new treasure: superb wines which have earned Amador County international acclaim. The area’s rolling foothills are checkered between tall golden grass, oak trees, and thousands of acres of vineyards. The sun-drenched hillsides, warm daytime temperatures, and volcanic, decomposed granite soils are ideal conditions for producing top-quality wine grapes.

Jackson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The town originally bore the name Bottileas given by the Mexican and Chilean miners who were, as the story goes, impressed by the number of bottles dropped at a spring that served as a watering hole for passing miners. The site of the original well is memorialized with a bronze plaque behind the National Hotel at the foot of Main Street.

Jackson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It wasn’t Bottileas for long. Sometime before the fall of ’49, Bottileas became Jackson’s Creek. Maybe it was named after New York native Alden Appolas Moore Jackson or Andrew Jackson.

Jackson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The early gold rush camp turned city was, like so many other gold rush towns along California Highway 49, destroyed by a raging fire in 1862. The city was rebuilt with as many as forty-two of those Civil War era buildings still standing today on and around Jackson’s Historic Main Street.

Jackson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At the turn of the 19th century Jackson had about 3,000 residents with three churches, three newspapers, four hotels, five boarding houses, two candy factories, cigar and macaroni factories, eight physicians, and two dentists.

Jackson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visitors can explore these historic buildings and artifacts among the many shops, restaurants, and lodging facilities that include the iconic National Hotel.

Jackson Rancheria RV Resort © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Two and one-half mile east of the historic district off State Route 88, the Jackson Rancheria RV Resort makes a great home base to explore the Heart of the Mother Lode.

Jackson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

New in 2008, Jackson Rancheria RV Resort is part of a casino complex. Big rig friendly 50/30-amp electric service, water, sewer, and cable TV are centrally located. Wide, paved interior roads with wide concrete sites. Back-in sites over 55 feet with pull-through sites in the 70-75 foot range. A 5-star resort. Reservations over a weekend are required well in advance.

Jackson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In addition to wine tasting, Jackson is full of unique gift shops, antique shops, restaurants, museums, parks, and historical sites like the Kennedy Gold Mine and the former home of Armstead C. Brown. Constructed in 1854, this 15-room classic Greek Revival dwelling now houses the Amador County Museum. Exhibits feature a fascinating array of artifacts and items from the county’s early mining days.

Jackson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These scenic “Civil War” era buildings have been well preserved and are a photographic opportunity as well as being an incredible wealth of historic information. The sidewalks on Main Street have many bronze plaques laid into them with historic references to buildings and activities of days gone by.
Jackson at the heart of the Mother Lode will be one of your favorite stops, one you will return to again and again.

Jackson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Towns along the Gold Rush Trail: Amador City & Sutter Creek

Gold! The cry went up from Sutter’s Mill and brought tens of thousands stampeding into California from the four corners of the world.

COVID-19 (Coronavirus) has impacted RV travel right now. As RVers, travel is our way of life and, if you’re like us, you’re feeling the frustration of being limited to one location without the freedom to travel. 2020 is certainly presenting new challenges and now, more than ever, we realize that the freedom to travel is something we can’t take for granted. Now is a great time to start thinking of places you’d like to go—especially bucket-list destinations.

Amador City © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Sutter Creek © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in 1848 changed the course of California’s and the nation’s history. Although most of the mining camps faded after the mines closed, tourism has brought some of them back to life. 

Amador City

Amador City © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of California’s smallest incorporated cities, with a population of just over 200 residents, Amador City is a little city with a lot to offer.

Amador City © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The original mining-era buildings are now home to unique shops including Victorian clothing, custom quilts, local handmade gifts, a kitchen store, shops offering unique house and garden items, garden art, and antiques and books from the Gold Rush Era. You will also find wine tasting, an old fashioned soda fountain and lunch counter, an artisan bakery, and gourmet lunches and dinners. 

Amador City © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Imperial Hotel (from 1878) affords visitors an opportunity to stay the night and enjoy Amador City’s Gold Country small town way of life.

Amador City © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It all started several hundred yards upstream from today’s town site. Jose Marie Amador, a wealthy California rancher, mined along this nameless creek in 1848-1849. There, gold outcroppings were discovered on both sides of the creek. The Original or Little Amador Mine and the Spring Hill Mine were probably the county’s first gold mines. Soon, the creek, the town, and a new county carried Amador’s name.

Amador City © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As the “easy” gold was mined out on the upper part of the creek, mining and encampments gradually moved to South Amadore where French Gulch flows into the creek. This is the current site of Amador City. Founded in 1853, the Keystone Mine was the city’s most famous gold mine and a major reason for the town’s growth. It reached a depth of 2,680 feet and before closing in 1942 produced an estimated $24 million in gold.

