Highway 49 has brilliant spring wildflowers, green, green hills, and a burgeoning crop of restaurants and wineries
California’s Gold Country is famous for ... well, gold—enough of it to make some 1849 miners very rich. But in spring, these Sierra Nevada foothills shine with a different kind of wealth. Wildflowers pop into brilliant bloom, creeks burble, and the sun warms newly green hillsides. A drive along curvy, beautiful Highway 49 shows you Gold Rush history—you can’t drive a mile without spotting a historic plaque—but also shows off the region’s newfound sophistication: Nineteenth-century towns are sprouting cutting-edge restaurants, and side roads lead to some of California’s most innovative wineries.
Indigeny Reserve brings the hard-cider renaissance to a region rich in apples. Jay Watson makes cider and Calvados-style apple brandy from his organic Granny Smiths and Arkansas Blacks; you sample them inside a cider works that fills a restored barn. Or buy a bottle to complete a picnic—Indigeny’s picnic grounds, with views of orchards and a covered bridge, are so lovely, they may inspire dreams of becoming a cider maker yourself. 14679 Summers Lane, Sonora; indigenyreserve.com
A stylish women’s clothing store, winery tasting rooms—a stroll down Main Street may convince you that little Murphys, 8 miles northeast of Angels Camp via Highway 4, is becoming an outpost of the Napa Valley. The town shines brightest with food: With smoked pineapple risotto, Mineral Restaurant (pictured; $$; 419 Main St., Murphys; mineralrestaurant.com) makes vegetarian glamorous. And the steak frites at V Restaurant & Bar ($$$; 402 Main; vrestaurantandbar-murphys.com) would do credit to Napa, or Paris.
Celebrate spring by stopping by the Antique Gardener on Sutter Creek’s pretty Main Street. Here, Aimee Peterson has filled a rambling old house with garden tools, pottery, and her specialty, miniature gardens—charming, small-scale vignettes planted in wooden boxes or galvanized buckets. “I had dollhouses when I was a girl,” Peterson says. “I like little things.” 80 Main St., Sutter Creek; 209/267-5551.
The legend of Daffodil Hill is a long one: The pioneer McLaughlin family began planting bulbs here in the 1880s, and descendants have continued the tradition. The hill’s 300,000 bulbs normally flower mid-March through mid-April, and they draw crowds, especially on weekends. 18310 Rams Horn Grade Rd., near Volcano; 209/296-7048 (call ahead).
As if tiny Volcano weren’t appealing enough—softly worn stone buildings set alongside a clear creek—it has not one but two tasty bakeries sharing space (on different days) in a single storefront. Kneading Dough and Jug and Rose (pictured) are both good for savoring a cup of coffee accompanied by a warm-from-the-oven muffin or cinnamon roll. 16154 Main St., Volcano; 209/296-7777.
Plymouth became a dining destination when corporate-hotel refugees Mark and Tracey Berkner opened Taste, whose elegant interior contrasts with the views of Plymouth’s decidedly sleepy Main Street outside. Most of Taste’s food—like double-cut pork chop with farro, butternut squash, and kale—is effortlessly sublime. The menu changes seasonally, but take note: If the rich and creamy porcini mushroom soup’s on hand, order it. $$$; 9402 Main St., Plymouth; restauranttaste.com
Vinophiles think of the Gold Country as a land of fierce Zinfandels sampled in rustic barns. But the Shenandoah Valley shows the region is changing. Terre Rouge (10801 Dickson Rd., Plymouth; terrerougewines.com) gives Amador County Syrahs Rhône-style panache. At Andis (11000 Shenandoah Rd., Plymouth; andiswines.com), you sip supple reds in an industrial-chic tasting room. And Helwig (11555 Shenandoah Rd., Plymouth; helwigwinery.com) has a swooping wine cave possibly designed by Batman.
Every California schoolkid knows Coloma was where James Marshall discovered gold, establishing the state’s rep as a land hungry for quick bucks (see The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills). Less well known is that Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park is an ideal place for a stroll. All you need to do is gaze at the green hill and wildflower views from the Monroe Ridge Trail, and you’ll know that mere monetary wealth is unimportant. 310 Back St., Coloma; parks.ca.gov
Gold Country hotels tend toward doilies and antique dolls. Not Eden Vale Inn, outside Placerville, where Mark Hamlin and Gayle Erbe-Hamlin have shaped a 7-room inn that blends rustic (the timbered main house) and urbane (stylish guest rooms with high-def TVs). Breakfasts are lavish, and this month, the 4 acres of gardens should be at their peak. From $199; edenvaleinn.com
You'll see these beauties along the 85-mile route: