Channel the spirit of the 49ers as you uncover the secrets of vibrant San Francisco and the historic Gold Rush towns which made it the city it is today.
This circuit is perfect for history buffs and families who want to dig into the details of California’s fascinating 1849 Gold Rush history. After exploring the vibrant immigrant neighborhoods of historic San Francisco and marveling at the city’s incredible natural and manmade features, you’ll venture into a land of meandering rivers, pine-forested hills, and historic saloons and jailhouses that are now being quietly populated by bohemians, artists and boutique winemakers. But first, the city that has it all…
Widely regarded as one of the world’s most iconic cities, you’ll be surprised to know that San Francisco consisted of only “twelve or thirteen houses scattered along the sand hills” when gold was discovered in 1848. (This quote comes from JH Carson´s 1852 manuscript Early recollections of the mines, and a description of the great Tulare valley which we’ll return to later in this journal.)
Since those inauspicious beginnings, waves of immigration have seen the city develop into a cultural melting pot like none other. This incredible diversity of worldviews has led to San Francisco being at the vanguard of numerous countercultural revolutions including those wrought by the Beat Generation of the 1950s, the hippies of the 1960s, the gay rights activists of the 1970s and 1980s, and the techpreneurs of today (to mention a few). This has translated into vibrant neighborhoods (like The Castro, Haight-Ashbury, North Beach, and Chinatown) that are full of quirky surprises and are also home to some damn fine coffee and even better sourdough. (What other city has a yeast – Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis – named after it?)
Built on a thumb-shaped peninsula that encircles the San Francisco Bay, the city is also blessed with incredible natural beauty and frequent maritime fogs. The jumble of charming Victorian rooflines, still-functioning historic tramways, and stolen glimpses of the ocean below is hard to beat. Crossing the Bay, whether on a romantic sunset cruise or via the iconic Golden Gate Bridge (interestingly, the name has nothing to do with the Gold Rush), is a genuine rite of passage. The bridge – which at the time of its opening in 1937 was both the longest (4,200 feet) and the tallest (746 feet) suspension bridge in the world – deserves a special mention.
As Herb Caen, San Francisco’s unofficial bard, put it: “The mystical structure, with its perfect amalgam of delicacy and power, exerts an uncanny effect. Its efficiency cannot conceal the artistry. There is heart there, and soul. It is an object to be contemplated for hours.”
The luxury Fairmont Hotel, located atop iconic Nob Hill was named after mining magnate and US Senator James Graham Fair (1831-94), by his daughters who built the hotel in his honor. The historic hotel’s opening was delayed by a year after a fire caused by the 1906 earthquake gutted the interior, but it’s gone from strength to strength ever since. The splendid Venetian Room was where Tony Bennett first sang “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” (in December 1961). And the Tonga Room and Hurricane Bar – with its floating bandstand and artificial thunderstorms – has to be one of the coolest places to get a drink, anywhere.
The original flagship of the Fairmont chain, it was also the very first establishment in the United States to offer a concierge service, and it remains ahead of the competition. Guest rooms are spacious and well-appointed, with the suites offering impressive views of the Bay and city (and complimentary telescopes!).
Departing the city via the 4.5-mile-long (in total) San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge (the Bay Bridge for short), you’ll soon be transported to a world that began in 1849 with the discovery of gold. On the morning of January 24, 1848, James W. Marshall was examining the channel below the sawmill where he worked when he spied some shiny flecks:
“I picked up one or two pieces and examined them attentivel;y and having some general knowledge of minerals, I could not call to mind more than two which in any way resembled this, iron, very bright and brittle; and gold, bright, yet malleable. I then tried it between two rocks, and found that it could be beaten into a different shape, but not broken. I then collected four or five pieces and went up to Mr. Scott (who was working at the carpenter's bench making the mill wheel) with the pieces in my hand and said, ‘I have found it.’”
No sooner had Marshall’s suspicions been confirmed than a seemingly endless flood of would-be gold miners rushed into California by covered wagon from the east and by ship from the west into San Francisco. Mining settlements sprouted up across the Sierra Foothills, as 49ers scoured the creeks and waterways that flow down from the Sierra Nevadas with gold pans and sluices.
