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The modern-day "gold rush" may be over. But wannabe tycoons can still strike it rich along Highway 49, California's original gold rush country.
Just about anywhere you stop along Gold Chain Highway, you'll find gold -- either real "flakes" of ore or historic nuggets of that wild time. Give yourself plenty of time -- there's much to do along this 244-mile scenic swath in the Sierra foothills.
To help you narrow the itinerary, we've picked the best of the golden west. Our recommended trip covers the central Mother Lode region from Mariposa to Nevada City. You'll find everything here, from mining expeditions to state parks rich in gold rush history. It's even possible to visit a living gold rush town, where your little prospectors can ride in a stagecoach, pan for gold, eat candy made from 100-year-old recipes, or sip sarsaparilla under the eaves of 19th-century buildings.
You came for gold. You got it. At Matelot Gulch Mine Supply Store in Columbia State Historic Park, you'll go home with a few flakes -- guaranteed! That's because the shopkeepers plant gold and gems inside their panning troughs. Bring your own gold pan or rent one for the day. Instructors will show you how it's done. This is a great activity for kids in summer, because they get to play in water. You'll take home your loot in a small plastic tube.
If your little gold seekers want more, take them to Jimtown 1849 Gold Mining Camp in nearby Jamestown. They can pan for ore by hand or hydraulic sluicer at this replica mining camp. Best yet: They get to keep all the glittering metal they find. Jimtown has been the location for more than 200 television shows and films, including, Little House on the Prairie, and Back to the Future III.
Watch the pros prospect for gold on a 1-1/2 hour Hidden Treasure Gold Mine Tour, also in Columbia. Vans transport you 4.5 miles outside the park, to a privately operated mine, which has been producing gold since 1878. You'll learn that when tourists aren't poking around, miners use dynamite and jackhammers to expose the shiny ore.
Gold isn't the only attraction at Columbia State Historic Park, 15 miles northeast of Jamestown. Once called the "Gem of the Southern Mines," this town is now preserved as a California State Historic Park. Authentic shops of the 1850s, operated by proprietors in period costumes, line downtown streets.
Hop a stagecoach and tour the town like a local. A.N. Fisher & Co. Stage Line & Livery Stables operates an authentic 20-passenger Abbot-Downing western coach or the smaller 8-passenger, open-sided mud wagon. In summer, the 10-minute ride winds through limestone formations exposed by hydraulic gold mining. Keep your eyes open for deer, squirrels, birds and, if you're lucky, bobcats. Both wagons are pulled by standardbred horses, the same breed used by the 49ers.
Train lovers of all ages will have a blast at Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, located 53 miles north of Mariposa. The museum, built on the original grounds of the Sierra Railway, operates rides on five steam engines. Three of the engines are the originals that transported prospectors to the mines. Rides are 45 minutes -- short enough to keep the little ones engaged and long enough for interpretive guides to fill you in on the region's mining history.
You'll ride the same tracks as the miners, through rolling hills and along Woods Creek, where much of this region's gold was discovered. If the area looks familiar, it's because you've probably already seen it in the movies. More than 200 films have been shot on these trains and tracks. The three-hour Fourth of July train trip and BBQ is a must.
Tour the sleepy town of Coloma, where gold was discovered in 1848. James Marshall plucked a gold nugget from the American River at Sutter's Mill here, launching the legendary gold rush. Nearby Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park features a nearly full-size replica of Sutter's Mill, along with original buildings, churches, and cemeteries from the gold rush era.
Keep an eye out for the stone wall at river's edge, marking the Sutter's Mill site and path leading to the exact spot where Marshall found his nugget. Feeling lucky? Bring a gold pan and see if Marshall's luck rubs off on you.
For a change of pace, check out Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park, just north of Nevada City. The park was once a hydraulic mining site, in which water cannons blasted hillsides to expose ore. In a precedent-setting ruling, a federal judge ordered the North Bloomfield Mining Co. to stop this type of environmentally devastating mining in 1884.
Today the eroded cliffs and area surrounding Malakoff's giant mining pit are -- believe it or not -- a great place to stretch your legs. Time and nature have turned what was once an ugly, scarred pit into unusually beautiful cliffs revealing layers of colorful gravel and rock. There's the three-mile "Diggins Trail," which loops around the mine pit, and the two-mile Hardrock Trail, as well as a small fishing pond.
Spend a few moments in historic Bloomfield, a one-block ghost town. The visitor center offers exhibits on life in this gold rush-era town. Costumed docents lead guided tours on weekends.
More than 13,000 gems, and minerals -- including a 12.5-pound crystalline gold nugget, the largest found during the Gold Rush -- are on display at the California State Mining and Mineral Museum in Mariposa. Home to the state's official mineral collection, the museum also houses a working, scale-model of a stamp mill, which crushed the rocks that contained the gold. (You can press the buttons and watch it move). Interactive displays teach kids and adults about minerals. Don't miss the centerpiece exhibit: a tunnel that takes visitors 150 feet into an underground mine. Budget 45 minutes to see it all.
Type of trip: Outdoor, historic, educational
Best ages: 10 and up
Ideal trip length: Long weekend
Distance (from Columbia, CA): Stockton, CA (76 miles), Sacramento (119 miles), San Francisco (140 miles)
Best time to go: Spring, when the Sierra foothills are filled with wildflowers, and summer for warmer weather
Weather: High 90s during the day from June to September. July is warmest at 98/57 degrees; 70 to 80-degree highs in April and May. In November, temperatures drop to 67/34. Rainfall is highest from January through March.
Lodging: Rates are typically higher during the peak summer months. Lodging choices include RV parks, motels, and historic hotels.
Squirm factor: None -- the 49ers' lives were anything but dull.
California State Mining and Mineral Museum 5005 Fairgrounds Dr., Mariposa, 1.8 miles south of Mariposa on Hwy 49 Phone: 209-742-7625
Railtown 1897 State Historic Park 5th St. and Reservoir, Jamestown Phone: 209-984-3953
Jimtown 1849 Gold Mining Camp 18170 Main St., Jamestown Phone: 209-984-4653 Activities: Panning expeditions, Sluice Box expeditions
Columbia State Historic Park On Hwy 49, four miles north of Sonora Phone: 209-532-0150
Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park 310 Back St., Coloma, eight miles north of Placerville Phone: 530-622-3470
Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park 23579 N. Bloomfield Rd., Nevada City Phone: 530-265-2740
Yosemite-Sierra Visitors Bureau Phone: 559-683-4636
Tuolumne County Visitor's Bureau (Sonora) Phone: 800-446-1333
Columbia Chamber of Commerce Phone: 209-536-1672
Calavaras County Visitors Bureau (Coloma) Phone: 800-225-3764
Grass Valley & Nevada County Chamber of Commerce Phone: 530-273-4667
Nevada City Chamber Phone: 800-655-6569
Favorite local spot: Columbia Candy Kitchen Main St., Columbia State Historic Park Phone: 209-532-7886 Note: The 85-year-old shop sells a variety of delicious, old-fashioned candies from the 49er era. The candy is handmade using 100-year-old equipment and weighed on antique scales. Watch it all being made through four glass doors facing Main Street. (Inside tip: During Christmas, you can make your own candy canes. Call ahead for reservations.)Annual events:
Traffic alert: Carry chains during winter; snow falls in a number of gold rush towns.
There's more than just gold in them hills. Four spectacular caverns in Calavaras County, all within an hour and a half drive of each other, offer walking tours, wild cave expeditions, rappelling and spelunking. Small babies in front packs or slings are permitted but not children in backpacks. Some tours are not advised for those with claustrophobia or fear of heights.