Travel back to the Gold Rush era on Highway 49, where charming mining towns dot the route, surrounded by the panoramic vistas and bubbling streams of the western Sierra Nevada foothills. The 300-plus mile road—also known as the Gold Rush Trail and Gold Chain Highway—begins in Oakhurst—14 miles south of the entrance to Yosemite National Park—before heading north to a string of historic towns that have maintained their 1850s charm and eventually merging with Highway 120 near Groveland.
Stop by the California State Mining and Mineral Museum in Mariposa for a quick Gold Rush history lesson, and take a gander at Hotel Jeffrey, a historic spot in Coulterville that claims John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt as past visitors.
Depending on the time of year, just north of Coulterville you can head east on Highway 120, aka Tioga Pass, into Yosemite National Park (weather permitting, check current conditions for road closure information).
Or, if your journey continues north, you can dive deeper into Gold Rush history in Jamestown, either on board an antique steam locomotive at Jamestown’s Railtown 1897 State Historic Park or as you pan for gold. Continue on to Sonora, a classic Mother Lode town. Dine on New American cuisine in a Gold Rush-era building with exposed stone walls at the Diamondback Grill, or sip a sarsaparilla at nearby Columbia State Historic Park, where costumed docents lead historic tours. In winter, excellent locations for snow sports are nearby—head northeast for 45 miles on Scenic Highway 4 from Angels Camp and you’ll find Bear Valley Mountain Ski Resort, as well as Lake Alpine Sno-Park, where you can cross-country ski, snowmobile, or simply build a snowman with a $5 day permit.
Highway 49 passes through multiple counties, including Calaveras County, where a May trip would not be complete without witnessing the frog jumping contest at the Calaveras County Fair and Frog Jump Jubilee, one of the longest running events in California. To break up your drive with a thrill, strap yourself in for a zip line ride into Angels Camp’s Moaning Cavern—a chamber big enough to hold the Statue of Liberty.
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