Strike gold in northern California

On a road trip along Highway 49, Roger Thomas is transported back in time via the state's former mining towns

You can famously "get your kicks" on Route 66, or even try some "California Dreamin' " as you cruise down Highway 1.

But if you want to go "After the Gold Rush" it has to be Highway 49, the route pioneered by armies of ever-hopeful "49ers" during the great Californian Gold Rush of the mid-1800s.

These days, it's not a road well travelled – and that's a great shame. Just as Britain cannot be defined by Beefeaters and the Tower of London, California is much more than the Golden Gate and anthropomorphic mice. Travelling from south to north, Highway 49 starts at Oakhurst, south of Yosemite, but I'd be inclined to pick it up around Sonora, which has relatively direct access from San Francisco. Moreover, it's along the 125-mile stretch north from here that you'll find 24-carat Gold Country.

Don't expect a landscape pockmarked by mining detritus. Despite its ferocious history, the Gold Country is amazingly pristine. The unfathomable ocean of wild, wooded country that covers the foothills of the Sierras has absorbed the old mines, so you really have to look for them among the pines and hidden valleys that scoot down from the snowy ridges of a massive mountain chain that was, for so long, an impenetrable barrier to Western wagon trains.

The towns, however, are something else. They may look like they're straight out of a Clint Eastwood movie, but they are the real deal – some are lived-in, others are falling down, some are shabby, others all glammed up and Victorian-pristine. Some are funky and arty, colonised by escapees from San Francisco, others are slightly edgy, where posses of pick-up trucks tell you it's best to bite your tongue, smile, and not engage in any political discourse involving the achievements of President Obama.

Start at Jamestown, with its boardwalks, clapboard façades, antique shops (genuine bargains to be had) and restaurants. Then head via Sonora to Columbia, a typical Gold Rush town that was made a State Historic Park in 1945. But don't expect the usual open-air museum. Columbia, though you'd never believe it, was once the second-largest city in California after San Francisco. It is still a real town – albeit with a touch of period theatricality – that never closes. There are shops, saloons, restaurants, hotels, a Wells Fargo office and proprietors in period clothing. All that's missing are the gold nuggets "the size of hens' eggs" from the nearby Humbug Mine, one of the richest in the Mother Lode.

Angels Camp is small-town America and a little down-at-heel. While in San Francisco, you'd never guess the US was in the depth of its biggest downturn in living memory, up here in Gold Country, 100 miles from the golden coast, things are different. Some places are hanging in there, others are struggling. The mood was much more buoyant up the road in Murphys. According to the guidebook publisher, Frommer's, this is "one of the Top 10 Coolest Small Towns in America". Café bars, wine tasting boutiques (now big business in these parts), galleries and bookshops were doing a good trade.

The road unfolds northwards, past picket fences, farms and barns stuffed with dusty, rusty 1950s cars. It rolls up to Mokelumne Hill, a one-horse town where it's easy to believe that "fights between grizzly bears and bulls amused early residents", as the Calaveras Chronicle once put it. I stopped for the night in Sutter Creek, small, neat and settled in its sheltered bowl beneath the hills. The local sheriff obviously had nothing much to do but cruise the winding highway as if stuck in a Groundhog Day timeloop.

The air is pine-fresh in these parts and in the next day's sharp, blue-sky morning I discovered a place that, finally, cemented my love affair with the Gold Country. Drive into the tiny town of Volcano from one direction and the sign reads "Population 83". From the other, it's 102. I guess they can't keep up with Volcano's fast-moving demographics.

In fact, there's nothing remotely racy about sleepy, timewarp Volcano. It was founded in 1848 by pioneer miners who camped here through the hard winter – and died. Volcano's General Store has been in continuous use since 1852. Some of the cans on the shelves look as if they date from then, such is the wondrous state of preservation of a shop that, lock, stock and barrel, should really be a museum. This tiny, lost town, the gem of the Gold Country, proudly hangs on to its past, labelling its local sights – the Adolph Meyers Cigar Emporium of 1855, for example, the jail of 1871 and the court of "quick justice".

There was more Wild West wonder down in the woods at the Indian Grinding Rock State Park. I was only the fourth Brit to visit: the ranger insists that you stick a pin in the world map hanging in the Visitor Center.

The centre tells the story of the Miwok Native Americans – and what a tale it is. In 1848, they made up half of the 4,000 miners in the Sierras, but they never forgot that acorns, not gold, were the key to life. The 135-acre park is centred on Chaw'se, the name they gave to the cups formed in a great slab of gunmetal grey rock that outcrops among the Alpine meadows and stunted oaks. This is North America's largest grinding rock, used by the Miwok to pound acorns, which are high in fats, protein and carbo-hydrates. It's forgotten by everyone but today's Native Americans, who still celebrate here in their "place of gathering, laughter and work" in a vast, low-slung wooden roundhouse.

My Gold Country trip finished with a flourish in Grass Valley and Nevada City, two hubs that rub shoulders at the foot of Emigrant Gap in the Sierras. The former has classy galleries, upscale shopping, and a gorgeous Art Deco cinema that gleams in its candy-coloured paint. They're still proud of the fact that Grass Valley is the home of the Cornish pasty, imported by West Country miners who flocked here to work at the Empire Mine, one of California's oldest, largest and richest and now also a State Historic Park.

That's the thing about the Gold Country: unlike other post-industrial communities it's busy reinventing itself. So, you can seek out those mining memories but you can also visit startlingly good galleries such as Art Works in Grass Valley and Mowen Solinsky in Nevada City. Pure gold.

Travel Essentials

Getting There

San Francisco is the most convenient hub and is served from Heathrow by Virgin Atlantic (0844 209 2770; virgin-atlantic.com) which offers direct flights from £640; BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com); and United Airlines (0845 8444 777; unitedairlines.co.uk).

From there, drive via Highways 580, 205, 120 and 108 to Sonora.

Staying There

Days Inn, Sutter Creek (001 209 267 9177; daysinn.com).

Northern Queen Inn, Nevada City (001 530 265 5824; northernqueeninn.com).

The National Hotel, Nevada City (001 530 265 4551; thenationalhotel.com).

More Information

Gold Country information: calgold.org

Columbia and Indian Grinding Rock State Parks: parks.ca.gov

Empire Mine State Historic Park: empiremine.org

Murphys: visitmurphys.com

Sutter Creek: suttercreek.org

Nevada City: aboutnevadacity.com

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