Amador City © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Keystone’s early years were plagued with production and ownership problems; luckily, a rich new vein was discovered in 1866, enabling the mine to yield a monthly gold production average of $40,000, making the Keystone one of the most lucrative California mines. In those days there were an estimated four to six thousand residents in Amador City.

Amador City © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Amador City’s oldest structure, built around 1855, is the center portion of the Amador Hotel. Up Main Street is the stone Fleehart Building (now the Whitney Museum) was the Wells Fargo Building and dates from the 1860s.

Sutter Creek

Sutter Creek © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The town takes its name from the creek, and the creek takes its name from John A. Sutter. Sutter owned the saw mill in Coloma where the first Mother Lode gold was found in 1848. Unable to stop the tide of gold-seekers flowing over and destroying his lands, Sutter decided to follow the call of gold, trying in vain to recoup what the Gold Rush had taken from him. He arrived where Sutter Creek is currently located in 1848, and upon finding a likely spot, began mining along the creek.

Sutter Creek © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A small settlement began to grow, centered around a cloth tent where the miners met on rainy Sundays. The place eventually took the name of its most prominent citizen, and was called Sutter’s Creek, Sutter, Sutterville, and finally, plain old Sutter Creek.

Sutter Creek © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But Sutter wasn’t a miner, and many of the other miners in the area didn’t much approve of his using servants to dig for gold. He left the area a short while later, returning with his men to Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento. Sutter would never mine again.

Sutter Creek © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sutter Creek achieved prominence as the supply center for the many mines that circled the town. It was hard rock mining more than placer mining that helped the town to boom. Mines owned by Alvinza Hayward (the Gold Country’s first millionaire), Hetty Green (at one time the country’s richest woman), and Leland Stanford (at one time California’s governor and the founder of Stanford University) included the Union Mine (later renamed the Lincoln Mine) and the Old Eureka Mine. Sutter Creek remained a full- fledged mining town, boasting some of the best producing deep rock mines in the Mother Lode.

Sutter Creek © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, the town’s locals mine the visitors who come from around the world, drawn by both history and small town hospitality.

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

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

Amador Wine Country

Take a drive through the rustic vistas and rolling scenic vineyards of Amador Gold Country

What do miners do when they don’t find gold? They settle down to plant zinfandel, or at least that’s what they did in the Shenandoah Valley, the heart of Amador Wine Country.

Amador County © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The California Gold Country first rose to prominence during the 1849 gold rush, but now, people come to experience the region’s natural beauty, the balmy weather, and the wine.

Bella Piazza Winery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, where gold once reigned, some forty wineries produce a new treasure: superb wines which have earned Amador County international acclaim.

The valley offers unique tasting rooms and outdoor event venues, bed and breakfast inns, and relaxing environments for locals and visitors alike to enjoy all year long.

Borjon Winery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When we first pulled into Plymouth, we asked ourselves where the “there” is—this tiny burg is the epitome of the one-horse town. But Plymouth is the real working heart of Amador wine country.

Cooper Vineyards © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Turning off Highway 16 (an extension of California Highway 49) onto Shenandoah Road, we find ourselves amid rolling, oak-studded hills where cows or sheep graze on one side of the road and tidy rows of grapevines climb the other.

Helwig Winery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wineries within five or 10 minutes of Plymouth include Bella Piazza Winery, Terra d’Oro, Borjón Winery, Helwig Winery, and Cooper Vineyards.

Amador’s first wineries arose in 1849 when European immigrants discovered that wine grapes thrived in the Sierra Foothills. By 1880, Amador had more than 3,000 acres of grapevines that thrived until Prohibition closed all but one of its wineries. By the 1970s, Amador had declined as a source for low-quality jug wine.

Bella Piazza Winery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Amador wines were revived due to the rediscovery of zinfandel. Zinfandel arrived in Amador in 1852, thrived in the Sierra Foothills, and became the wine of choice in the Gold Rush and one of the most widely planted grapes in California.

Cooper Vineyards © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

During Prohibition, many zinfandel vineyards were destroyed. Fortunately, Amador maintained several old zinfandel vineyards dating to 1890 or earlier. Amador’s abundance of zinfandel grapes, combined with its complex raspberry and spice flavors, enticed a new generation of winemakers in the 1960s who ultimately made zinfandel California’s signature grape varietal.

