The truth is that I had never heard of El Dorado County so I certainly didn’t know where this “hot spot” was located when I was first encouraged to explore the area via a Twitter exchange one day close to a year ago. “Hot spot” shouldn’t go unnoticed because it’s not just a hot spot as a great Family Travel getaway but it’s also climatically very“hot” — that kind of dry heat that you feel in the California desert inland, which loses its breeze from the coast and any micro-climates surrounding it. It’s the home of cottonwood, rolling hills, wineries, a fun flowing river and gold. Yes, you heard me right, gold!
For historian buffs, El Dorado is the heart of Gold Country, the region of Eastern California where they discovered gold in the mid-1800’s and gold panning is done to this day. While my visit was short and almost accidental, I came across a group panning for gold in the middle of the park in Coloma. There’s an art to it as you have probably imagined. Essentially, it’s a form of placer mining and traditional mining that extracts gold from a placer deposit using a pan. The process is one of the simplest ways to extract gold, and is popular with geology enthusiasts especially because of its cheap cost and the relatively simple and easy process. AND, it’s a great thing to do with kids.
Panning For Gold
Teach me to be an expert oh gold panning maestro!
The barn and trough on the premises where you pan for gold!
Coloma, Lotus, Placerville and the surrounding communities offer the gold panning experience throughout the year and is a great family destination overall not just because of the gold mines and ability to pan for it, but because of the luscious river that runs through the area.
Other places known for panning for gold which are short side trips from San Francisco and the Bay Area, include Angels Camp, a historic mountain town in Calaveras County along Highway 49, Jamestown in Toulumne County at the base of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Amador City in Amador County, the smallest of towns mentioned here, also on Highway 49 Gold Country strip where you can also ride a buggy into the Sutter Gold Mine and Sonora in the Sierra Nevada Foothills, where you can not only pan for gold but take in the beauty of the lakes and waterfalls nearby as well.
While I haven’t yet been to any of the places noted above, so I can’t truly compare them all, what I found so inviting about El Dorado County is the warmth and authenticity of the locals. It somehow felt as if we were being adopted as family every time we met someone new.
The Gold Bug Park & Mine
A great “fun for kids” activity that is also a historical treat for adults is The Gold Bug Park & Mine, located on Gold Bug Lane in Placerville CA. This 62 acre park located a mile off Highway 50 has 2 hard rock mines, a blacksmith shop, museum, stamp mill and miles of hiking trails. While we didn’t have time to do the miles of hiking trails, we did do a tour of the mine itself.
Formerly known as the Vulture, it has been open as far back as 1867. The mine exemplifies a typical neighborhood hard rock mine of the Mother Lode — the 352 foot drift has wood flooring and lighting to accommodate the public so it’s easier to see as you make your way through the cool mine, which was a far cry from the explosive heat wave we experienced the weekend we were there.
The tours are self guided, where you’ll learn how the old hard-rock miners drilled and blasted their way through the native rock to find the gold.
Below is the little shop at the start of the tour where you can look at gems, read the history and chat with an elderly man who manages the tickets and is a wealth of knowledge about the mine and the area.
We had a little audio guide to educate us along the way — below a shot I took on my iPhone of the ceiling of the mine as we ducked our heads, making our way through.
Also worth noting is the Stamp Mill, which is a working scale model of the 8 stamp mill. It offers interpretive panels and an extensive collection of minerals and gems on display. It is located 1 mile north of Highway 50 on Bedford Avenue in Placerville CA.
Wine Tasting at El Dorado Wineries
When you think of northern California, wine tasting wouldn’t be far from your mind and those of you who have spent time in Sonoma and Napa Valley know that while both have become more and more commercialized, there’s still plenty of delicious wine to be sampled at both. That said, we believe in the magic of the undiscovered and just like Paso Robles wines have been surprising us more and more, we were thrilled to learn that El Dorado County also boasts a number of vineyards that are scattered throughout the hills.
Since it was over 100 degrees when we arrived (a rare June weekend heatwave), we weren’t particularly in the mood to taste wine as much as we were to find a cold dipping pool or the river to cool off. That said, by the second day, we not only got our second wind, but the temperature started cooling down a bit and lo and behold, we went exploring.
