As I approached the southernmost gold rush-era town of Oakhurst in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountain foothills, I felt the atmosphere shift with the change in scenery. Endless straight roads through pancake-flat fields of neatly spaced almond and pistachio trees gave way to a wilder landscape of undulating hills stitched with narrow, sinuous roads, steeped in history and nostalgia.
This part of Mariposa County is a popular gateway to Yosemite National Park, but that wasn’t where I was heading. My destination was the Golden Chain Highway, or Highway 49 – a little-known, 300-mile route through the county’s historic gold country that’s peppered with time-frozen gold rush-era towns.
It also offers an alternative quieter and cheaper road trip to the classic coastal route north from Los Angeles along the Pacific Coast Highway via rugged Big Sur.
No sooner had I hit the historic highway, I was in the mountains. To my right, gigantic glistening rusty-grey rocks of granite pierced a royal blue sky. To the left, steep mossy-green slopes sprinkled with yellow wildflowers, and young pine trees tumbled down to a dark-green valley floor. Framing the scene, distant mountain peaks etched with roads. I wondered how the 300,000 or so gold prospectors arriving here in the mid-1800s navigated the terrain by horse and wagon.
Just 27 miles in I made my first gold town sighting: Coulterville, a small hill community where ranchers now raise cattle. A historic marker is the striking Jeffrey Hotel, a classic mid-19th-century building with a veranda and wooden balconies. Around the corner, the time-warp Magnolia Saloon is where legendary American West frontiersmen Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday are said to have battled. Imagining the sound of bullets ricocheting off trees and buildings, I watched a chicken crossing a dusty road, while a man in a checked shirt, jeans, silver belt buckle, and cowboy hat leant against a wall.
“There’s still gold underneath all this landscape but it’s too hard to get to,” explained Erica at the tourist information desk inside the Coulter Café and General Store. She was surprised to hear I was travelling Highway 49. “Most people pass through here on the way to Yosemite, which is a shame as they miss all the historic towns.”
I continued north into Tuolumne County, passing through the ghost town of Chinese Camp and its derelict timber buildings and onwards to Sonora. Named after the Mexican gold rush era miners from Sonora in Mexico who founded it, the characterful big town is a good base for exploring the county’s history. After a hearty $18 (£15) tri-tip beef sandwich and fries at Standard Pour, a popular restaurant in an old lumberjack office, I couldn’t resist the neon cocktail glass in the window of Zane Iron Horse Lounge. Inside the atmospherically dark dive bar, a punchy margarita set me back a reasonable $7 (£6).
A few miles away, in small, chintzy historic Jamestown, I was able to wander around film locations for Unforgiven, Back to the Future III and Little House on the Prairie, to name a few. I ducked inside the National Hotel, almost unchanged since its heyday. In the saloon, with its mahogany bar and original tin ceiling, landlady Edy Lee Bouza told me: “There’s a goldmine underneath the hotel, which we have rights to, but it’s cemented in at the moment.”
A mile or so off Highway 49 just outside Sonora is the picture-perfect living goldrush town of Columbia. Here, at family-owned Matelot Gulch Mining Company and Hidden Treasure Gold Mine, I had a go at gold panning. It was trickier than I thought it would be. “Hold your pan with two hands, fill it with sand, shake, then wash it in the water,” explained my teacher in historical garb. He made it sound easy. “Gold is heavy and just about everything else lighter, so if we wash away the lighter stuff, in theory, we’re left with the heaviest minerals, including – hopefully – some gold.” After a few swishes, I found a microscopic slither of gold, quit while I was ahead, and celebrated my minor win with a deep pan pizza and cold beer at the busy St Charles Saloon, open since 1851.
Bigger towns like twee Sutter Creek and elegant Coloma, where the gold rush is said to have started, were fascinating, but the friendly, under-the-radar town of Volcano, on Highway 88, stole my heart. So-called by a group of early miners who thought its valley setting resembled a volcano, it’s packed with relics, yet there’s little evidence of it cashing in on its history.
It’s home to the throwback Sizemore Country Store, said to be the oldest continuously operating general store in the US, filled with perfectly preserved cabinets and furniture from the 1950s, and the St George Hotel. “You can go in,” said a lady from the window of the car, who saw me gazing up at the whitewashed brick façade. “It’s open and you can take a look around. It’s really cool.”
The chunky hardwood floorboards creaked underfoot. “If you’d been here at the weekend, someone hired the entire town, including the hotel, for a birthday party,” said hotel manager Megan. “There was a live band outside the country store, another outside the Volcano Gallery West opposite,” she said as she walked me into the Whiskey Flat Saloon – great name – sadly closed for a refresh, which I hoped wouldn’t strip it of its old charm. I pondered the magic of the otherworldly Volcano over a comforting chunk of homemade bread pudding laced with cinnamon at the newly opened Volcano Coffee Shop.
Gold country pit-stops aside, another joy of a Highway 49 road trip proved to be the opportunity to detour into quiet forests flanking the Sierra Nevada Mountain foothills. Stanislaus National Forest on Highway 104 delivered far-reaching views of pine-punctured slopes and stunning hiking routes around the majestic Pine Crest Lake.
But by far the biggest surprise was discovering a rarely mentioned forest of giant Californian redwoods. Overlooked for Sequoia National Park – one of the US’s most popular parks and home to the world’s biggest tree, the 2,109m “General Sherman” – Calaveras Big Trees State Park is free to explore and often delightfully quiet. Strolling through its north grove, I felt the enormous rewards of steering away from the obvious and taking a chance on Highway 49.
How to get there
The most convenient international gateway is San Francisco, around two and a half hours’ drive away.
Where to stay
The Sonora Inn has doubles from £83 ($104) per night
The Historic Cary House Hotel has doubles from £106 ($132) per night.