Start your journey on Northern California's Highway 20 in historic Nevada City
At the edge of the Bear River in the High Sierra, a hike through the landscape that drew thousands of Gold Rush miners is a good place to start. Brown needles underfoot give the Sierra Discovery Trail a spring, the air is scented by pines, and the river murmurs, sparkling and clear.
After gold was found nearby, weary settlers and prospectors on the Emigrant Trail beat a path to what became Nevada City. The route they created after thousands of journeys west formed the beginning of Highway 20.
More a traveler's refuge than a mining town today, Nevada City is a place to linger. Wine-tasting rooms dot a downtown of well-kept Victorian brick buildings. There are also good restaurants, antiques stores, and the greatest concentration of bookstores in the Sierra.
One detour here lets someone else drive for a while: At the Nevada County Traction Company, you can ride narrow-gauge diesel trains on a forested 3-mile route, stopping for a walk through a privately owned Chinese cemetery dating to the 1860s. It's a spot layered in history, from the Maidu Indian grinding stones to the brick grave markers etched in Chinese to the Mohawk gold mine that tunnels under the surface.
Traction Company engineer Albert Flores says that the characters inscribed in the cemetery's entryway read "'Villa in the Clouds.' Or it might mean 'Villa Screened by Clouds,'" he says. "We're not sure."