With limited time, we didn’t manage to get to every winery on the list of small and mid-sized wineries (mostly small) in the region. Some of the wineries worth mentioning include Cielo Estate, Colibri Ridge, Busby Cellars, Mount Aukum, Single Leaf, Sierra Vista, Shadow Ranch, Saluti Cellars, Nello Olivo, Perry Creek, Skinner, Windwalker, Findleton Estate, Grace Patriot Wines, Crystal Basin, Fenton Herriott, Everjart CellarsJart2Jart Vineyards, Gold Hill and David Girard Vineyards.
Gold Hill Vineyards, which was founded in 1980, has been producing award-winning Bordeaux reds and Chardonnay since 1985 and since 2000, Italian and Rhone varietals, which makes sense since the climate is great for those Rhone varietals. Gold Hill’s cellar and cave houses 3,500 cases of wine and while I wished now we had left with a case of that 3,500 we only walked out with one bottle. Note to self for next time — be better prepared! Below is a shot of the vineyard after our tasting on that hot afternoon.
David Girard Vineyards along Cold Springs Road seems to be the most commercial winery among the bunch we visited. They’re large in size, well known and respected and host a number of social events throughout the year for wine club members, one of which was happening when we were there. The upside to arriving during one of their events was that we got to taste a newly released Rhone varietal we hadn’t expected. YUM!
Nestled in the Sierra Foothills, they have dedicated most of their 36 acre planting to Rhone varieties. This lovely and decadent estate is a great spot for summer wine tasting and if you bring your own cheese and baguette, I’d encourage you to buy a bottle and relax for an hour or two while taking in the beautiful environs. They focus on distinctive and elegant Rhone-inspired wines that express the unique qualities of their terrain.
Yoga in Gold Country
In the heart of small town Placerville, Main Street Yoga was a delightful surprise. Not only was the weekend getaway about slowing down and getting away from our urban hectic schedules, but tuning into mindfulness along the way. Quite frankly, there’s no better activity to add to your schedule than a yoga class to keep things aligned in both body and mind.
While they offered Vinyasa Yoga Flow, as well as meditative classes, we decided to try Yin Yoga since we had never tried it before. Yin Yoga Yoga is a complement to Vinyasa Flow. In this healing practice, floor postures are held passively for several minutes in order to access a safe, positive ‘stress’ on deep connective tissues, fascia, joints, and ligaments. With bypassing the large muscles, you are able to reach the deep tissue. Yin restores and maintains natural lubrication and mobility of the joints while working with specific meridians of the body to achieve optimum organ health.
They have Yoga Nidra and Pranayama once a month where you are guided through a deep relaxation, giving rest to the mind, brain, nervous system, and body. We loved our teacher and the space — it was once a bank so part of the studio opens up to an old vault and the walls are made of brick, giving it a historical authentic look and feel. T’was peaceful and serene and just what we needed!
Dining in Gold Country
While the weekend wasn’t necessarily centered around food and wine, because of the County’s numerous vineyards, we were able to taste several at the wineries tasting rooms and sample others at some of the area’s restaurants. Be sure to see my write-up on foodie and restaurant picks in the area, of which includes The Farm Table in Placerville, Cafe Mahjaic in Lotus, The Argonaut Farm-to-Fork Cafe and Sierra Nevada House, both in Coloma CA. Below is one of the dishes we tried at Cafe Mahjaic and below it, the spicy clam appetizer from the very historical Sierra Nevada House, where they have live music every weekend during summer months.
Sierra Nevada House
Below, the old fashioned small town charm of The Argonaut Farm-to-Fork Cafe, set in a little brown wooden house in the middle of the state park — they serve sustainable, fresh organic breakfast and lunch dishes, as well as freshly squeezed juices and gelato.
Tubing & White Water Rafting
Who doesn’t love white water rafting? While I was feeling a tad under the weather when we arrived, my mind went back in time to the last time I went rafting, which was a more serious river. What’s nice about the river runs in the area that make them ideal for family trips, is that the river is a Level 2, so you need to worry a whole lot less about getting thrown into a boulder or off the raft entirely.
Adventure Connection on 6500 State Highway 49 in Lotus offers a variety of river rafting trips down the South Fork of the American River, which you can do solo, as a couple or as a group if you have enough people to book out the entire raft. Either way, FUN will be an integral part of your takeaway!!
So, if fun is your middle name, or if you want it to be, then white water rafting is the way to go down the great American River. we’re keen to return to El Dorado County to do a full day white water rafting tour on a hot summer day. Thanks for the encouragement Jody and Nathan!
