Running north to south through California's Gold Country, Highway 49 takes its name from the hundreds of thousands who rushed to the area in 1849 hoping to make their fortune in gold. While the cities and towns that dot the roadway still embody the region's pioneering days, it's their frozen-in-time main streets, vibrant history, and growing food and wine scenes that draw most of today's visitors to the foothills of the western Sierra Nevada.
Despite calling the Bay Area home for 22 years, I'd never managed to visit Gold Country to see firsthand the remnants of California's make-it-rich-overnight origins. Living car-free in San Francisco means road trips haven’t always come easy. So applying some pioneering spirit of my own, I decided to test out GIG, the new car-sharing service from AAA. Using the app, it was easy to reserve one of GIG’s Toyota Prius hybrids. (It was also nice to know I could make my 300-mile round-trip drive on a single tank of gas.) I picked up my ride near Oakland's Rockridge BART station and set out east to explore.
Centrally located on Highway 49's "Mother Lode" stretch between Auburn and Sonora, Sutter Creek was an ideal spot to base my wanderings. It's also home to the Hanford House Inn, an airy, design-savvy B&B just around the bend from Main Street. From here, I walked downtown's stretch of antiques and collectibles shops and wine-tasting rooms, mostly housed in historic buildings that look as though they've been plucked straight out of a John Wayne film.
Mid-week closings are common in this sleepy community, but I had no trouble settling into the easy-going vibe. I was plenty entertained at the Bella Grace Vineyards tasting room, where I tried a bubbly rosé spumante and a tempranillo with hints of cherries. I couldn't resist also sampling a number of the estate-grown olive oils, infused with flavors such as orange, rosemary, and jalapeño. Next, I stopped at Fine Eye Gallery and browsed a unique selection of handcrafted works, including purses created from colorful book covers.
At the historic Hotel Sutter—first opened in 1858 and most recently renovated in 2014—wide-open, wall-length windows reveal the house restaurant's stylish exposed brick wall and dark wood floors, enticing passersby to come in for a bite. I chose a flavorful burger topped with cremini mushrooms, fig balsamic, and brie. Afterward, I crossed the street to family-owned Cavana's Pub & Grub for a post-dinner cocktail. I opted for the refreshing Black Chasm, made with coconut rum, ginger beer, and lime juice. With drink in hand, I settled onto a plush loveseat and let my city woes slip away.
The following morning at Element, the Hanford House Inn's gourmet breakfast eatery, my helpful server offered a couple of suggestions for ways to spend my day. One was a scenic, five-mile round-trip hike to Amador City, and the other, a 29-mile drive north to Placerville. I decided to save the trek for a later visit and headed out along Highway 49's narrow and curving two-lane portion to Placerville.
Large and bustling compared to Sutter Creek, the former Hangtown—so named for the vigilante hangings that occurred here—has a similarly charming, old-time feel. The city's array of dining options includes Timmy's Brown Bag, a tiny lunch counter where patrons pony right up to the grill for gourmet sandwiches like po' boys and Vietnamese banh mi. At Totem Coffee Co., cups of single-origin coffee are served alongside thick slices of toast with toppings such as coconut, peanut butter, banana, and honey, or fig and walnut spread with a sprinkling of feta.
Other than stores specializing in fair-trade products and the make of cars parked along Main Street, Placerville looks much like it did 100 years ago—something I learned while flipping through old black-and-white images at the Pop Art Custom Framing Gallery. Even downtown's steel bell tower, first used as a fire alarm in 1865, remains.
Vestiges of the region's early mining prosperity are easy to find along Highway 49, and Placerville is no exception. Before the area became known for its hard rock–mining operations, prospectors once scoured the riverbeds for gold in what is now Gold Bug Park. Tucked within a residential area just a mile from the city's Main Street, today the family-friendly park is a favorite spot to see blacksmiths at work; pan for amethysts, garnets, and gold; or venture through a 352-foot mine drift on a self-guided audio tour.
My final stop before heading home was historic Jackson. Just five miles south of Sutter Creek, the town once produced more than half of the region's gold. I wandered past cafes and antiques stores and into Brickhouse Brews, a modern-day brewpub that opened in 2016. Chalkboard slabs above the bar list about a dozen micro beers, most of them IPAs, to pair with a large selection of burgers and sandwiches. The atmosphere is both casual and classy, the kind of place you want to linger—and I did, over a delicious roast beef sandwich served au jus.
On the return journey to the Bay Area, I reflected on the bounty of food, history, and scenery I amassed during my brief Highway 49 adventure. Mining for precious metals may no longer be Gold Country's main attraction, but for a weekend escape, it's still an easy place to strike it rich.