Helwig Winery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the late 1960s, a new generation of pioneers began migrating to the Gold Country’s Amador County, this time drawn by the region’s rolling, sun-drenched hillsides, warm daytime temperatures, and volcanic, decomposed granite soils—ideal conditions for producing top-quality wine grapes. When their robustly flavored wines, especially zinfandel, began attracting the attention of wine lovers, the historic Sierra Foothills wine region was reborn.

Borjon Winery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stylistically, zinfandels from the Shenandoah Valley tend to be fuller, riper, and earthier with a characteristic dusty, dark berry fruit character, hints of cedar, anise and clove spice, and scents of raisin and chocolate.

Cooper Vineyards © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It began when Bob Trinchero of Sutter Home Winery in Napa Valley tasted Amador Zinfandel for the first time in 1968. He was hooked and decided to produce wine from Sierra Foothills grapes. A few years later, Sutter Home developed White Zinfandel, a major success that put Amador on the map.

Bella Piazza Winery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 1970, Montevina Winery became the first post-Prohibition winery in Amador County. Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, new wineries sprang up and Amador shed its status as a backwater wine region.

Helwig Winery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Amador may have developed its reputation around Zinfandel, but Amador winemakers have branched out over the past 20 years and now produce wines from grape varietals originating in France, Italy, Portugal, and Spain, offering red, white, and rosé wines as well as excellent ports and dessert wines.

Cooper Vineyard © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

During the past 20 years, Amador vintners have begun producing a diverse array of varieties, especially those of Italian and southern French origin. While zinfandel, with over 2,000 acres, remains Amador’s signature variety, the region’s wineries also vinify superb examples of barbera, sangiovese, sauvignon blanc, and syrah; limited bottlings of pinot grigio, verdelho, viognier, roussanne, marsanne, grenache, mourvedre, petite sirah, aglianico, and tempranillo; rosés made from a wide variety of grapes; dessert wines made from muscat grapes; and port-style wines made from zinfandel and traditional Portuguese varieties.

Amador Flower Farm © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Wine is constant proof that God loves us and loves to see us happy.

―Benjamin Franklin

Sip Wine in the Gold Country

Over 100 wineries and Gold Rush history to savor in the Sierra foothills

The roots of old zinfandel grapevines run deep in the Gold Country with winemaking here dating back to the Gold Rush days of the 1850s.

Now, an explosion of wineries, wine tours, tasting rooms, and restaurants specializing in wine country cuisine has added a jolt of grape-fueled energy to the Sierra foothills where more than 100 wineries now produce a wide range of varietals, most notably zinfandel, but also an intriguing variety of other varietals.

Gold Country winery Tuscany style © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gold country has always been audacious and rip-roaring. No surprise—its wines are too. Most wines need time to rest, relax, and mature. And really, don’t we all?

Using Far Horizon 49er Village RV Resort in Plymouth and Jackson Rancheria RV Resort in Jackson as our home bases, we explored the Gold Rush Trail and Gold Country wineries along California Highway 49.

Cooper Vineyard, Amador County © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To sample the new boom, we headed to tiny Plymouth for surprisingly trendy tasting rooms and sleek restaurants like Taste—a magnet for savvy foodies. Here we used Far Horizon 49er Village RV Resort as our home base while we explored the historic and picturesque towns and unique wineries in Amador and El Dorado counties.

Helwig Winery, Amador County © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Amador is old vine country; nearly 600 acres of the county’s vines are at least 60 years old, while several vineyards date to the 19th century. The most common adjectives for the area’s potent reds are big and robust—zinfandels, syrahs, and barberas that howl at the moon. Roughly 40 wineries in Amador County alone offer sips.

Bojon Winery, Amador County © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The region’s Shenandoah Valley, in the northern part of the county near the small town of Plymouth, is a great place to experience the influx of new mixed with the old. Stylistically, zinfandels from the Shenandoah Valley tend to be fuller, riper, and earthier with a characteristic dusty, dark berry fruit character, hints of cedar, anise and clove spice, and scents of raisin and chocolate.

Bella Piazza Winery, Amador County

Amador may have developed its reputation around zinfandel, but Shenandoah Valley winemakers have branched out over the past 20 years and now produce wines from grape varietals originating in France, Italy, Portugal, and Spain, offering red, white, and rosé wines as well as excellent ports and dessert wines.

Helwig Winery, Amador County © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wineries within five or 10 minutes of Plymouth include Bella Piazza Winery, Terra d’Oro, Borjón Winery, Helwig Winery, and Cooper Vineyards, one of California’s most charming family wineries and a personal favorite.

