In the wake of the discovery of gold in 1848 at Sutter’s Mill, the wilderness that was the Sierra Nevada foothills transformed into a constellation of boomtowns. Though many towns, hotels, saloons, and houses of ill repute were abandoned as quickly as they were built, the frontier soul of the Gold Rush remains—and there’s no better way to experience it than to take a drive from Nevada City to Coloma along California’s historic Highway 49. From its switchbacks through pines to the American River’s white waters and canopied canyon, signs of the Gold Rush dot the highway’s route.
California Highway 49 Stops
National Hotel Nevada City (undergoing restoration and set to open summer 2019) and Grass Valley aren’t far off Highway 49, and either would make a great home base for your ventures into Gold Country. The National, on Nevada City’s main drag, was the oldest continually operating hotel west of the Rocky Mountains, and is in the process of being returned to its former glory. 211 Broad St., Nevada City.
A few blocks away stands the Emma Nevada House, a six-room historic bed-and-breakfast. Weather permitting, breakfast is served on the patio. 528 E. Broad St., Nevada City.
As you head south on Highway 49, there’s not much to see beyond the tree-lined horizon for about 25 miles, but keep your eyes peeled for Elm Avenue. Turn left and watch as strip malls give way to a one-lane road that plummets like a tightly wound spring into a quintessentially Northern California landscape of oak woodland and pine trees. Here the real Highway 49 begins. In the valley, trees surround the churning waters of the American River. For the next few miles, popular hiking trails crisscross the road in the Auburn State Recreation Area, a spectacular 42,000 acres of parkland along the North and Middle Forks of the American River.
Within the Auburn SRA, two and a half miles from Elm Avenue you’ll see a trailhead at Gate 131, a local favorite, not only for its quick entrée to the river, but for its parking price. (It’s free.) (Gate 151 also offers easy access for kids and pets, but take heed of warning signs and stay on the high path in case the river rises.) Look for the green or yellow numbered gates. The Old Limestone Quarry trail, across the street, offers the easiest access. Day use is $10.
From the State Recreation Area, the road narrows. Up the hills, fluorescent green moss clings to the rocks in the shade of young pines as you make your way past an enormous working quarry that looks both picturesque and postapocalyptic. About halfway to Coloma you pass the ironically named one-strip-mall town of Cool. But soon the road straightens to a tawny landscape of horse stables and panoramas of snow-peaked mountains.
About four miles from Cool a roadside plaque in Pilot Hill marks California’s first Grange Hall (Pilot Hill Grange No. 1), a designated California Historical Landmark. Dedicated in 1889, the hall was created as a support center for farmers to share harvest bounties and help them get better prices. Pilot Hill’s Grange Hall is no longer there, having been replaced with a firehouse. Nearby is Bayley House, the former residence of the founder of the Grange charter, which looks rather haunted now that it’s boarded up, awaiting funding for its restoration.