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

Gold Country Mother Lode

By Jamie Elvidge, Photography by Jamie Elvidge

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.

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

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By Jamie Elvidge
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