VOLCANO, Calif. — This may be the state's prettiest and best preserved Gold Rush town. It sits at the base of pine-clad hills in a natural bowl, which miners who named the town imagined to be the crater of a dormant volcano.
Thanks to being several miles away from the main Mother Lode highway, things haven't changed much since the place was all but abandoned after its boom days. Volcano's residents now number about 100, a far cry from its peak population of 10,000.
Between 1850 and 1865 the race was on to recover more than $90 million worth of gold in the area. Today the town's treasure is its peaceful setting and restored buildings that take visitors back to a bygone era. You can even spend the night at the St. George Hotel, which opened in 1863.
Indian Meeting Site
On the way to Volcano, stop at a meeting site of the Miwok Indians, where they ground acorns in nearly 1,200 mortar holes that pockmark an outcropping of limestone. Their culture has been preserved at Indian Grinding Rock Historic State Park.
Go north from Los Angeles on Interstate 5 to Stockton, then head east to pick up California 88 to Jackson. It's the seat of Amador County and is bisected by the busy Gold Rush highway, California 49.
Continue on California 88 east of Jackson to Pine Grove and bear left on the Pine Grove-Volcano Road. Go past the Indian Grinding Rock campground entrance and turn left at the sign to the Regional Indian Museum. Pay the park's $3-per-vehicle entry fee, then visit the museum to see Indian artifacts and a slide show.
A trail leads to a huge flat rock with 1,185 mortar cups. Shelled acorns were pounded there with wooden and stone pestles, and the acorn meal was made into soup, mush and patties as a main staple of the Miwok diet.
Nearby are replicas of a granary for storing acorns and bark tepees where the Indians lived. The trail continues to a Miwok roundhouse, largest in the state and still used for ceremonies.
Big Time Celebration
The last weekend in September the Miwok and other area tribes hold their annual Big Time celebration at the park with dancing and games, plus a barbecue and Indian handcrafts for sale.
During that month an invitational show of American Indian artists will be held in the museum. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; the museum will be closed Thursdays and Fridays from October to April.
After Labor Day and until March, camping in the park's 24 sites is on a first-come, first-served basis; at other times, reserve through Mistix. The campground has running water but no showers or RV hookups; sites cost $10 a night. The park phone is (209) 296-7488.
Continue on the Pine Grove-Volcano Road to Volcano and look for the town's tallest building, at the south end of Main Street. The three-story brick structure with wooden balconies is the St. George Hotel, with 14 rooms that haven't changed much in 125 years; shared bathrooms are down the hall. Private baths are available in the six-room, motel-style annex.
Meals and Rates
Saturday night guests are on the modified American plan, with dinner, room and breakfast costing $85 to $95 for two. On other nights, double rooms rent for $38 to $55, except Mondays and Tuesdays when the hotel is closed.
The hotel is the only place in town serving dinner, so make reservations. Weekend breakfast (8:30 a.m. to noon) and Sunday chicken dinners (3 to 7 p.m.) are available without reservations. The St. George Hotel is closed in January and half of February. Call (209) 296-4458 for more information.
Stroll along Main Street to see more of the town's historic buildings. Some are built of native stone, such as the old general store that's reportedly been in operation since 1852. Much newer but well known is the Jug & Rose Confectionary, which serves sourdough pancake breakfasts, lunches and ice cream treats.
Some vintage buildings have become boutiques, art galleries and antique and gift shops. Around town you'll see other notable structures such as the 1880 Union Hotel and an old schoolhouse with a bell tower, now private residences. The stone jail house is said to have been built by its first prisoners in 1872.
Once a Booming Town
In its heyday Volcano boasted a public library, private law school, literary and debating society and a little theater group. The community still has an active group of actors, the Volcano Pioneers, who perform in the 52-seat Cobblestone Theater.
This fall the curtain rises at 8 p.m. on a mystery, "Death Trap," presented every Friday and Saturday, Sept. 23 through Oct. 22. Tickets cost $6. A shop in Jackson called Home Sweet Home serves as the box office; call (209) 223-4663.
You can picnic in the park at Soldiers Gulch, a grassy depression along Main Street that was created by miners using high-pressure water cannons to uncover gold. An artillery cannon, a bronze six-pounder called Old Abe, is on display from Civil War days when it was brought to Volcano to put down a Rebel uprising.
In springtime a popular road called Ram's Hill Grade leads three miles north of town to Daffodil Hill, where thousands of flowers are in bright blossom from mid-March through April.
Site of First Observatory
The road joins Shake Ridge Road, which you can follow west to a knoll called Observatory Point. A plaque marks the site of the state's first recorded amateur astronomical observatory, where George Maderia discovered the Great Comet of 1861 with a three-inch refractor telescope.
Continue west on rural Shake Ridge Road to rejoin California 49 at Sutter Creek, and turn south to pick up California 88 back to Interstate 5 for the drive home.
For a walking tour map of Volcano's historic sites and more information about the area, contact the Amador County Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 596, Jackson, Calif. 95642, (209) 223-0350. The office is at the junction of California 88 and 49.
Round trip from Los Angeles to Volcano is 796 miles.