Striking gold in California: How to plan the ultimate Route 49 road trip

When James William Marshall discovered the first nugget of gold at Sutter’s Mill, word of his discovery sparked the Californian Gold Rush of 1848. Today, remnants of this period can be found throughout the Golden State, and nowhere more so than along Route 49 (which gets its name from the “49ers”, the Gold Rush-era settlers of California who arrived in 1949), running for 300 miles from Vinton to Oakhurst via Sacramento and connecting travellers to world-renowned sites like Yosemite National Park, Big Trees State Park and Lake Tahoe.

Any stretch of Route 49 is worth tackling, but to combine a snapshot of Californian history with some audacious outdoor pursuits, here’s the six-day itinerary I’d recommend…

 Day 1: Start your journey in California’s state capital, Sacramento

Sacramento Tower Bridge (Jonjo Maudsley/PA)
Sacramento Tower Bridge (Jonjo Maudsley/PA)

Sacramento owes its origins to the Gold Rush – John Sutter Jr. and Samuel Brannan designed the town to cater to travelling gold hunters. Today it is a thriving city of 500,000 people and the state capital of California, but its Wild West history is alive and well in Old Sacramento. As my friend is on driving duty tomorrow, I spend my evening at Fanny Ann’s Saloon, enjoying a rootin’-tootin’ good time with the locals.

Day 2: Folsom, the spiritual home of Johnny Cash

The Johnny Cash Trail in Folsom takes around one hour to cycle and draws you through acres of incredible scenery (Max Whittaker/Visit California/PA)
The Johnny Cash Trail in Folsom takes around one hour to cycle and draws you through acres of incredible scenery (Max Whittaker/Visit California/PA)

The next morning, we head for the historic town of Folsom and the start of Route 49. When news of the gold rush spread, Joseph Folsom commissioned a railway connecting Folsom to Sacramento. Thus, the town became a gateway for thousands of travellers heading to Gold Country.

Today, Folsom is a quiet suburb of Sacramento, but has plenty to offer intrepid travellers. I take a walk through the town, absorbing the hazy Western atmosphere, admiring the authentic facades of shops down Sutter Street and following the numbered obelisks around town to learn about its history.

Folsom owes much of its popularity to country music sensation Johnny Cash, whose hit single Folsom Prison Blues was based on the federal penitentiary in the centre of town. The town’s most recent installation, the Johnny Cash Trail, honours him in the form of a 1.5-mile long cycle route, which winds past famous sites such as the Folsom Dam and the Rainbow Bridge.

Day 3: Auburn, an outdoor adventure paradise

Jonjo and his friends stop to take photos at the tallest bridge in California, Foresthill Bridge in Auburn (Joseph Dondelinger/Visit California/PA)
Jonjo and his friends stop to take photos at the tallest bridge in California, Foresthill Bridge in Auburn (Joseph Dondelinger/Visit California/PA)

Our next stop is Auburn, a small town with big character, 25 minutes’ drive from Folsom.

While the town centre is whimsical and charming with a hipster feel, most of Auburn lies sprawled out across the sweeping green hills of the Placer County countryside. Here we find awe-inspiring sites such as the Foresthill Bridge, the tallest bridge in California and a staggering example of American engineering.

Feeling brave, we make our way to Auburn State Recreation Area for a spot of bouldering. If you’re inexperienced and a bit out of shape, like me, you might like to hire Petch of Lover’s Leap Guides. With his expertise, groups of all ages can make short work of the craggy cliff-faces in this idyllic little corner of the world. Hire him for half a day at $180 (loversleap.net).

Day 4: Coloma County, where the Gold Rush began

No trip through Gold Country would be complete without a stop off at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma County where, in 1848, James William Marshall discovered the first nugget of gold.

Back then, people came from all over the world to find their fortune on the American River, but today’s visitors are after a different type of loot – trout.

We catch nothing, so to cheer ourselves up, we head to Mother Lode River Center (malode.com) for something more dynamic – white water rafting through the Category 3 rapids on the American River. Up to eight people over eight years old can ride, with prices starting at $109 for a four-hour Express Trip. But be warned: We got absolutely drenched!

Lotus Pub on the South Fork of the American River serves up a cracking range of Californian IPAs (Jonjo Maudsley/PA)
Lotus Pub on the South Fork of the American River serves up a cracking range of Californian IPAs (Jonjo Maudsley/PA)

To warm up, Kary at Lotus Pub introduces me to his selection of local IPAs. I find a personal favourite in the Track 7 Left Eye Right Eye Double IPA from Sacramento, with its buttery, bitter flavour. The food is good, too. Visit thelotuspub.com.

Day 5: See the Giant Sequoias in Calaveras County

To truly understand the sheer size and scale of the giant sequoias at Big Trees State Park, you must see them for yourself (Jonjo Maudsley/PA)
To truly understand the sheer size and scale of the giant sequoias at Big Trees State Park, you must see them for yourself (Jonjo Maudsley/PA)

Heading in the direction of Calaveras County, our first stop is Big Trees State Park, where we walk through 1.5 miles of California’s world-famous giant sequoias – the largest living things on Earth. Traversing the canopies of these mammoth trees is my personal highlight of the trip.

Jonjo and his fellow adventurers descend 165ft to the bottom of Moaning Cavern, a former gold mine in Calaveras County (Max Whitakker/Visit California/PA)
Jonjo and his fellow adventurers descend 165ft to the bottom of Moaning Cavern, a former gold mine in Calaveras County (Max Whitakker/Visit California/PA)

From here we head to Moaning Caverns, a system of limestone caves beneath the Sierra Nevada hills. When miners failed to strike gold in the early 1900s, they established these caves as a tourist destination instead, by installing a spiral staircase to the bottom of the 165ft cavern. Group tours leave every hour and cost $20. Visit moaningcaverns.com.

Day 6: Angels Camp and the other half of Calaveras County

Natural Bridge is a natural limestone formation that invites travellers to bathe in its cool, crisp waters (Dave Bunnell/PA)
Natural Bridge is a natural limestone formation that invites travellers to bathe in its cool, crisp waters (Dave Bunnell/PA)

In the southern half of Calaveras County, California opens up into feral landscapes, wavy hills and wild greenery – it’s hard to take a bad photo anywhere around here.

We start the day with a tour of New Melones Lake. The good people of New Melones Lake Marina (newmeloneslakemarina.com) provide us with a 24ft Bennington sport pontoon (from $187 per hour), which seats 12 passengers and travels up to 40mph across this gigantic, man-made lake.

Our final stop is the quaint town of Angels Camp where photographer Dave Bunnell (underearth.us) offers us a tour of Natural Bridges – although it’s also possible to do the two-mile round trip on your own. This rock cavern is the perfect treat after a week on the road – the trickling water leads to an organically-carved cave that invites us to frolic in the swimming hole and bathe beneath natural cascades.

How to get there

For more information on the destination, go to visitcalifornia.co.uk.

Hire a car through Avis (avis.co.uk).

- Press Association

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