Tucked away in the folded foothills of the Sierra Nevada, California’s Gold Country is an unforgettable destination where the state’s past, present, and future come together. This historically important region that once drew thousands of prospective gold miners from around the world is again largely undiscovered, but those who make the trip will find historical, natural, and cultural treasures in El Dorado, Amador, and Calaveras Counties. See colossal sequoias, rappel into caverns, and explore nineteenth-century towns that are home to a new Gold Country of wine, cuisine, and outdoor adventure.
California currently boasts the highest population in the United States and the eighth-largest economy in the world, but before the mid- 1800s, the Golden State was just countryside with small sleepy settlements. Quiet village life, however, soon ended after gold was discovered in 1848 in the American River near Coloma. There, James Marshall, a sawmill employee, found flakes of the precious metal in the American River, sparking the California Gold Rush.
The Gold Rush of 1849 led to the largest mass migration in American history, as more than 300,000 gold seekers from across the United States and abroad flocked to California in hopes of striking it rich. Although gold mining started declining after 1852, settlement in California continued, and the state burgeoned into what it is today.
Along with picks and shovels, many of the fortune seekers who came to California also brought grapevines, planting vineyards near the mines. Though the local wine industry experienced a lull once the gold petered out, it started to take off again in the 1970s, and the Sierra Foothills AVA was approved. Now, thanks to a recent influx of creative new winemakers, Gold Country is one of the most fascinating wine regions in the west.
Zinfandel began as the region’s calling card, but in the past decade or so, winegrowers have started demonstrating the region’s full potential by planting an impressive range of varieties that do surprisingly well. At least, it's surprising to those who have never visited Gold Country.
It’s only when you visit and have the chance to travel along the narrow highways and country roads that you can fully appreciate diversity of the terrain. The foothills and valleys of El Dorado, Amador, and Calaveras Counties present an inspirational tapestry of microclimates, soil profiles, and sun exposure for growing grapes. For winemakers, the varied terrain is like a candy store with an array of tempting choices. In fact, it’s hard to find a vineyard of 20 acres or more planted to a single variety.
This land filled with adventures in winemaking and wine tasting also holds an exciting range of activities to round out your wine tasting day. The unique selection of outstanding wines in Gold Country is putting the region on the map, making it a must-see destination for those just getting into wine as well as oenophiles.
Among the vineyards of Amador County is the wonderfully rustic Amador Flower Farm. This incredible garden boasts over 1,000 varieties of daylilies and 14 acres of greenery, including growing grounds, a plotted plant area, and four acres of demonstration gardens. In addition to natural wonders, Amador is rich in history. You can encounter remnants of the region’s gold-digging past in the town of Jackson during the selfguided walking tour, which leads you to 45 historic establishments.
To see more Gold Rush history, head to Gold Bug Park and Mine in El Dorado County. You can descend into the nineteenth century hard-rock mine, view a functioning stamp mill model, pan for gems, and explore the grounds and picnic area. The county’s colorful history is also evident in downtown Placerville, where you’ll find an array of antique stores, specialty shops, galleries, and unique restaurants housed in nineteenth and early twentieth century buildings.
In Calaveras County, Calaveras Big Trees State Park is a favorite among outdoor enthusiasts. Magnificent and awe-inspiring, this stand of giant sequoia redwood trees—some dating back nearly 2,000 years—has two hiking trails. The longer, five-mile trail passes the park’s largest tree: the Agassiz, measuring 25-feet wide and 250-feet tall. You also won’t want to miss Moaning Cave Adventure Park and downtown Murphys.