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Jackson, Calif.: A Sierra Getaway

Strike it rich with local wines, unique shops, and historic sites.

Georgia Fox, vintage finery at county museum, Jackson, Calif., image
Photo caption
Curator Georgia Fox dons vintage finery at the county museum.

Even if you're not ready to trade all you own for a pickax and a mule, consider spending a weekend scouting Jackson, Calif., in the heart of the Sierra gold country. A few blocks from the modern crossroads of Highways 88 and 49 and just 47 miles east of Sacramento, lazy creeks still meander past the brick fronts and balconies of this foothill town's historic district, and the descendants of Italian and Serb gold miners still gather for coffee in the local diners. A Gold Rush saloon, one-of-a-kind shops, and the haunting remains of what was once the richest mine in the mother lode are only a few of the treasures that make Jackson the perfect place to set up camp.

The National Hotel has anchored the south end of Jackson's busy Main Street since 1862. John Wayne and Will Rogers have hoisted pints or played cards behind the swinging doors of the National's saloon, and live dance music still draws crowds every weekend. Nearby, reasonably priced antique stores lure bargain hunters.

From July 22 to 25, the Amador County Fair celebrates the county's 150th birthday with winetasting and live music. Related events are planned throughout 2004. Call (209) 245-6921 or visit

Visitors are also attracted to the other shops in Jackson, where retailers specialize—with a passion. At a converted gas station known as the Home and Farm Kitchen Store, copper polenta pots, molds for steamed pudding, and a thousand other unusual gadgets vie for shelf space with camp stoves and eight sizes of cast-iron skillets.

Even kids who don't collect model trains will be drawn to Wierschem's Train Town Candies and Ice Cream Parlor, a hobby store whose inventory ex-panded to include sweets. Just for starters, you can choose from more than 100 flavors of taffy (80 are sugar free), 24 kinds of fudge, and some 40 varieties of licorice. (Kookaburra, from Australia, is the most popular.) Adults may prefer to sample the treats at California Wine Sellers, a shop that focuses on award-winning zinfandels and other local vintages. An argon-gas pouring system allows the staff to offer 25 tasting wines every day, including hard-to-find selections from nearby Young's Vineyard, Dobra Zemlja, and Jeff Runquist Wines. Pick up a map of Amador County's 27 wineries or ask for advice and taste the best right in the store.

The Shady Lady sells handmade lampshades in beaded, Victorian, and modern styles. Or use your own fabric and design. 122 Main St., 257-1503.

At lunchtime, try the ginger noodle salad or Turkish grilled eggplant sandwich at the Upstairs Restaurant & Streetside Bistro (also open evenings for a five-course wine dinner). Or check out Mel & Faye's Diner, where locals head for double-deck Moo Burgers and fresh banana milk shakes. For picnic fixings, go to the Mother Lode Market & Deli (try its Italian sausage on a hot roll).

Don't leave town without stopping at the Amador County Museum on Courthouse Hill to see the large-scale working model of Jackson's Kennedy Mine. From the late 1860s until 1942, when it ceased operation, the model's namesake hoisted up $28.8 million in gold bullion, making it the most productive gold mine in the mother lode.

Today, the real Kennedy Mine's grassy grounds and original buildings are owned and operated by a nonprofit foundation, which offers aboveground tours and allows hiking and picnicking for a fee. Although the mine is no longer active, it may not be too late for a dedicated dreamer to strike it rich: Geologists estimate that 80 percent of the gold that ever existed in the mother lode is still there, locked inside buried ribbons of quartz that snake from Sierra City south to Mariposa—right through the heart of Jackson.

Photography by Sean Arbabi

This article was first published in July 2004. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.