By Lee Foster
There are still plenty of “nuggets” in the cultural stream for the modern traveler venturing into the Northern Gold Country of California along Highway 49, after leaving I-80 at Auburn and heading north.
Four main experiences to search out in Nevada and Sierra Counties are history, food/wine, the arts, and seasonal natural beauty.
Grass Valley is a convenient base of operations for your prospecting. There are good lodgings such as the home-grown Grass Valley Courtyard Suites (not by Marriott) and the Gold Miner’s Inn (which is run by Holiday Inn Express). The day I was at the Courtyard, the owner was making waffles for me and everyone else at the complimentary cooked breakfast. As the region continues to renew itself with dining options, seek out the new craft beer and organic pizza/food haven, Three Forks Bakery & Brewing Company, in Nevada City. For a quality wine tasting experience in today’s California, without even a fee, consider Pilot Peak Winery south of Grass Valley, and sign up for info on their summer Saturday night parties. All these entities benefit from dedicated and new entrepreneurs and proprietors who contribute to make California travel a better experience today for the average consumer than it has been in the past.
Gold Rush history is the unique drama that defines the region. There are two outstanding mining site tours to peruse in this northern area if you want to understand the later “hard rock” phase of the California Gold Rush. They are the Empire Mine State Historic Park near Grass Valley/Nevada City and the Kentucky Mine in Sierra County, to the north.
In 1848 and thereafter for a few years there were nuggets to be found by individuals in the streams. This was the dream that propelled one of the greatest voluntary migrations in human history. There was an opportunity for fortune, especially if you could keep ahead of the merchants (such as hardware provider Leland Stanford, in Sacramento, selling you your shovel, pick, and pan) and the food purveyors selling you eggs and apples (maybe at $1 each). It is said that about six percent of the miners made significant money. The rest sought solace in their dreams and visions. At least, they tried.
The “big money” was in the later “hard rock” mining in this northern Gold Rush area. Entrepreneur William Bourn had the capital and arrangement skills to wrestle the Empire Mine into spectacular profitability. He brought in skilled Cornwall tin miners from England to dig and blast the underground quartz seams, seeking the ever-elusive Mother Lode of gold. The Empire Mine had a total of 367 miles of underground tunnels, going down 11,000 feet into the rock. This amazing underground extent of the mine is all visible today in a remarkable three-dimensional model at the mine, created in part to resolve legal disputes about who was mining beneath ground on competing above-ground land claims. The Empire Mine was the richest hard rock gold mine ever in the state of California, producing 5.8 million ounces of gold in its operating history of 106 years (1850-1956). Today, it’s instructive if you can visit this state historic park on a day when “re-enactors” present themselves as William Bourn, his wife Edna, his housekeeper Katie, and his cousin George Starr, the mine manager.
Farther north, the Kentucky Mine, managed now by the Sierra County Historical Society, offers an excellent and intimate example of a smaller hard rock mine. Try to plan your visit when a docent tour is possible, unless you have time to do your homework. The Kentucky Mine tour illustrates the remarkable “Pelton wheel” innovation invented locally by Webster Pelton. The Pelton Wheel allowed a small but focused stream of water to be harnessed to perform tasks, such as generating electricity and running the “stamp mill,” which was the basic tool of the hard rock vision. You had to stamp the quartz rock into powdery submission until the gold could be seen, and picked out, or perhaps extracted by allowing it to amalgamate with mercury.
Peruse the streets of Nevada City and Grass Valley downtown to see the legacy historic architecture of the post Gold Rush era. Nevada City boasts one of the best preserved large clusters of historic structures from the post-Gold Rush era, with 93 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. With a local map, enjoy a walking tour of these historic homes and brick commercial buildings.
