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Placerville

See old and new in this historic Gold Rush town about an hour west of Lake Tahoe

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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. Five years later, the town took on the more amiable name of Placerville, commemorating the gold placer deposits found in local riverbeds and hills. Today, the town’s Gold Rush-era history is a big part of Placerville’s identity and appeal, but that’s only the beginning.

Start in historic Downtown Placerville, where the wide array of shops, historic buildings, antique stores, art galleries, and restaurants belies the town’s diminutive size (population just over 10,000). The oldest building on Main Street is the present-day home of the Fountain-Tallman Museum. The rock-rubble structure dates to 1852 and was the former site of a soda works that supplied thirsty miners with soda water (the rivers and creeks were polluted by the numerous nearby mines, so water from them was not potable). Now known as the “Biggest Little Museum in the West,” it offers information and exhibits on geology, city history, local indigenous cultures, and more.

Next, set aside the better part of a day to visit to Gold Bug Park and Mine. Throw on a hard-hat  and make your way into the Gold Bug mine—an actual hard-rock gold mine where operations began in the 1880s—to learn about the geological activity that put the precious metal there in the first place and how miners got it out (it’s perfectly safe, with lights, ventilation, and wooden floors). Self-guided audio tours are available as well as guided group tours. You can also pan for gems, which are easier to spot than gold flakes, browse the artifacts and exhibits at Hattie’s Gold Rush Museum, and visit the Joshua Handy Stamp Mill, with its scale model of the kind of heavy machinery used around the turn pf the century in the gold extraction process.

While it has long been a popular stop for travelers heading to Lake Tahoe’s south shore, these days, Placerville is attracting a culinary-minded crowd too. There are sophisticated artisanal shops like Dedrick’s Main Street Cheese and Sweetie Pie’s bakery that tempt you to stay and browse a while, and restaurants like Hog Wild Bar-B-Que and Smith Flat House where you can enjoy a memorable meal. The growing popularity of wine tasting has also been a boon to the town. The El Dorado Wine Region is one of the oldest wine-producing regions in the state, and there are more than 20 wineries within minutes of downtown; two that are within Placerville itself are Nello Olivi Winery and Saureel Vineyards.

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.

Another don’t-miss attraction is Apple Hill, about five miles east of downtown. This cluster of apple orchards and businesses serves as a sort of all-things-apple mecca (along with other fruits and veggies), and is a hit with kids and adults alike. Come here for dozens of varieties of ciders, hard ciders, and of course crisp, juicy apples, plus u-pick farms and the region’s famous cider doughnuts.

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