California's Historic Highway 49 is Worth Its Weight in Gold

Gold Country Mother Lode

By Jamie Elvidge, Photography by Jamie Elvidge

While the next section of 49 is saturated with history, it's also drowning in commercialism. Take Placerville, for instance, which changed its name from Hangtown back in the early 1900s in an effort to soften its image. These days it's more Denny's and Target than saloons and shootouts, so move on through, across highway 50 in the direction of Coloma where you'll find Sutter's Mill at the Marshall Gold Discovery sight, the exact epicenter of the California Gold Rush.

Definitely let your engine cool here. Coloma is not only the spot where James W. Marshall discovered gold in 1848, igniting the greatest exodus of people in the history of the Western Hemisphere, it's also the center of a myriad of fantastic motorcycle roads. Once you finish inspecting Sutter's Mill and the museum, you'll find there isn't a bad direction to ride in, though if you're looking for an off-the-grid (and of course haunted) place to stay, head east toward Georgetown on Marshall Grade Road and check into the American River Inn, built in 1854. The old Victorian is a classic motorcycle tour stopover: grand, authentic, clean, affordable and with plenty of characters roaming the lobby bar to provide that true gold rush town vibe.

After taking time to ride the loop created by Marshall Grade Road and Highway 193, you'll turn north again on Highway 49 into the town of Cool before dropping into the fabulously scenic American River gorge. Despite its jazzy name, Cool isn't much more than a gas stop, and in fact, was dubbed Cool after a missionary by the same name that passed through in the mid-1800s-not for the modern expression of "cool."

As you shoot down toward the river from Cool, take in the towering Foresthill Bridge, which soars 730 feet above the canyon floor. It's the highest bridge in California and the third highest in the U.S. Once that impressive fact sinks in, most passersby begin to wonder: Why?! Turns out the bridge was built to cross a would-be lake, but was then left as the remnant of a dam project shot down in the 1980s when geologists discovered a troublesome fault line.

Once you cross the lower, less impressive Highway 49 bridge, you can turn right on Old Foresthill Road and fly up eight empty miles of steep twisties to investigate the Foresthill Bridge from on-high. Park on the far side for a walk out to the center for a heart-pounding peep over the edge. Turn back down Old Foresthill for a rollercoaster return to the river and up the other end of the gorge into Auburn on 49, where you can take a break in the shadow of the town's grand Courthouse, built in 1911, and maybe even slide in for a hearty breakfast at Tsudas Eatery, housed in the original Tsudas grocery store (built in 1891). If it's lunchtime, try Café Delicias across the street for authentic Mexican. Both are located below the Courthouse in Auburn's Old Town.

Stay on Highway 49 until you rise up out of the froth of Auburn's urbanization, gradually trading strip malls and four-lanes for thick pine forests and dotted yellows. Finally, you'll reach Nevada City, a gem among Gold Rush towns. You'll want to stop and explore the steep streets and curio shops on foot, and don't forget to check out Malakoff Diggins Historic State Park just outside of town, where you can view the aftermath of a local hydraulic mining operation. Once you're clear of the Nevada City area, you can throw the historic perusals out the window for awhile and get serious about riding your motorcycle.

These are the roads that make me yell "Eureka!" every time I ride them. Just north of Nevada City, historic 49 turns from meandering scenic highway into a ferocious ribbon of asphalt, diving and twisting mile after mile with little distraction, and even less traffic.

Suddenly you're racing along the Yuba River, smelling wet earth and wood smoke as you fly past shreds and scraps of old digging operations. Up in these parts the miners were certainly given a run for their nuggets. By now you're up at 6000 feet. The town of Downieville, the gloriously aged crown jewel of California Gold Country, would have been snowed-in half the year back in 1851, when roughly 5000 people lived here full-time to pan for the rich deposits in the rivers. I have a feeling those miners would have passed on the $100 glass of water. A hundred dollars for a pair of wool socks? More like it.

The Gold Rush of 1849 changed the face of California. People from all parts of the world flooded in, grabbing at riches that were any man's right to claim. During the mining boom, it's said that 25 billion dollars worth of gold was pulled from the earth. Want to know an even more incredible fact? They say 80 percent of the Mother Lode is still in the ground.

But I say it's in the roads. Me

By Jamie Elvidge
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