"Gold mining was hard, dirty work," explains Peggy Ronning, curator at the California State Mining & Mineral Museum, as you step into the musty mine shaft. "Miners inhaled noxious gases, endured cave-ins and explosions," she adds. "But at least the mine was a democratic place―everybody had a terrible, dangerous job."
The museum is located in Mariposa, which had some of the Gold Country's richest strikes. Mariposa has been a county seat since 1850, and its stately courthouse, dating from 1854, is California's oldest such building in continuous use. The Mariposa Museum and History Center is a fun stop for kids, who can poke into displays of a miners' cabin or a schoolhouse and watch a noisy five-stamp mill pound ore-bearing rocks.
From Mariposa, you head north on State 49, then west on Bear Valley Road through a land rich in foothill shadings: Oak groves alternate with flaming yellow mustard, shooting stars, and fairy lanterns. The sleepy town of Hornitos is pretty much a ghost town today. But it still has a few residents, along with its Spanish plaza, a granite jail, and a steepled church on a grassy hill, where gravestones tell tales of tragedy and early death. Drive on past Lake McSwain―look for scraggly osprey nests where the road crosses the rushing Merced River. Take Merced Falls Road to Lake McClure for a cooling dip, some fishing, or a picnic by the water.
Coulterville, on the National Register of Historic Places, was another mining center. Walk by the stately old Hotel Jeffery at State 49 and Main Street; it's said that Theodore Roosevelt and Ralph Waldo Emerson slept here. (Sadly, the hotel just closed.) The Northern Mariposa County History Center, in the old Coulter Hotel, has more mining artifacts. Pick up the free Antique Rose Tour brochure, which will guide you on a walk past the still-blooming beauties of old Coulterville―and work up your appetite for dinner back in Mariposa.