image courtesy of California State Department of Parks and Recreation
The Mother Lode, as this area is sometimes referred to (a term that is derived from a Spanish word for “riches”), stretches along the entire route of Highway 49, south from Mariposa and north through Nevada City, ending in Downieville. (On the other hand the Mother Lode veins, which run from Northern California to South America, surface in the area between Jamestown and Auburn and again in Nevada City.) All the main Gold Rush towns can be visited by driving along Highway 49. But many scenic side roads lead to tiny hamlets with intriguing names such as Fiddletown and Rescue, inviting exploration. This area provides history, adventure, and scenic beauty. Not yet heavily promoted and packaged, it also provides many low-key and inexpensive vacation joys for the hype-weary traveler. A thorough visit could take weeks, but a satisfying one takes only a few days. For a weekend visit, don't attempt to drive the entire route. Visit one portion and then go back another time to see more. Because the area is steeped in history, consider reading for more background information. Two classic books about the area that are also good for reading aloud are The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, by Samuel L. Clemens (Mark Twain), and The Luck of Roaring Camp, by Bret Harte. Currently there is said to be another gold rush on. Many nervous people are staking claims, so caution is advised when doing any unguided panning or prospecting. During the Gold Rush this area was filled with wineries. Its rich soil and high elevations produce excellent grapes and bold, deeply flavored wines. So be on the lookout for the nearly 100 wineries that have popped up here.
These towns are arranged geographically/mapwise, with north at the top and south at the bottom.