The covered bridge loop

Scenic Mother Lode: Strike it rich on three Gold Country drives that take you off the beaten path

Lora Finnegan

Rough & Ready, Tyler Foote Crossing, French Corral: The names hint at the colorful character of this loop drive. Start in Grass Valley, wind west through hills bursting with Scotch broom and poppies, then continue past the sleepy burg of Rough & Ready (once so independent it seceded from the Union) before turning north to Bridgeport. For a slow but scenic alternative, take Bitney Springs Road to Pleasant Valley Road.

South Yuba River State Park skips across its namesake river over a 20-mile stretch upstream from Englebright Reservoir. The heart of the park is at the bend in the river called Bridgeport, where a restored covered bridge―built in 1862 as a toll bridge for wagons and livestock―stretches 229 feet across the river. Docents note that it's the world's longest single-span covered bridge of truss-and-arch construction. For a reliably good wildflower hike, take the Buttermilk Bend Trail, where poppies, soapwort, and Indian paintbrush provide a bountiful showing. The trail climbs 1.4 miles (one way) alongside an old mining ditch overlooking the South Yuba as it dashes over pale gray granite boulders far below.

Continue driving north and east and you'll bump over narrow dirt roads (follow park signs) to Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park, where some of the Gold Rush's most extensive hydraulic mining took place. The mining left its mark: a dramatic gorge of ocher cliffs that you can see from the road or explore on hiking trails. A museum chronicles the gold history; ranger-led walking tours explore clapboard hotels, stables, and a drugstore―the remains of North Bloomfield. From there, North Bloomfield Road takes you back into Nevada City. (It's steep and part gravel; check road conditions with park rangers.)

In Nevada City, window-shop along Broad Street, then enjoy dinner at one of the town's many restaurants. Cirino's offers Old World Italian cuisine; for elegant Mediterranean fare, try Citronée Bistro and Wine Bar.