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Hiking: Northern California

Golden Trails Through Gold Rush History

October 11, 1998|JOHN McKINNEY

Ride into town astride a horse or upon the hard wooden seat of a stagecoach, then start walking into California's Gold Rush history. Visit a blacksmith shop where the smithy labors at his forge; cringe at a dentist office displaying some truly scary tools of the trade; indulge your sweet tooth at a candy store with a sack of horehound.

Columbia State Historic Park, east of Stockton and near the town of Sonora, offers an excellent walk through one of the best preserved towns of the Gold Country. (It's well preserved because after several fires, the business district was rebuilt with fireproof brick.)

When gold was discovered here in 1850, the hamlet of Hildreth's Diggins mushroomed into the metropolis of Columbia (population 6,000), making it, for a short time, the second-largest city in California. Columbia boomed for 20 years as more than a billion dollars' worth of gold was mined from the surrounding Sierra foothills.

Columbia is now a booming tourist town, complete with dozens of shops and businesses--divided about evenly between walk-in mini-museums and modern-day merchants operating in Mother Lode mode. This is a historic town that offers full immersion into the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of the Gold Rush.

Wranglers rent horses for rides through town or into the surrounding Sierra foothills. Two Victorian-era hotels beckon weary travelers choosing to overnight in Columbia.

Last month, state park rangers started a new guided walking program, taking park visitors on an hourlong walk that really evokes the flavor of the Gold Rush era and allows walkers into some historic buildings that the public is normally not permitted to enter.

Tours are offered twice daily, at 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. (This schedule is subject to change, however, so it's best to call ahead to confirm exact times.) Columbia's walking tour might be the best deal in the state park system: just $1 per person.

Walkers who want to take a look at the wilder side of Columbia can join the Karen Bakerville Smith Memorial Trail, which departs from Columbia's Old School House. The half-mile-long nature-history pathway, keyed to an interpretive pamphlet, emphasizes Native American history and local flora and wildlife.

Columbia is reached by California 49, which links other former Gold Rush towns and several more state parks that pay tribute to that fabled era. Journey north from Columbia to Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, on the banks of the American River where James Marshall discovered gold in 1848; a year later, the world discovered California. Highlights include the Gold Discovery Museum and a number of 1849-era buildings such as Wah Hop Store, a Chinese general store. Farther north on California 49 lies Empire Mine State Historic Park, which preserves one of California's richest hard-rock mines. Both state parks have trail networks that allow visitors to fashion engaging three- to six-mile-long excursions.

As California celebrates its upcoming sesquicentennial (150th birthday of statehood in 2000), it's embracing its history. Perhaps the best place to begin such a celebration is in the storied, scenery-rich Gold Country, where the Golden State came to be.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Columbia, Karen Bakerville Smith Memorial Trail

WHERE: Columbia State Historic Park

TERRAIN: Sierra foothills

HIGHLIGHTS: Well preserved Gold Rush town and attractive nature trail.

DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY: Easy

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Columbia State Historical Park, P.O. Box 151, Columbia, CA 95310; tel. (209) 532-4301 (tour information); tel., (209) 532-0150 (Calaveras District office, California State Parks).

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