There are summer days in California's Gold Country that would like to wither you into an apple doll at the fair. Today is one of them. It's ungodly. After five hours of exploring the shoots and buds of southern Highway 49 in a baking, 100-plus degree heat, I'd do just about anything for an icy bottle of water...well, except maybe pay $100 like parched miners did during the gold rush. As I've been following the footsteps of those gold-feverish 49ers these last few days, I'm constantly reminded just how dusty and desperate those times were. Riding mules instead of motorcycles, for example. Hellish!
Out here on historic Highway 49, which, as you might guess, was named in honor of the "Eureka!" moment in 1849 that set the country into a frenzy, every town seems to have a crazy mining story. Some you can surmise just by their names: Murderer's Bar, Hang Town, Rough and Ready. Others are a bit confusing, like Dry Town, which boasted 26 saloons in its heyday. There's no volcano in Volcano, and the only angels in Angels Camp ride Harleys. And ghosts? They seem to live in every period hotel, saloon and restaurant, banging around in the night, sending the tourists off in a scurry.
There are even haunted highways out here, like the crossroads near the southern terminus of Highway 49, where the infamous bandit Joaquin Murrieta, whose story provided inspiration for the character Zorro, was purportedly ambushed by lawmen. His head was severed and put in a jar of alcohol, so it could make the rounds as a curiosity in nearby cities like Stockton and San Francisco.
Years ago I made a stop at the weathered plaque marking Murrieta's gruesome slaying, leaving my bike running just in case the Mexican outlaw made a showing. At the time, I'd felt nothing, just a dry breeze and a dull throb of wonder. Eight years later I'm back at the site, my curiosity having grown into a full-blown ache to explore Gold Country. Only this time I'm searching for more than the ghosts of villains, I'm mining for modern-day treasure. And not the kind that can be measured by the ounce.
The motorcycle roads in the Sierra Foothills all look enticing when you're viewing them on a map. All look curvy and most are dotted "scenic highway" green. What you can't tell on a map, however, is which are over-crowded or just plain boring, which would describe a huge portion of southern Highway 49. Beginning in dairy-cow studded Oakhurst, the historic "Golden Road" starts rolling north without much of a bang. It's serene down there, with gentle corners and wide-open vistas, but it lacks the rugged, pine-laden topography found to the north.
Things liven up a bit around Angels Camp, famous for its Moaning Caverns and annual frog jumps. Here the roadways start to work a little to get you across the more tumultuous granite-layered terrain. Once to the Camp, you could just keep riding up 49 to peruse San Andreas, Mokelumne Hill and Jackson, but unless you are into manufactured charms, I suggest you veer off here for some real Gold Country atmosphere, along with some righteously fun riding. From Angels Camp, take Highway 4 east toward Murphys, then hang a left on Sheep Ranch Road. Where Sheep Ranch ends, turn right on Railroad Flat Road and stay on it until you intersect SR 26, which you'll take to Volcano. From Volcano you can jump on 88 and drop into Jackson, or find Ridge Road, a more fun alternative that will plunk you into Sutter Creek.
This is sweet riding, but don't just fly past all the remnant towns; take your time and drink the authenticity you'll find here, just a few miles off the beaten path, but worlds away from the buzz. This is where the Gold Country becomes real to me. Where I can imagine the isolation and feel the aura of the pioneers' ambition-fueled dreams...not to mention the living, breathing dangers they faced, such as the wolves and bears that owned the place during those years.
Sutter Creek is one of only a few charmed-up gold mining towns that's worth exploring on foot. There are several good places to eat here, or you can just grab a coffee and browse the local art before heading north.