California Road Trip 2010: Gold Country

On leaving Yosemite National Park, we headed for Gold Country. We made our base in Placerville (pronounced PLASS-er-ville; formerly Old Dry Diggings, Dry Diggings, and Hangtown), California.  Its current name comes from the placer gold deposits, found in its river beds in the late 1840s.  We picked up a self-guided walking tour of the Main Street and surroundings from our hotel and set out to explore the small but picturesque town.

Nearly every building has a colourful story behind it. Commelback’s clothing store opened in 1888 and continues to be owned and operated by the same family.  The Fountain and Tallman Soda Works building dates back to 1852 to supply local miners with with fresh spring water, survived the 1856 fire and is now the Placerville Museum. The town is full of reminders of its storied past.

Yes, John Studebaker actually came to Placerville to find gold and quickly discovered that he could earn more money constructing and selling well-made wheelbarrows to the miners.  Blacksmith Hugh Hinds hired Studebaker in 1853 and he stayed in Placerville until 1858, when he moved to South Bend, Indiana with his fortune which he invested in  the family wagon business which later became the Studebaker Automobile Company.  In 1912, when he returned to Placerville for a visit, he was honoured by the entire town.

We were particularly intrigued by Placerville Hardware (above, top right), the oldest continuously operating hardware store west of the Mississippi and established in 1852.  Walking through the door is like stepping back in time and they sell everything you could possibly imagine!

Only a hardware store in a former gold rush town would sell gold pans!!

The gorgeous original wooden floors, bins, rolling ladders and stock piled high will transport you back to the days of the gold rush.  It’s quite something.

Neil and I discovered some local wine from Synapse and just *had* to taste them all!  These were good!  We bought a couple of bottles and drank them along the way on the trip.

Had we stayed for more than just a tasting flight, we might have been convinced to join in the fun at the IOOF Hall down the street!

Indeed, whether you are a history or a wine buff Placerville has a little something for everyone!

The following day, we headed down historic Highway 49 (The Mother Lode) to Jamestown, home to Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, where you can view one of America’s last intact, still-operating railroad roundhouses.

Railtown 1897, its historic locomotives and cars have starred in hundreds of film and TV productions, including High Noon, Back to the Future 3, and Petticoat Junction. Then since it was so hot, he headed back to the town centre to the historic National Hotel:

Established in 1859 by Heinrich and Hannah Neilson, the bar and restaurant of The National Hotel were two simple wooden building, amongst the first permanent structures in early (1848) gold-rush town. Earlier establishments, were mostly tent and non-permanent wooden structures. The National Hotel has been in continuous operation from this date having survived two damaging fires in 1901 and 1927 which caused severe damage, leading to extensive remodeling. Today’s restoration work was begun in 1974 by the present owners and is ongoing.

The inside of the building is as gorgeous and well-preserved as the outside:

It’s full of amusing reminders of what it was like in the good old days!

(we were laughing so hard at this!!!)

Of course, what’s a visit to gold country with out a little panning for gold?  We headed to Columbia State Historic Park to try our luck.  According to the Park’s website, the town’s old Gold Rush-era business district has been preserved with shops, restaurants and two hotels. Visitors have the chance to time-travel to the 1850s, imagining life when gold miners rubbed shoulders with businessmen and the other residents in Columbia. Visitors can experience a bygone era watching proprietors in period clothing conduct business in the style of yesterday. There are opportunities to ride a 100 year-old stagecoach, pan for gold, and explore the real working businesses of Columbia.

Me? I was just interested in the shiny stuff!

Let me just say here that this is TOTALLY corny and cheesy but you gotta love it!  $12 will guarantee you “strike it rich” with some gold and garnets.  In fact the little girl next to me (I was actually pretty much the only adult doing this!) was picking her garnets out of her dish as Prospector Pete (actually his name was Sam) was giving his spiel! And then, apparently, Sam did not trust that I had understood what to do (I hadn’t really), so he just did my pan for me and let me pick the gold and garnets out. Uh huh. I would have been a loser prospector in the 1850s!

Leaving the Park, we couldn’t but help stop by this, that we had spotted on the way there:

This is a town called Angel’s Camp, home to the Annual Jumping Frog Jubilee.


If you don’t believe me, all you have to do is look at your feet. On the footpath there are plaques commemorating each year’s winner with the stats:

The carnival is apparently inspired by a Mark Twain short story, published in 1865 called “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” According to Wikipedia, this was his first great success as a writer, bringing him national attention.  In it, the narrator retells a story he heard from a bartender, Simon Wheeler, at the Angels Hotel in Angels Camp, California, about the gambler Jim Smiley. Twain describes him: “If he even seen a straddle bug start to go anywheres, he would bet you how long it would take him to get to—to wherever he going to, and if you took him up, he would foller that straddle bug to Mexico but what he would find out where he was bound for and how long he was on the road.”

I wonder what Mark Twain would think about the modern day jubilee? 😉

If you’ve made it this far through the post, you might be a little hungry and wondering if there were any good eats to be had.

We had a wonderful meal in Placerville at the Hey Day Café.  A small, family owned and operated restaurant, the Hey Day does a pretty varied menu, in a friendly, relaxed atmosphere.  When we were there, the clientele ranged from young families out for a quick pizza to older couples out on “date night”.

We were very pleased with our starters:

Left to right:
Crab tower – Dungeness crab, avocado, mango and sautéed prawns topped with cilantro and mango chile sauce ($12)
Bruschetta – Garlic rubbed crostini served with fresh tomatoes and basil ($7)
Spinach salad with bacon, toasted walnuts, mushrooms, tomatoes and red onions drizzled with tart cherry dressing (9)

The crab cake was really meaty and flavourful with lovely bites of chile and citrus.  The bruschetta was fresh and tasty and the salad was actually nearly enough for a main course.  Great flavours there too, especially the tart cherry dressing.

