Placerville, Calif.—once called Hangtown—is home to the Apple Hill Festival and is rich with reminders of Gold Rush history.
Maybe it was the dank, abandoned mine shaft where I sipped a cappuccino, or the human effigy swinging from a noose high above Main Street. But early in my visit to this Gold Rush town, I realized—with some pleasure—that a weekend in Placerville would offer more than the usual attractions of an autumn getaway in the country.
Don't get me wrong. As much as anyone else, I enjoy waking in a cozy inn that smells of warm cinnamon rolls, tasting the sweet tang of a just-picked heirloom apple, or watching Chinese pistachio and sumac trees silently shed garish coats of orange and yellow leaves. Placerville offers all of this, and for that reason alone it makes a great weekend destination as days grow short and nights grow cold. But though the town of 8,400 has charm to spare, there are more than enough quirks to give it character as well.
That Placerville still has some bite isn't surprising, given its rollicking early history. Located only eight miles from the 1848 gold discovery site at Sutter's Mill in Coloma, the town started as a wild and woolly mining camp, but eventually became a regional hub as well as the seat of El Dorado County. It earned its former, notorious nickname of "Hangtown" after the speedy trial and execution of three murder suspects. Although the tree from which they swung is long gone, locals swear its stump is under the building at 305 Main Street—the Hangman's Tree—now festooned with the hard-to-miss effigy swinging outside.
Busy U.S. Highway 50 bisects modern Placerville, separating historic Main Street from a residential district where, in the fall, inns like the Chichester-McKee House and the Seasons glow in honey-colored sunlight, and on chilly nights there's a comforting scent of wood smoke in the air. Given the town's nearly 2,000-foot elevation, autumn color in and around Placerville can be spectacular, though the timing and the amount of color vary. Most years, October is the prime foliage-viewing month.
One of the Mother Lode's big attractions in the autumn is Apple Hill, a farming region centered in the tiny town of Camino, about five miles east of Placerville. From Labor Day through late fall, dozens of farms linked by 30 miles of looping country roads sell fresh apples, cider, and a vast array of other apple-related products. You'll find edibles like pies, cider doughnuts, fritters, and meat marinades, as well as potpourri, soaps, peelers, and cookbooks replete with favorite local recipes such as Dutch apple custard pie and Johnny Appleseed's filled cookies.
Some farms go all out—at El Dorado Orchards, I spotted a kiddie train and a craft fair—but others, like Goyette's North Canyon Ranch, Argyres Orchard, and Apple Creek Ranch, are low-key operations where u-pick fruit is the big attraction. As Halloween draws near, there are plenty of pumpkin patches, and after Thanksgiving a number of Christmas tree farms open for business. A word of warning: A half million people travel to Apple Hill each year; if you visit on an autumn weekend, go early in the day to avoid traffic.
Another favorite fall activity is winetasting. There are several wineries between Placerville and Camino, and a second group about 20 miles southeast in the relatively new viticultural region of Fair Play. Except during crush time and harvest festivals, most El Dorado County wineries are blessedly uncrowded, and the foothills setting can be dramatic in the autumn.
Back in Placerville, it's easy to conjure the town's Gold Rush past along Main Street, with its concentration of galleries, shops, and restaurants housed in 19th- and early-20th-century buildings. In the abandoned mining tunnel behind the Placerville Coffee House and Pub, I wondered what a crusty forty-niner would have thought of my cappuccino.
A collection of old oyster shells at the tiny Fountain-Tallman Historical Museum reminded me that Hangtown fry, a famous miners' dish of oysters and eggs, was reportedly born here and is still served just down the street at the Hangtown Grill. And amid the jumble of home repair supplies at Placerville Hardware—purportedly the oldest hardware store west of the Mississippi—I came across pans, picks, and most everything else an old-time prospector would have needed to seek his fortune.
Two other spots away from the Main Street historic district also gave me a good feel for Placerville's gold-plated past. The El Dorado County Historical Museum at the western end of town is a fabulous grandma's attic boasting everything from a Maidu coiled feasting basket to giant nozzles used in hydraulic mining. Among my favorite artifacts: a worn wooden wheelbarrow from the 1850s, one of many built and sold in Placerville by future automobile pioneer John Studebaker.
At Gold Bug Mine, about a mile out of town on Highway 50, I wandered the 352-foot length of the inactive hard-rock mine, which opened in 1888 and is now owned by the town. Wood flooring makes for an easy visit and the air is surprisingly fresh, thanks to a ventilation shaft that keeps temperatures in the 50s.
When you've had your fill of history, autumn leaves, and apples, a trip to Poor Red's might be in order. Located outside Placerville in the one-horse burg of El Dorado, this ramshackle roadhouse serves up barbecue in an 1852 building originally used as an apothecary. Many people come to Poor Red's to sip a Galliano-based golden Cadillac, a sweet alcoholic drink invented at its large oval bar in 1948. I arrived on a typical Saturday night to find a loud and friendly crowd—everyone from burly bikers in leather to families with hungry kids intent on polishing off big plates of ribs. Though Placerville's Gold Rush days are long gone, the boisterous spirit and easy camaraderie at Poor Red's seemed proof enough that the feel of the past can sometimes linger.
This article was first published in September 2002. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.