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Justin Bailie

Golden Chain Highway

Travel back to the Gold Rush era on Highway 49, where charming mining towns are surrounded by panoramic vistas of the Sierra Nevada foothills

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Rachid Dahnoun

Nevada City

Nevada City

This forest-wrapped hamlet of handsome Victorian-era homes and tree-lined streets 60 miles/98 kilometers northeast of Sacramento is one of the Gold Country’s prettiest towns. Originally settled in 1849 as a mining camp, Nevada City features a well-preserved core of historic buildings, including California’s oldest operating structure originally built for performances, the 1865 Nevada Theatre, with past performers ranging from Mark Twain to Mötley Crüe. Just around the corner, on Main Street, a bell-towered firehouse with a Victorian gingerbread front is the site of a compact history museum where the intricate cooking baskets made by native Nisenan Indians are exhibited alongside the artifacts of early residents and Chinese pioneers. Impeccable 19th-century buildings with wooden balconies are now the home of restaurants, gift shops (look for nature-lover treasures at The Earth Store), wine-tasting rooms, and antiques shops.

Download a self-guided walking tour from the Nevada City Chamber of Commerce.

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Empire Mine State Historic Park

Empire Mine State Historic Park

Get a one-two punch of experiences with a visit to Grass Valley’s remarkable Empire Mine State Historic Park. At the visitor center, learn about one of California’s oldest, largest, deepest, longest, and richest gold mines. In the course of a century, 5.6 million ounces/159 million grams of gold were mined. To get a sense of the size of the mine, see the scale model representing the mine’s 5-square-mile/13-square-km network, then walk outside to the entrance of the actual shaft—a tiny peek into a staggering underground maze of 367 miles/591 kilometers.

Shift gears—mentally and physically—with a tour of Bourn Cottage, a magnificent country estate, where no expense was spared to create a two-story stone citadel patterned after the noble estates of 19th century England, comes complete with redwood interiors, and leaded-glass windows.

Guided tours are offered May through September.

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Auburn

Auburn

Auburn has plenty to enjoy—Gold Rush history, great food and wine, and the outdoors—claiming to be home to the most challenging endurance sports events in the world, like the prestigious 100-mile/161-km Western States Endurance Run. The area also draws mountain bikers, hikers, and horseback riders, all taking advantage of trails lacing the Auburn State Recreation Area, which protects the confluence of the North and Middle Forks of the American River (two popular whitewater rafting destinations.)

As more vintners join the “Gold Crush”—a local reference to Placer County’s growing number of wineries—so does the chance to relax at nearby tasting rooms, where the guy pouring the wine is often the winemaker too. Good wines attract good restaurants, and Auburn’s Old Town is lined with them. Art galleries and antique shops abound. And get your citrus fix at the annual Mountain Mandarin Festival, held late fall at Auburn’s Gold Country Fairgrounds.

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Marshall Gold Discovery State Park

Marshall Gold Discovery State Park

Driving the sleepy stretch of winding Highway 49 between Auburn and Placerville, it’s hard to believe the region was the booming heart of one of the most significant events in California history. Here, in a stretch of the snowmelt-fed American River that slides past the don’t-blink town of Coloma, a sawmill employee named James Marshall first discovered glints of the precious metal in the river’s silt. The 1849 Gold Rush was on.

Coloma mushroomed into a town with some 10,000 people, and up went a schoolhouse, a general store, and a tin-roofed post office. These and other historic buildings are now protected as part of Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park. There’s an interesting Gold Discovery Museum, and kids can give gold-panning a try. Follow leafy trails along the river to find a shady picnic spot.

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South Fork American River

South Fork American River

The most popular whitewater-rafting river in the West, the American River tumbles through Gold Country, an inviting jumble of churning rapids, deep pools, and tumbling cascades. While remnants of old mining equipment still poke up in or near the river, the rush for gold has mostly been replaced by the rush for adrenaline. Each of the American’s three forks serve up their own style of watery fun, and outfitters offer everything from family-friendly half-day floats to white-knuckle multi-day adventures.

South Fork is the most popular, with Class II-III rapids perfect for families and first-timers.

While day trips are always a blast—especially on hot summer days when good-natured water fights between rafters break out with inviting frequency—there is nothing quite like spending the night alongside the river, trout rising on the surface of the silvery water as evening falls and a frieze of stars paints the night sky. Some outfitters go all out to create unique getaways; O.A.R.S. offers craft beer-tastings on some of its overnight trips.

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Plymouth

Plymouth

California produces 81% of U.S. wine, so it should come as no surprise that there are dozens of compelling wine destinations throughout the state. A number of Amador County wineries near Plymouth have been creating award-winning vintages in unpretentious wine country dating back to the 1850s. An explosion of tasting rooms and restaurants has added a jolt of grape-fueled energy to the Gold Country foothills, where wineries, many of them family owned and operated, now produce a wide range of varietals, most notably Zinfandel. To sample the new boom, head to Plymouth for trendy tasting rooms and sleek restaurants like Taste.

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Myles McGuinness

Columbia State Historic Park

Columbia State Historic Park

Columbia State Historic Park presents the Gold Rush in living, breathing color. Costumed docents do more than lead tours of this carefully preserved Mother Lode town; they actually live and work here in a variety of period-appropriate shops and trades. Catch a ride on an authentic stagecoach, order a cold, locally made sarsaparilla in a Western-style saloon, or feel the heat in a working blacksmith's forge. There’s also a Wells Fargo express office and other relics of California's early mining days. The town even sounds authentic—no cars allowed here, though you will hear the clip-clop of horses.

Free historical tours  depart from the museum weekends at 11 a.m. (weekdays too, mid-June until Labor Day). Gold Rush Days take place on 2nd Saturday afternoons; costumed docents lead hands-on crafts and special tours, and kids can try their hand at gold-panning. Summer can get hot and weekends become crowded, so aim for early mornings during the week if you can.