The food/wine scene throughout California continues to evolve in positive ways, much to the delight of the average traveler. Pilot Peak is a fun winery to sample, and it is only one of 18 wineries in the local Sierra Vintners wine growers association. Three Forks (there are three forks in the local Yuba River) Bakery & Brewery, the lively and inventive brew pub in Nevada City, offers fresh craft beers and organic sourdough pizza, made from scratch, preferably with ingredients from local and regional farm producers. A further option would be signing up for Chef Alan Tangren’s amazing once-a-month tasting dinner menu at Tess’, a kitchen supply superstore in Grass Valley. Chef Tangren labored for many years at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, before re-locating to his family farm property near Nevada City. The virtuous collaboration of close farm-to-fork relationships between farmers and restaurateurs pervades the culinary scene here, with 14 Farmers Markets in Nevada County. Moreover, to the north, in Sierra City, there is an over-the-top culinary experience that you should definitely consider. At Herrington’s Restaurant in Sierra City, order the local Sierra County rainbow trout. After you order, leave your table and go out and watch them net your trout in their pond. They will then cook and serve your trout whole, and de-bone it at your table. These are not small trout. Arrive with a big appetite and appreciate the good value in price that occasionally benefits a traveler in these more remote California locations.
The arts scene in Nevada County and Sierra County is exceptionally robust for its relatively small population base, nurtured somewhat by the audience draw from Sacramento and the Bay Area. I enjoyed local poet Molly Fisk doing a reading in Grass Valley during my trip. An impressive number of year-around musical and theatrical performances occur at The Center for the Arts, 314 West Main Street in Grass Valley, and at the Miners Foundry Cultural Center in Nevada City. Stop in at The Center for the Arts to see the changing monthly arts shows there and inquire what’s on at local performance venues. Local annual events in these two counties can also be interesting. I happened upon the Oktoberfest in Sierra City and enjoyed brats, craft beer, music, and the local celebration of real people in the small town’s central park.
Seasonal beauty will greet a traveler at all times of the year here. I happened to travel through the area in October, seeking out the beauty of the hardwood trees in Nevada City and the aspen trees in Sierra County. The end of October may be the best time for the century-old red maples planted by early settlers in Nevada City and the native aspen tree gold and red in the wild lands here on the riverbed drive to Sierra County. One of the most inspiring scenic vistas is from Sardine Lake Lodge across Sardine Lake, named quirkily after a dead mule rather than a fish. Sardine Lake, when placid, reflects the regional landmark, the Sierra Buttes, most alluring in morning light. A scenic turnout on the road in, near the resort, shows a breathtaking dark green panorama of an immense conifer expanse in the Tahoe National Forest. At lower elevations, as you enter this Northern Gold Country area on Highway 49 from I-80, the oak woodlands and grassland present classic California landscapes, luminously green in spring and serenely tan during summer and autumn.
California’s Gold Country is a major travel joy. This Northern Gold Country is only part of the story. More needs to be said about the Central and Southern Gold Country along Highway 49 to alert you to the remarkable accident in 1848, the discovery of gold in California in the millrace of a saw mill at Coloma on the American River. After that discovery, the world rushed in to California, dramatically affecting the future of America.
California’s Northern Gold Country: If You Go
For Nevada County information, see http://gonevadacounty.com.
For Sierra County, see http://www.sierracountychamber.com.
For Grass Valley’s The Center for the Arts, see http://thecenterforthearts.org.
For the Grass Valley Courtyard Suites lodging, see http://www.gvcourtyardsuites.com.
For Tess’ kitchen store, see http://tesskitchenstore.com.
For Three Forks Bakery and Brewing Company, see http://www.threeforksnc.com.
For Pilot Peak Winery, see http://www.pilotpeak.com.
For Empire Mine State Historic Park, see http://www.empiremine.org.
For the Kentucky Mine tour, see http://sierracountyhistory.org.
For a restaurant with fresh rainbow trout, see Herrington’s at http://www.herringtonssierrapines.com.
The lively local magazine of the region celebrates, as the name suggests, Sierra Food Wine Art. See http://www.sierraculture.com.