For our mains, we had (left to right):

Vegetable lasagna with caramelized onions, spinach, mushrooms and creamy goat cheese layered in ribbon pasta, served with garlic bread ($17)
A special of the day salad with salmon, goat cheese and intriguingly, salami. My mum who ordered this said it worked well, despite her reservations about pairing meat and seafood like that.
Basil ravioli (Neil and I split this dish) with grilled bell peppers, roasted onions, mushrooms and asparagus with asiago and garlic bread crumbs ($18)

We all enjoyed our meals – though the lasagna was a very large serving and the basil ravioli a little on the small side (even if we hadn’t split the dish). The food was fresh and well seasoned with flavours that really worked. We were extremely impressed with the food – I guess since we had not perhaps expected to eat this well in in the “wild west” 😉 LOL!

For dessert, Neil *insisted* we split the vanilla gelato ($4.50) which was perfect in its simplicity.

The service was friendly and very professional and it was a lovely respite from burgers, wings and pizzas 😉 With a fairly extensive wine list including, obviously, a lot of local and California wines, the Hey Day Café is definitely a place to seek out should you find yourself hungry in Placerville.

325 Main St
Placerville, CA 95667
Tel: 530-626-9700

Heyday on Urbanspoon

Stay tuned – because if you think we hadn’t eaten enough in this first week of our trip, wait until you see what we got up to in Napa, Yountville, St Helena, San Francisco, Monterey, and Big Sur. Coming up soon on ELTW!

45 thoughts on “California Road Trip 2010: Gold Country”

  1. Oh my gosh, I LOVE that one sign! “BEWARE Pick-Up Acquaintances! Pick-up Acquaintances often take girls autoriding…Disease or childbirth may follow” Too funny! Makes you wonder if parents told their daughters anything in those days if they felt the need to post these PSAs 🙂

  2. What a great road trip! The hardware store looks amazing, bet you can come across some finds there. The National Hotel looks amazing and that sign…… 🙂

  3. I just love Placerville but haven’t been there in a few years {and we only live a couple of hours away}. Now that my kids are 4 and 5, I think they would really enjoy it. I have never been to Angel’s Camp….something that needs to happen in our future:) Thanks for the ideas and the photos!

  4. I’m so jealous of you. I’ve been wanting to take a California road trip forever. Looks like you’re having a great time!

    Btw.. i would be right there with you looking for the gold, pushing the little kiddies aside. 😀

  5. What a great article. I LOVE all the pictures. And, the fancy food juxtapositioned with all the old buildings and hardware store was awesome.

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  7. What else can you get in the hardware store? Hey, I bought a CSI torch. You know the one – it’s the one tool every CSI action agent needs to determine extremely quickly (well, within the one-hour program), what actually happened. The torch was expensive @ around $30. On closer examination the CSI acronym actually stood for
    Continuous Supreme Illumination (brand copyright issue, no doubt). Still, when I hold it the right way, it looks (I look) great.

  8. I can’t believe you were in my neighborhood!! I grew up going to Columbia and Jamestown. My family’s cabin is just outside of Angels Camp. If I’d have known, I would have LOVED to have played tour guide!

  9. I’m sooo jealous – what a fun trip! One of the advantages of travelling with my kids is that I don’t feel out of place doing cool things like panning for gold and garnets. Hopefully the frog jumping festival takes place when the kids are out of school.

    Thanks for the tips – and beautiful photos (although I don’t need to look at those yummy food shots when I’m trying to diet!)

    • Yes see I just need to ignore the fact that I am often the only adult doing such things and get on with it. I love looking after other people’s kids because it means you can get away with stuff like that with noone questioning you! The frog jumping festival is in May.

  10. It looks like you had a really great trip. I really love quaint little towns like that one, nice sites and nice food. You can’t beat it! Thanks for sharing!

    ps…. did you ever get any good reccs for web design? I’m looking as well and would love to be able to compare a few more.

  11. I’ve panned for gold in Colorado; it’s a fun experience but glad I didn’t really have to find enough to sustain a family! This part of your trip had a lot of similarities to Colorado actually including a frog jumping contest; guess the same folks who started the gold rush in the Rocky Mountains kept moving west to California and started the same practices!

  12. Well now Mardi was rather *selective* with the gold-panning photo, methinks. There’s a classic one of all the kiddies – and Mardi – being taught how to pan for gold. That truly should be on the post! 😉

  13. wow, you’re really getting a tour of california history! i love those old hardware stores too – the creaky, worn wooden floors and bins full of all sorts of oddities. they do take you back in time, that’s for sure. and you know i’d have been right there in line with you and the kids panning for gold and garnets!

  14. Such a fabulous post – love to travel and love to read about other travel adventures – this one was a doozy! I can’t wait to hear about Napa – we were in California (Santa Cruz area) in June of this year; wanted to make it to Napa but there was just too much to see – maybe next trip!

  15. I’d been training Freddy for the best part of a year and was determined we would take out the Jubilee this year. All that hard work, jumping through hoops, jogging for hours wearing the little backpack I’d sewn for him and filled with little Freddy sized bricks. And it was all for nothing! I should never have listened to that nice man when he said it was necessary to indulge in sexual desire… next thing I know the race was over and poor Freddy was still in his travelling case.

  16. The other name of the town was “hangtown” where lots of hangings took place during the gold rush. the most famous dish was called “hangtown fry” which included fresh oysters, the convicts to be hanged when givin a choice of a last meal, they ordered it because it gave them a few more days of life since the oysters had to be brought in from San Francisco by horse. (hangtown fry: breaded oysters, bacon and eggs)

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