Rafting shots courtesy of Adventure Connection.
You can also go rafting directly from Coloma Resort which focuses on family camping for the most part. We went tubing all afternoon — let’s just say that we wished we had more time. If you don’t have your own tube, flotation tubes can be purchased at their General Store as well as water shoes, which I’d highly recommend bringing if you own a pair — remember your feet are dangling off the edge as you meander your way down the river and you are bound to meet boulders and rocks along the way.
That said, it’s very safe as long as you use precaution and we saw many kids also tubing down the river to our left and right. While you can use your hands to direct yourself, I’d recommend a little rubber paddle, which we’ll be sure to bring next time as it makes it easier to navigate. Tubing was so much fun, so much so that we had a hard time leaving the river. The camping resort is located adjacent to the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park.
Photo courtesy: Coloma Resort since we didn’t have a waterproof camera to get shots of the smiles on our face en route.
The American River and Coloma Bridge
Close to where we stayed was access to the infamous American River, which not only is a popular spot for swimming, but also for white water rafting and tubing as noted above. Truthfully, it was hard to stop. After each trip down the river, we wanted to do yet one more run. After our experience, I was able to grab a few shots from the historic Coloma Bridge which made it even harder to leave as we recalled the fun we just had making our way downstream.
The bridge itself is worth walking over despite its narrow passing. Built in 1915, the single lane bridge means that traffic must stop while cars go in one direction, so allow time to cross if it’s part of your agenda.
Swimmers enjoy cooling off along the banks of the river
The stunning views you get of the valley and trees beyond from the bridge
Above and below, the historical Coloma Bridge.
There’s a ton of history to explore in the region from the Marshall Gold Discovery State Park to experiencing gold yourself, whether that be through panning (above) or walking through a gold mine. Marshall Gold Park was named after James Marshall who discovered gold on January 24, 1848, touching off the largest human migration in history. This singular event not only changed the fate of California, but teh entire nation. A recent addition is the completion of a new replica of the saw mill where James Marshall discovered the first nugget.
Below extends the area’s history in the small town of Placerville nearby. Main Street has a ton of quaint shops, restaurants, cafes, and a delicious olive oil shop called Winterhill Olive Oil, where we went home with a couple of bottles (Basil & Rosemary). I wished I had also gotten a bottle of the Lemon and the Garlic infused olive oil — all of them were so delicious! Below is a snippet of the main drag where we spent an afternoon.
A few historical points of interest include the Pearson’s Soda Works (1859), Empire Theater (1850), Fountain Tallman Soda Works (1852), the Bell Tower, and art galleries on Main Street. You can feel the history as you walk down the street, from the Placerville Newsstand (around since 1856) and Placerville Hardware Store (1853 – it’s a fun place to walk around), Cary House Hotel (1857) and Combellacks from 1888.
Festivals & Events
There are a boat load of events that are of particular interest for Family Travel that occur throughout the year although there are others centered around food/wine and rocks that of interest to the adventure traveler, the food lover and the historian.
Others that jumped out for me and our audience included the Wagon Train and BBQ Rib Cook Off which they had in early June, the El Dorado Hills Art and Wine Affaire in May, and Rock’s and Rhones Festival in late May, which celebrates Rhone Varietals grown in the rocky soils of Pleasant Valley.
Upcoming events that caught our eye include the American River Music Festival in mid September, which is held on the banks of the South Fork of the American River. The event features 30 Americana Blues and Folk music performances, workshops, camping/lodging, hiking, rafting, kids activities, live art, art vendors, food and more. More information at www.americanrivermusic.org.
Photo credit: www.americanriverresort.com.
The Coloma Gold Rush Live is in mid October and for two days, Coloma will be packed with images, sounds, and hands-on experiences dating back to the California Gold Rush. Also in mid-October, is the annual Rock & Gem Show, where there’s hands on activities for the new rock hobbiest as well as the experienced rockhounds. I love gems and rocks so this jumped off the page for me when I was digging around. There’s dealers, displays, demonstrations, rocks, minerals, gems, jerelry, beads, fossils, petrified wood and more. More at www.rockandgemshow.org.
Photo credit: oilcitywyo.com.
More information on the area can be found at www.visit-eldorado.com. While some of my activities were hosted by the El Dorado Tourism Board, all opinions expressed are entirely my own.