220 mi / 354 km
Sacramento Int (SMF)
Bring the pick axe and the gold pans, because this drive is all about delving into the heart of California's historic mining territory.
You'll dip in and out of the Sierra Nevada mountains as you move north to south through ghost towns and frontier towns raised in the wake of the great California Gold Rush of 1848. It promises haunting human stories and knockout natural wonders in almost equal measure; a 150-year-old mine shaft here, a grove of giant sequoia trees there.
The Empire Mine State Historic Park kicks things off. It's a place of sheer superlatives. One of the longest, deepest, and most productive mines in American history, they say more than 165 tons of the good stuff was extracted from its tunnels – all 367 miles of them, no less.
Dreaming of striking it lucky yourself? Nature lovers certainly have, because the road goes southwards to the Greenwood Loop hiking path next. It's a short, peaceful run of trail that meanders between wildflower meadows on the side of the American River.
The mining heritage takes over again as you hit the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park. You're standing on seriously hallowed ground. It was here, back on January 24 1848, on a bend in the South Fork River between the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, that a certain James W. Marshall looked down to see flecks of a particular 24-karat mineral glaring back at him from the water.
Realizing the significance of his find, Marshall rushed to show his discovery to John Sutter. The two men swore to keep the secret under wraps, fearing the consequences that widespread knowledge of the gold could bring. However, their efforts to maintain secrecy were short-lived.
Word of the gold discovery spread like wildfire throughout the region. Miners, known as "Forty-Niners," from all corners of the globe rushed to California in search of their fortunes. The California Gold Rush had begun!
Despite being credited with discovering gold, Marshall did not personally benefit from the immense wealth that flowed from the region. He struggled to hold onto his own mining claims, facing legal battles and disputes over ownership. His dreams of financial security were elusive, and he lived a relatively modest life.
You can see the effect that discovery had in nearby Placerville. They call it El Dorado, because the whole town was built on the proceeds of mining throughout the second half of the 19th century. It still retains its frontier charm – think door-slapping saloons and brick-fronted buildings that look like they've been plucked from a Western movie.
The final 40 miles or so of the drive runs through the undulating farms on the western side of the mountains. It's quaint and bucolic country, with ghost towns, ancient Indian sacred sites, the living-history town of Columbia, and more abandoned mining settlements than you can throw a nugget of gold at (but don't do that!).
There's also one detour in there that's pretty darn special: A ride up to the Calaveras Big Trees State Park to gawp at monstrous redwoods that are five, six, seven meters wide and 300 foot high from tip to toe.
As you conclude your drive through the California Gold Rush region, you can't help but feel a deep sense of awe and appreciation for the incredible history that unfolded in this remarkable landscape. The echoes of the gold rush era reverberate through the hills, valleys, and quaint towns that dot the region.
As you drive along the winding roads, passing by rushing rivers and towering trees, it's easy to imagine the hordes of gold seekers who traversed these same paths in pursuit of their dreams. You can almost envision the bustling activity, the makeshift tents, and the clinking of tools that once filled these now peaceful landscapes.
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