Touring California's Gold Country on State Route 49

A ribbon of gold

Motorcycle Touring California's State Route 49
Head up California's gold ribbon of road, State Route 49 for a nice ride with rich history.Illustration by Mark Wagner

California's Gold Country may no longer ooze precious metals, but it still offers riches. There's a wealth of robust and romantic California history caught on the banks of SR49. It's a darn nice riding road as well.

The southerly portion of the Mother Lode road begins in Mariposa, about 24 miles west of Yosemite. Mariposa offers two quality museums dedicated to the mining era so you can stock up on some specs of what lies ahead.

Just north of Mariposa waits a worthy side trip to Hornitos. Simply take the Old Toll Road into town, then you can loop back on J16 to the 49 at Bear Valley without missing a mine. Hornitos was reputed to be one of the most hell-raising communities of the Gold Rush, formed when American miners rousted their Hispanic rivals out of the main camps.

One of the curiosities surrounding Hornitos is the legend of Joaquin Murieta—Mexico’s version of Black Bart—both of whom earned the handle “Robin Hood of the Gold Country” almost simultaneously. Following the brutal murder of his family, Murieta waged a personal battle against those Americans he felt were persecuting his Mexican brothers.

Murieta evaded capture through cunning and trickery until Marshal Harry Love may (or may not) have killed him. The jury’s still out. Love evidently murdered a stand of Mexican bandits including one man who claimed he was their leader, although he never gave his name. Love decapitated this man and brought the head before the state in a pickling jar filled with alcohol. Love got the reward, and California got one of its most colorful legends.

Back on SR49 you’ll dip and wind through oak-studded hills of gold, or velvet green, depending on the season. Some of the towns aren‘t much more than colorful names on the map. The road narrows and bobs as you enter Angels Camp. The famous frog jumps inspired by Mark Twain take place here, every third weekend in May. Many motorcycle groups use Angels Camp as a destination for summer rides, and some of the locals say these gatherings echo true to the rowdy behavior famous here during the Gold Rush.

San Andreas and Jackson point a modern facade at the main highway, so take the time to cruise the bypasses marked “historic,” as both are well-endowed with 19th-century structures and unspoiled main streets. San Andreas is where Murieta is reputed to have started his career as an outlaw, and it’s also where Black Bart ended his.

Bart, being a conscientious highwayman, never stole a dime from the citizens riding in the coaches he stalked. Instead he was famous for politely pointing his gun and saying, “Will you please throw down your treasure box, sir?” He also left bits of poetry at the scenes of his thoughtful thievery. No one was ever harmed by Black Bart, who actually turned out to lead a dual life as respected businessman, Charles Bolton.

If SR49 is the Gold Road, then Sutter Creek is its jewel. Browse through the antique shops housed in buildings that date back further than the merchandise. Sutter Creek is a fantastic overnight stop if you’re planning to ride the entire 325 miles of SR49. Call ahead to book a room at one of the historic bed and breakfasts, like the Sutter Creek Inn.

Before Placerville you’ll ride through a few hot spots of the mining era: Amador City reputedly doled out $24 million in gold; and Dry Town, which once contained 26 saloons, has been reduced to a picturesque speed zone.

Cross Highway 50, and you’re in Placerville, previously known as Hangtown, for the corpses that swung from its gallows. There’s an enormous amount of history here, but just as much modern crap burying it. Like Auburn, to the north, you have to sift through the cinderblocks to get to the bricks of the area’s past. However, there’s a good chunk of riding between the two and, of course, there’s Coloma.

The town that once had the country spinning on its heels is now a tiny village made up mostly of historical markers. Many original sites have been refurbished and endowed with period trimmings in the name of education. So if you’re hungry for history, eat here. At least drop into the Gold Discovery Museum for the abridged version.

Once out of Auburn you’ll leave the American River behind and cross over Interstate 80. Grass Valley is the porthole to the high-altitude portion of the adventure. Over the years, this persistently popular town produced over $400 million in gold, making it the richest gold-mining site in California. Its trade is tourism these days. Hundreds of structures have survived partly because so many were rebuilt after a fire destroyed the area in 1855. A blip of the throttle will throw you into Nevada City, undeniably the most proud, well-preserved example of the northern gold towns. It’s another place worthy of some on-foot exploration.

The steep, winding 49 will eventually get you to Downieville, the Gold Country’s Kodak moment. From some vantage points it feels like you’ve stepped back in time. The original buildings here are numerous. There’s even a real gallows left standing.

The months of April and May are outstanding for a trek through the Gold Country. The temperatures are mild, wildflowers are brilliant and crowds are minimal. October and November are optimal times, as well. Fall color increases as you ride north into the higher elevations. In the summer months the route is clogged with tourists and the climate is consistently hot.

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