El Dorado County Vineyard © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

El Dorado sits at the north end of California’s famed Mother Lode, the 120-mile gold vein discovered in the late 1840s which became the site of the Gold Rush. Today, the region is better known for its visitor attractions, agriculture, and old-vine zinfandel. Winemaking at a higher level, the Sierra foothills range from 1,200 to 3,500 feet and hundreds of microclimates perfect for nearly 50 grape varieties. And their artisan winemakers have a passion for experimenting and for this place. That’s what sets El Dorado apart.

Grace Patriot Wines, El Dorado County © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

El Dorado County’s Grace Patriot Wines, a family-run business, provides not only award-winning wine, but history to the area. Their scenic property lies a few miles east of Placerville in an area known as Apple Hill for the abundant apple orchards scattered across the landscape.

Calaveras County Vineyard © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mark Twain gave Calaveras County its claim to fame with his bestselling story “The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” Nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, this famous Gold Rush location still maintains its 19th-century charm, including Murphy’s Historic Hotel, in operation since 1856. Twain was just one of its famous guests.

Murphys tasting room © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are over 30 wineries in Calaveras and more than 20 of them have tasting rooms within walking distance from one another along Murphys’ Historic Main Street. That means you can literally do wine country on foot.  But don’t miss the chance to hop in your car to hit up a few of the operational wineries that are mere minutes from downtown and offer the authentic winery experience complete with wine caves, and stunning views.

Ironside Winery, Calaveras County © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Beautiful scenery pairs well with a glass of wine. Famous attractions like Yosemite National Park and Lake Tahoe offer breathtaking examples of the state’s natural abundance, while just a short drive away.

Worth Pondering…

Products from the soil are still the greatest industry in the world.

—Dick Cooper, 1966

California Gold

Get a taste of frontier life as you retrace the history of California’s boom-and-bust Gold Rush, a defining event of the 1800s

Pan for the glittering metal and see merchants in period dress recreate life as it was in the 1850s at Columbia State Historic Park. Climb aboard an inflatable raft for a bump-and-splash whitewater raft trip down the American River. Discover Placerville known during the gold-rush era as Hangtown.

Placerville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The most popular whitewater-rafting river in the West, the American tumbles through the Gold Country, an inviting jumble of churning rapids, deep pools, and tumbling cascades. While its rich riparian ecosystem long supported Native American tribes, the next wave of humans—the legendary ’49ers—saw the waterway as means to their fortune, panning for gold in the river silt.

Placerville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While remnants of old mining equipment still poke up in or near the river, the rush for gold has mostly been replaced by the rush for adrenaline. Each of the American’s three forks serve up their own style of watery fun, and outfitters offer everything from family-friendly half-day floats to white-knuckle multi-day adventures.

Placerville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Though it only has a population of around 10,681, the number and variety of attractions to be found in and around Placerville will be a pleasant surprise to visitors.

After news spread about the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill on January 24, 1848, thousands began arriving from all over the United States, and even from abroad. People from all walks of life wanted to make their fortune in the area’s streams and hills.

Placerville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Merchants and others hoping to profit from the miners soon followed. The “gold rush” was born, and by 1849 it was going full bore.

It has been estimated that at least 39,000 people arrived in California by sea, and another 42,000 via overland routes, by the end of 1849. Though Coloma was the initial rendezvous point for those who became known as “Forty-Niners,” camps soon sprung up elsewhere in the area, including what eventually became known as Hangtown.

Placerville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What is now State Route 49 follows approximately the same course as the trail used by miners—and the merchants who supplied them—as they moved between Coloma and Hangtown. But mining was hard work, and not everyone was willing to do it for long. Some resorted to stealing gold from others, resulting in many robberies and even some murders.

Placerville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Before the name Hangtown was applied to the camp, it was referred to as Old Dry Diggins (because the miners had to cart the dry soil to running water for washing out the gold).

Placerville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Details seem to vary by some accounts, but in 1849 an impromptu jury met there to decide the fate of three accused murderers. After a trial that lasted about 30 minutes, someone reportedly shouted “Hang them!” Up to 1,000 miners gathered, and the sentence was carried out. Those first known hangings in the Mother Lode were carried out at a giant white oak near the center of the camp (where Coloma and Main streets intersect today).

Placerville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Word spread rapidly, and other hangings were later carried out at the same place. The location soon became known as Hangtown.

