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Road Trip: California’s Historic Highway 49

Cruise along the Golden Chain Highway to discover gourmet eateries, classic inns, hilltop wineries, and all sorts of history

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A road trip on historic Highway 49 doesn’t simply take you from point A to point B—it also transports you to the past. Begin in Old Town Auburn with a stop at cozy Auburn Coffee Company for a chai latte or kombucha poured straight from the tap. If you're there on a Saturday, make sure to stop at the Foothill Farmers' Market, featuring local produce, flowers, and more. Then head to the Joss House Museum, a boardinghouse and school that served hardworking Chinese settlers during the Gold Rush.

Next, cruise south 18 miles to Coloma, where the South Fork of the American River runs through Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park. Here at Sutter’s Mill in 1848, James Marshall spotted glittering flecks in the ground that changed the course of California’s history. Try your hand at gold panning on the river’s east bank, then stretch your legs with a hike up the monument trail past antique mining equipment. 

Back on the road for 10 curving miles, you’ll come to Placerville—affectionately called “Old Hangtown” for its Wild West–style of justice. Well-preserved Main Street boasts the town’s oldest building, the rustic stone Fountain & Tallman Soda Works, built in 1852. Its two-foot-thick walls and underground rooms insulated the ice used for bottling soda water, which quenched the thirst of local miners. Now a museum run by the El Dorado County Historical Society, the building houses artifacts from Placerville’s colorful past, including the original Soda Works carbonation machine.

Grab lunch under the stamped-tin ceiling at The Farm Table, a charcuterie and bistro serving artisanal house-cured meats and farm-fresh produce, then meander south on State Highway 49 to the heart of Amador Wine Country. Sip Rhone varietals in the barn-style tasting room at Plymouth’s Helwig Winery, then take in the hilltop views, tour the wine caves, or attend a summer concert at the outdoor amphitheater.

Afterward, plan to arrive at Sutter Creek’s elegant Hanford House Inn just in time for an evening glass of wine. Walk to downtown Sutter Creek for dinner, but keep it light—you’ll want to conserve your appetite for breakfast at Element. Best bets? The Hanford House soppressata Benedict or challah French toast with a side of caramelized bacon. 

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