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Finding the nuggets in Gold Country

With the Fourth of July weekend almost upon us, here are half a dozen car trips throughout the Golden State. The staff of the Travel section road-tested these journeys, staying at unusual inns, finding the best local fare and soaking up the sights and scenery. Here's where to hit the highway for an old-fashioned vacation off the beaten path. Pages 12-14.

June 29, 2003|Craig Nakano | Times Staff Writer

Auburn, Calif. — Most great drives are about cruising the open road with the wind in your hair and scenery so stunning that you don't bother with a camera because you know the view will live forever in your memory.

California Highway 49 is not one of those drives.

Sure, much of this Gold Country route is pretty. But it's not the drive -- the open road, the wind, et al. -- that makes it great. It's the pit stops.

A couple of months ago I focused on the stretch of 49 between Auburn and Jamestown. On this 100-mile blitz, I hit the brakes for the highway's eclectic sights, an interesting mix of Wild West charm and city-slicker food. From my day and a half on the road, a dozen golden nuggets:

* Old Town Auburn. You can't miss the 1891 Queen Anne firehouse, former home of a volunteer fire department that was formed in 1852 and is still fighting fires today.

* The super-steep descent leaving Auburn. Pull off at one of the turnouts overlooking Auburn State Recreation Area and the North Fork of the American River. A beauty of a view.

* Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park in Coloma. See the riverbank where James Marshall stumbled on his place in history on Jan. 24, 1848. Pay $3.75 to pan for gold particles worth about 3 cents and endure ribbing from docents in period costumes.

* Inexplicable highway art: south of Coloma, about four dozen fence posts capped with upside-down cowboy boots.

* Placerville Hardware. The building dates to 1852, and the creaky copper-patched floorboards seem even older. Still among the top sellers: gold pans.

* Hidden lunch spot: Kathy's Courtyard Cafe, tucked off Main Street in Placerville. Ivy walls, gurgling fountain and, for me, a turkey-and-cranberry sandwich on home-baked molasses bread.

* Not-so-hidden sleep spot: Imperial Hotel on Highway 49 in Amador City. Friendly welcome, 1879 building, eclectic decor. Didn't stay here, but after peeking at rooms, I will next time.

* Andrae's Bakery, Amador City. Try the candied orange and almond scone. Co-owner Matt Andrae is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Napa. Who would expect such big-city breads, pastries and farmstead cheeses in one of California's smallest (population 196) incorporated communities?

* Underwear overhead, Angels Camp. Long johns are strung over Main Street. Sidewalk plaques honor the San Francisco Warty Niners, Ex Lax and other winners of the annual Calaveras County Jumping Frog Jubilee, in its 75th year. The record holder: Rosie the Ribbiter, 21 feet, 5 3/4 inches.

* Columbia State Historic Park. California's best-preserved Gold Rush town -- a living, breathing remnant of history. Drink homemade sarsaparilla at the bar, watch candy makers at Nelson's, buy souvenir Gold Rush-era square nails (authentically rusty) at the carpenter's shop. Peek at the $4-million-plus preservation-in-progress of Knapp's Block, four buildings that once hosted a French bakery and a leather and saddle shop. Park officials plan to reintroduce 19th century-style merchants here after structural repairs are completed in one to 1 1/2 years.

* Fallon and City hotels. Restored 19th century accommodations inside the park. My Fallon room with half-bath, petite but pleasant, was $65 plus tax. Showers are shared, but entertainment is free: Guests get thigh-high robes and frog-green foam slippers for the stroll/sprint down the hall. My mother lode of a dinner at City Hotel: potato soup with roasted tomato and sausage slivers, tender rack of lamb, and chocolate mousse fritters, all nicely done.

* Jamestown. A classic Gold Country downtown. Nearby is Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, departure point for weekend steam train excursions spring through fall. Alas, that's an adventure for another time.

Kathy's Courtyard Cafe, 312 Main St., Placerville, CA 95667; (530) 642-1074. Lunch entrees $4-$8.

City Hotel Corp. (nonprofit also runs the nearby Fallon Hotel), P.O. Box 1870, Columbia, CA 95310; (800) 532-1479 or (209) 532-1479, fax (209) 532-7027, City Hotel entrees $16-$26. Fallon Hotel double rooms $60- $125. City Hotel doubles $105-$125.

Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, Coloma, (530) 622-3470; Columbia State Historic Park, Columbia, (209) 532-0150; Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, Jamestown, (209) 984-3953. Go to and click on "Find a Park."

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