You can learn a lot about a place from its name. Placerville, at the junction of Highways 49 and 50, started out as Dry Diggins, a nod to the old mining technique of using water to sift gold nuggets from dry soil. In 1849, a year after the discovery of gold in nearby Coloma sparked the Gold Rush, the settlement became known as Hangtown, a graphic reference to the Wild West justice that was meted out here.
In 1854, the town took on the more amiable name of Placerville, commemorating the gold placer deposits found in local riverbeds and hills. While it has long been a popular stop for travelers heading to Lake Tahoe’s south shore, it has even more appeal these days, with sophisticated shops like Dedrick’s, focusing on artisanal cheeses, tempting you to stay and browse a while. You could even take your cheese selection and have a picnic on the grounds of historic Gold Bug Park, where you can also take a self-guided audio tour or a guided group tour of a mid-19th-century gold mine.
A fifteen-minute drive away is Wakamatsu Farm, the original site of the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Farm Colony, the first Japanese settlement in North America. Now on the National Register of Historic Places, it traces its history back to 1869, when 22 samurai and their families emigrated to establish what was the first tea and silk farm in California. Two-hour docent-led tours of the farm are available during events, when the site is open to visitors, or just wander the beautiful grounds and have a picnic. Each June, the site hosts a celebration of Japanese heritage, arts, and cuisine in California.