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Unearthing Treasures in California’s Gold Country

Discover historic towns, farm-to-fork dining, and boutique shopping in this gem-filled destination

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Posted a year agoby Tina Caputo

When it comes to California’s Gold Country, most people think of Gold Rush history and gorgeous scenery—and the region has plenty of both. Set along the western edge of the Sierra Nevada mountains, the area drew thousands of gold prospectors from 1849 through the mid-1850s. Today’s Gold Country visitors strike it rich in a different way, discovering a wealth of off-the-beaten-track experiences, from breathtaking hikes to incredible meals in America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital.

Three guests—Marcia Eymann, city historian at the Center for Sacramento History; Preethi Chandrasekhar, author of The Eager Traveler blog; and Nick Leonti, owner of The Leonti Group travel marketing firm—shared their favorite Gold Country experiences on the latest episode of the California Now Podcast.

“I was looking for a destination where I could combine the outdoors, plus some small historic towns, boutique shopping, and maybe even wine tasting,” Chandrasekhar told host Soterios Johnson. “I didn't expect Gold Country to have all of it, but that's exactly what I found.”

From the charming towns of Placerville and Murphys to Sacramento’s craft breweries, here are picks from Chandrasekhar, Eymann, and Leonti for an unforgettable Gold Country getaway.

Small-Town Treasures

With its 19th-century architecture and historic Main Street, the town of Placerville has an Old West vibe that transports visitors back to the Gold Rush days. To immerse yourself in the town’s history, book a room at the Historic Cary House Hotel, which claims Buffalo Bill, Mark Twain, and Ulysses S. Grant among its famous past guests.

While browsing Main Street’s boutiques, stop for a tasting at Winterhill Olive Oil, purveyor of artisanal oils, vinegars, and other gourmet goodies. Dedrick’s Cheese sells a delicious array of local and imported cheeses, freshly baked breads, and fromage-friendly condiments. Housed in a Victorian home with a charming patio, Sweetie Pie's Restaurant & Bakery offers scratch-made pastries and a huge selection of pies.

About 65 miles south of Placerville is Murphys. The town’s Main Street is home to more than 25 winery tasting rooms, including Newsome Harlow, which offers private patio seatings. Just a mile from downtown, Ironstone Vineyards is a can’t-miss stop for its beautiful grounds and 1927 Alhambra Theatre pipe organ—you can even hear it in action at Ironstone’s popular silent movie showings.

Perusing downtown shops, don’t miss Moon Alley, maker of one-of-a-kind handmade candles inlaid with stunningly beautiful designs.

A quick 15-minute drive northeast of Murphys, you’ll find Calaveras Big Trees State Park. Commune with giant sequoias, the world’s largest trees, as you hike the trails of the popular North Grove, and take in views of ancient volcanic formations and lush meadows.

For urban hiking, visit the old mining town of Sonora, 30 minutes south of Murphys. A 15-minute walk outside the charming downtown will take you to the Dragoon Gulch trailhead, featuring three miles of natural trails with spectacular views of the city and its surrounding mountain ranges.

The next town over, Columbia, is a living Gold Rush town that offers a glimpse of life in the 19th century, including merchants dressed in period clothing and stagecoach rides. While you’re there, devour a burger with “killer garlic fries” on the patio at Diamondback Grill or dine creekside on delicious Mexican fare at El Arroyo. Settle in for the night at Royal Olive Manor, Sonora’s newest bed-and-brunch destination. Beautifully renovated, the 1880s mansion features three elegantly appointed rooms—each decorated to represent a different period in the home’s history.

New Adventures in Old Sac

Two hours northwest of Sonora is the capitol city of Sacramento. Get a sense of the city’s history with a walk along the riverfront in Old Sacramento, home to the state’s largest grouping of Gold Rush–era buildings. From there, hike or cycle along the Jedediah Smith Trail, a curvy, 32-mile path along the American River’s lush, tree-lined riverbanks.

Next, treat yourself to some of Sacramento’s famous farm-to-fork cuisine. The Shack in East Sacramento is a great stop for terrific sandwiches, burgers, and clam chowder—preferably washed down with local beer. Right next door is Allora, a welcoming upscale eatery known for its Italian seafood dishes. Bicycle-themed One Speed is a local favorite for pizzas featuring seasonal Sacramento Valley produce.

Hosting more than 70 breweries, the Sacramento region is also renowned for its craft beers. In the Downtown district, kick back at Urban Roots Brewery & Smokehouse with delicious housemade brews—especially the Belgian-style offerings. Outside the city, in Auburn, Moonraker and Knee-Deep Brewing are turning heads with their award-winning beers. Cider fans will find plenty of delicious options at Two Rivers Cider Co. in Sacramento, known for its wildly creative lineup.

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