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Yreka, Calif.: Weekend Escape

A gold nugget of a town still lures travelers to Northern California.

Yreka, California, Miner Street
Photo credit
Photo: Robert Holmes/copyright 1997 California Division of Tourism
Photo caption
Miner Street in Yreka, Calif., shows its Gold Rush heritage.

About the odd name. Some sources say it means "white mountain" in the language of the Shasta Indians, a reference to nearby snow-peaked Mount Shasta. Others think it arose from a misspelling of eureka. And then there's the tale of a traveler passing through the booming California Gold Rush town who saw a canvas sign for a new bakery being hung and, reading it from behind and backward, mistook it for the name of the town. Yreka!

Yreka Bakery remains a popular palindrome, a phrase that reads the same backward or forward. And plenty of travelers still get Yreka (pronounced wy-REEK-uh) wrong in another way. Because Interstate 5 runs through a corner of this small town 22 miles from the Oregon border, motorists often dismiss it. Stay a spell and you'll discover a lovely place alive with Gold Rush memories, ringed by stunning mountain views, and enjoying a new boom of restaurants, shops, and restored historic houses.

Yreka burst to life in 1851, when mule train operator Abraham Thompson, passing through, noticed something shining in the grass where his mules grazed. What glittered was the real thing: gold. Within months, 2,000 prospectors had descended on the area—"a mixed and motley crowd—a restless, roving, rummaging, ragged multitude," as one letter writer described it. Saloons, hotels, banks, dancehalls, and, yes, bakeries sprang up. Over the next few years, miners coaxed an estimated $60 million worth of precious metal out of the ground, making this, by some accounts, the richest square mile on the face of the earth.

The old-fashioned downtown, lined with dozens of 19th-century structures, preserves a sense of what it was like in bygone days when Lotta Crabtree, the famous entertainer, performed at the local dancehall and bakeries sold 12 loaves for $1 (delivery included). Markers throughout downtown describe the original use of structures such as the 1852 Ruehle Building at 326 West Miner Street, which held a "shaving saloon" and bathhouse downstairs and the printing o˜ce of the Yreka Journal upstairs. You can also see dozens of ornate Victorians, stately Gothic revivals, and cozy bungalows throughout the residential district.

The four blocks along West Miner Street remain an active commercial area, drawing a mix of locals and tourists. To listen in on the latest gossip, stop by the Village Grind, which boasts strong espressos, piled-high quesadillas, build-your-own sandwiches, and a brightly painted old-fashioned tin ceiling. Natural Selections, a women's clothing store, carries fashions made with natural fibers, as well as sterling silver jewelry and leather bags. If it's all-American comfort food you crave, a local favorite, Grandma's House on nearby East Center Street, has a menu that touts homemade buttermilk pancakes for breakfast and flame-broiled prime rib at night.

Gold still glitters at a small but fascinating exhibit in the lobby of the Siskiyou County Courthouse, just two blocks from downtown. One nugget the size of a fist turned up discarded in the tailings left behind by miners. History buffs also shouldn't miss the nearby Siskiyou County Museum with its rich collection of American Indian, trapping, and prospecting artifacts.

Delve further into the past in Montague, a small town about seven miles east of Yreka. For a taste of elegance, step into Ms. Lynn's Tea, where chandeliers and fine china set the stage. Try the fresh scones, made daily, with housemade lemon curd and Devonshire cream and one of the shop's 150 teas.

Montague was once the end of the line for travelers coming up by rail from San Francisco. From here, the arriving throngs would take horses and buggies the rest of the way to Yreka. Today's sightseers have it a lot easier than those pioneering wayfarers who bounced along dirt roads. But the sweeping views of open rangeland and the soaring Trinity Alps haven't changed much at all—and they've proved to be a lure far more enduring than gold.

Yreka Gold Rush Day June 20. An old-fashioned street fair in the historic district along Broadway and West Miner Street includes live bands, a chili cook-off, and gunfight reenactments. (530) 842-1649.

Shovel Ready! Abraham Thompson, whose discovery in 1851 started the Siskiyou County gold rush, poses for posterity at the Siskiyou County Museum. (530) 842-3836.

This article was first published in May 2009. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.