Nevada County & Northern Gold Country
The forty-niners hit it big in Nevada County – the richest score in the region known as the Mother Lode – and their wealth built one of the most picturesque and well-preserved boomtowns, Nevada City. Get out of town and you’ll find lovely, remote wilderness areas, a clutch of historic parks and fascinating remnants of the long-gone miners, including a ghost town.
Placerville is a great little place to explore while traveling between Sacramento and Tahoe on Hwy 50. It has a thriving and well-preserved downtown with antique shops and bars, and local wags who cherish the wild reputation of ‘Hangtown’ – a name earned when a handful of men swung from the gallows in the mid-1800s.
Sonora & Jamestown
Settled in 1848 by miners from Sonora, Mexico, this area was once a cosmopolitan center of commerce and culture with parks, elaborate saloons and the Southern Mines’ largest concentration of gamblers and gold. Racial unrest drove the Mexican settlers out and their European immigrant usurpers got rich on the Big Bonanza Mine, where Sonora High School now stands.
Nevada City knows it's charming, but it doesn't like to brag. The shops sell prayer flags and chia smoothies, while the drinking holes sling all manner of liquid enlightenment. The person browsing the history museum with you is just as liable to be a crusty old-timer, a road-weary backpacker or a mystical folk artist.
From the margins, Grass Valley is the ugly utilitarian sister to Nevada City, a place to stock up on supplies and get an oil change, not necessarily vacation. But there are treasures if you dig, including a dense cluster of Victorian and art-deco buildings, some great independent boutiques and cafes, and a few surprisingly rowdy bars.
With its white picket fences and old-world charm, Murphys is one of the more scenic towns along the southern stretch of Gold Country, befitting its nickname as ‘Queen of the Sierra.’ It lies 8 miles east of Hwy 49 on Murphys Grade Rd, and is named for Daniel and John Murphy, who founded a trading post and mining operation on Murphy Creek in 1848.
Coloma-Lotus Valley surrounds Sutter’s Mill (the site of California’s first gold discovery) and Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park. It is also a great launching pad for rafting operations. The South Fork of the American River gets the most traffic, since it features exciting rapids but is still manageable.
Perch on the balcony of one of the gracefully restored buildings on this particularly scenic Main St and view Sutter Creek, a gem of a Gold Country town with raised, arcade sidewalks and high-balconied buildings with false fronts that are perfect examples of California’s 19th-century architecture.
Downieville, the biggest town in remote Sierra County (though that's not saying much), is located at the junction of the North Yuba and Downie Rivers. With a reputation that quietly rivals Moab, UT (before it got big), this is one of the premier places for mountain-bike riding in the US, and a staging area for true wilderness adventures.