We leave Napa's luxuries to find a more rustic, low-key California, as we head into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. This is where modern California was born, when 19th-century gold seekers swarmed across these tawny hillsides seeking treasure.
The best way to explore the Gold Country is to take State 49 and follow it as it winds through the hills to link towns like Amador City, Sutter Creek, Placerville, and tiny Coloma. At the last, we stop and visit Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park. From the parking lot nearest the trailhead, we follow Monument Trail and a paved road about a mile to the simple cabin of James Marshall, the carpenter credited with first discovering gold here on the South Fork American River.
Mary Kay, Bob, and I watch history buff Rodney Earle Bland demonstrate gold-panning techniques. In full forty-niner regalia ― from worn hat and canvas pants to grizzled beard ― Bland demonstrates his skills, explaining that "panning is a lot of hard work and luck." I figure, if you can't look foolish while on vacation, when can you? So I try my luck, swishing a pan in the cold river. A few golden specks ― which could be the real thing ― shine tantalizingly between the rocks. Still, when Mary Kay surveys my take, she advises, "Don't quit your day job."
For all its historical resonance, the Gold Country is changing. The foothills are sprouting homes as retiring baby boomers rush in. Towns we remember as sleepy are now humming with antiques shops and coffeehouses. We roll into Placerville for a look at galleries, bookstores, and the state's coolest hardware store, 152-year-old Placerville Hardware. The store sells everything from gold-sifting pans to square nails, and the highest-shelved stock can be reached only with tall ladders that straddle the aged plank floor ― ladders, says the clerk, that "came around the Horn."
A short detour takes us to the burgeoning El Dorado County wine region. The apple orchards are still the area's big draw, but the new wineries are coming on strong. The three of us stop at the Boeger Winery tasting room to sample their Barbera varietal. "Become a Barberian!" reads a flier touting Boeger's wine club. My companions, wine lovers and world travelers, are impressed enough to buy a case. I swirl the ruby liquid in my glass and think of the sights to come that will really knock them out.
SURPRISE SIDE TRIP
Explore the backroads outside Placerville to Apple Hill, lovely in spring. Boa Vista Orchards' fruit stand is worth a detour for apple wine and produce. 2952 Carson Rd.; 530/622-5522. Also contact the Apple Hill Growers Association (530/644-7692).