Today the area retains much of its Gold Country feel, where you’ll still find locals gold panning on a day out at the river, and where gold rush saloons dot small historic towns. This is blended with patches of gentrification from the cities, where back to land artists and remote working professionals drive the region’s character-filled dining, arts, and entertainment venues.
By mid-afternoon, you’ll come to the historic town of Sonora, located at an important junction which connects San Francisco with the high sierras of Yosemite. Sonora was home to the Bonanza Mine which once gave up 12 tons of gold in two years (including a 28lb nugget!) and “yielded fortunes to Alonzo Colby, Edward Kiel, Albert Johnson, JB Harriman, and David R. Oliver, all of Sonora.” Sonora’s town center is so well preserved that it’s often used as the backdrop for historical films, and its high touch B&Bs and eateries make it an ideal overnight stop.
Leaving Sonora in the morning, the 130-mile drive to Nevada City is a road trip through California’s beginnings. While the trip along Highway 49 (the original gold miners’ route) can be completed in under three hours, you’ll want to dedicate the entire day to exploring the many small towns and up-and-coming wineries en route. While the best advice is to simply follow your nose, history buffs should be sure to check out charming Sutter’s Creek, Old Town Auburn and Placerville, not to mention Angel’s Camp (where Mark Twain wrote his first successful story in 1865) and Coloma (where gold was first discovered).
Wine lovers, meanwhile, will find gold of a different type around delightfully understated Plymouth and Mount Aukum, microregions known for the excellent Rhone varietals (get yourself a copy of this book if you’re really serious about winetasting in the Sierra Foothills).
This all means that you’ll only arrive to quaint-as-heck Nevada City by evening. But fret not – you’ll have the whole day to explore this town of 3,000 souls tomorrow. Nevada City, tucked amongst the pine trees with old-mining waterwheels in the town park, is the quintessential example of a place where old gold country culture, artists, yuppies, and small-town California blend. This bohemian playground is packed with fantastic restaurants, wine bars, and B&Bs – including our personal favorite, The Madison House, a historic B&B that was built from redwood lumber in 1865.
North of Nevada City, things get really rural. You’ll enter a world of tiny, ex-mining towns that are surrounded by spectacular nature on all sides. As you meander alongside the Yuba River you’ll be lured in by places like North San Juan (population 269), Camptonville (population 158), and Goodyears Bar (population 68) which all boast 170-year histories and tightknit sixth-generation communities which have lost many of their youngsters to urbanization. Things ’round these parts sure have changed a lot since Carson penned his 1852 manuscript:
The northern mines had also received a heterogeneous mass to their population, and men ragged and filthy in the extreme, with thousands of dollars in their pockets, filled the houses and streets, drinking and gambling away their piles… Gambling seemed to be the ruling passion—there was no value set on money, as it would not procure the comforts of life, or amusement or pleasure to the holders; millions of dollars were recklessly squandered at the gaming tables and drinking shops.
By lunch you’ll arrive to the relative metropolis of Downieville, – population 282! – a wonderful little town that is home to California’s oldest weekly newspaper. The Mountain Messenger has been in continuous production since 1853, keeping the people of Sierra County informed of “government meetings, births and deaths, the police blotter, the weather." This fantastic New York Times feature on the one-man struggle to keep the paper going paints a really vivid picture of the town - "it has the feel of a backlot for an Old West movie” – and it also contains some fascinating historical nuggets. Like the fact that Mark Twain even wrote a few stories for the paper (an ex editor described them as “awful … they were just local stories, as I recall, written by a guy with a hangover.”)
Between them, Caen, Carson, Marshall and the New York Times article do a pretty good job of capturing the feel of Gold Country. But to truly appreciate the spirit of the 49ers you have to see Downieville, Nevada City, Placerville, and all the other towns – big and small; gentrified and dog-eared – of the Highway 49 corridor for yourself. Not to mention paradigm-shifting San Francisco, the city which owes much of its splendor to gold.