If any spot in California—even the United States—can boast of having a “rich” history, El Dorado County is it: After all, this is where the Gold Rush kicked off in the 1840s. Today it offers a time capsule of that era, but it also features more contemporary pursuits: home-grown cuisine, great wine, and a lot of outdoor fun.
Indeed, one part of the county runs along Lake Tahoe, with its year-round menu of activities. Go kayaking, mountain biking, or hiking in the summer, or skiing and snowboarding in the winter at South Lake Tahoe mountain resorts Heavenly, Kirkwood, and Sierra-at-Tahoe.
To see El Dorado County’s spirit, however, start at the literal motherlode. At Coloma’s Marshall Gold Discovery State Park you can see where sawmill worker James Marshall first discovered gold in 1848; the riverside park features a replica of that old sawmill as well as historic buildings, guided tours, and the chance to try gold panning yourself. See more 19th-century landmarks in towns along Highway 49 such as Cool, Georgetown, and charming Placerville, with its quaint B&Bs, the Fountain & Tallman Museum (once a soda fountain for prospectors), and Placerville Hardware, the oldest hardware store west of the Mississippi.
The area’s cultural landmarks aren’t all about gold, either: Placerville is also home to the Wakamatsu Farm, the 1869 tea and silk farm that was America’s first Japanese colony, which is open for tours. Then follow the Quilt Trail between Placerville and Pollock Pines, where quilt-style murals enliven the sides of old barns.
The county’s fertile terrain has also yielded a thriving farm-to-table culinary scene, including wine, spirits, and craft beer. Sample the area’s agricultural bounty at locally sourced eateries such as Coloma’s Argonaut Farm to Fork Cafe. Or go straight to the source by exploring Apple Hill, a collection of more than 50 ranches and farms off Highway 50. Autumn is prime season for apples, of course, while spring and summer bring berries and lavender.
El Dorado’s winemaking, meanwhile, dates back to the Gold Rush, too, and has continued to flourish by way of the Syrahs and Zinfandels at award-winning Miraflores Winery, the biodynamic wines at Narrow Gate Vineyards, and the bubblies at Sentivo Vineyards. For under-the-radar wineries, head to the area around former mining town Fair Play, which is dotted with more than 20 family-owned boutique wineries.
In El Dorado Hills, try Dry Diggings Distillery for small-production spirits the old prospectors would have loved—whiskey, rum, and gin—while Apple Hill has its own Hard Cider Trail. South Lake Tahoe has a range of craft breweries, such as South Lake Brewing Co. and Lake Tahoe AleWorx, while in Diamond Springs, Solid Ground Brewery creates specialty lagers and experimental wine-influenced beers, like a sparkling Rosé ale brewed in Cabernet Sauvignon barrels.
Between tastings, you’ll want to play outside. Winter draws skiers and snowboarders to the area but spring, summer, and fall are magical for scenic hikes to Carson Pass, Hope Valley, or Bassi Falls in Eldorado National Forest. Running through the region, too, is the epic South Fork of the American River—the same waters where James Marshall saw those first flecks of gold. Today’s thrills come in the form of Class I–III whitewater rafting, along with off-road excursions, and miles of riverside trails.