Placerville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

By 1854, Hangtown was the third-largest town in California—behind only San Francisco and Sacramento in total population. Los Angeles, at 15th place, had a population of only 541 voters. That same year, Hangtown was incorporated and renamed Placerville. The name was chosen for the deep-reddish-brown soil that the gold was mined from. Some of the methods used included excavating pits, digging tunnels and hydraulics (eroding the soil by shooting large volumes of water under high pressure).

Placerville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many fortunes were made. Merchants from near and far flocked to the rapidly expanding town.

Placerville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Still a robust community today, Placerville also serves as the El Dorado County seat. Through a variety of attractions and sponsored activities that are put on within the historical section throughout the year, people can now visualize what it was like during that wild period.

Placerville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Though terrible fires tore through and destroyed most of the historical section, visitors can still see buildings of stone or brick that were constructed as early as 1852

Worth Pondering…

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

—J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

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

Eureka: Exploring California Gold Country

If you love history, beautiful scenery, and small towns, Gold Country is a trip worth taking

Nestled against the western slope of the Sierra Nevada the foothills offer outdoor adventure, farm-fresh produce, and relaxed wineries.

On January 24, 1848, James W. Marshall, a carpenter from New Jersey, picked up a few shining flecks of gold in the tailrace of the sawmill he and John Sutter were constructing on the South Fork of the American River in the valley the Nisenan Indians knew as Cullumah.

Placerville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

James Marshall was building the sawmill to supply lumber for Sutter’s Fort in the Sacramento Valley. John Sutter had ambitious dreams of creating an empire—the New Helvetia in the Sacramento Valley.

Placerville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The gold discovery site and several historic buildings in present day Coloma became part of California’s state park system in 1927. Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park features a statue of James Marshall pointing at his gold discovery site, full-size replica of the original sawmill, over 20 historic buildings (many original and restored), living history demonstrations, video presentations, and costumed volunteers. Visitors can try their luck panning for gold and enjoy hikes and picnics under the riparian oak woodlands. 

Placerville during the Gold Rush © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The discovery of gold was truly “dumb luck.” John Sutter and James Marshall started out as partners in the lumber business. In the fall of 1847, construction began on a sawmill, and by early 1848, it was ready to be tested. However, the tailrace, which carried water away from the mill was too shallow, and had to be deepened so the water would not back up and prevent the mill wheel from turning. It was during his inspection of the watercourse that Marshall found the shiny flecks. Four days later, the sample was confirmed to be real gold.

Amador City © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

By May 1848, San Francisco was reported to be “half empty” as every able-bodied man—doctors, lawyers, gamblers, merchants, miner, and more—headed for Coloma. A great number of Oregon Trail pioneers now had a good reason to head south. News also spread around the world. Many Chinese workers were lured to California, too, by the promise of gold.

The “easy” placer gold at Coloma played out within the first 10 years, sending prospectors into the surrounding hills where many hard rock mines were established.

Amador City © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Soon after the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill sparked the California Gold Rush, the small town of Old Dry Diggings sprang up. Later in 1849, the town earned its most common historical name, Hangtown. The name was changed in 1854 when the City of Placerville was incorporated. Placerville was named after the placer deposits found in the river bed.

Sutter Creek © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Other towns followed. One of California’s smallest incorporated cities, with a population of just over 200 residents, Amador City is a little city with a lot to offer. It all started when Jose Marie Amador, a wealthy California rancher found gold outcroppings were discovered on both sides of the creek.

Sutter Creek © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

As the “easy” gold was mined out on the upper part of the creek, mining explorations gradually moved. Founded in 1853, the Keystone Mine was the city’s most famous gold mine and a major reason for the town’s growth. It reached a depth of 2,680 feet and before closing in 1942 produced an estimated $24 million in gold.

Jackson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Jackson, the city that produced more than half the gold pulled from the Mother Lode, home to the deepest mines on the continent, the Argonaut and the Kennedy both in excess of 5,000 feet deep, is the largest city in the historically rich and beautiful wine country of Amador County.

Amador County Wine Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Once the richest mining area in the Mother Lode, today Jackson’s main industry is tourism.

Moke Hill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Founded in 1848, Moke Hill, as the locals called Mokelumne Hill, was among the richest of the digs. Claims in some areas were confined to sixteen square feet and many fortunes were made. It was the county seat in the early days and, although it held no exclusive rights, it was known as one of the most violent, bawdy towns in the Mother Lode.

Angels Camp © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Several good strikes were made by early miners at Angels Camp. The source of gold played out quickly but hard rock mining kept the gold industry flourishing in Angels until recently. The town is honeycombed with tunnels from the many successful mines.

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.

Murphys © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Over the next 50 years, roughly 125 million ounces of gold was taken from the hills in the California Gold 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