Go for the Gold. Stay for the Fun.
by Kelly Luker
Although the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range are nicknamed for the precious ore that miners hoped to find more than a century ago, the “Gold Country” could just as well be named for one of the many vibrant colors displayed on nature’s palette this time of year. Fall foliage along the Mother Lode offers some of the best leaf peeping on the West Coast. When temperatures cool and gorgeous leaves beckon, what better time to put the pup in the car and head for the hills?
Adventure begins in Mariposa County, the southern tip of where gold fever broke out in the 19th century. The first order of business might be a day hike in Yosemite National Park. Although the wilderness areas are off limits to your pooch, there are still miles of dog-friendly paved trails that allow abundant sightings of autumn leaves as well as views of El Capitan, Half Dome and Yosemite Falls. For a good place to bed down for the night, consider Groveland Hotel, a Gold Rush-era inn that offers whirlpools for the humans and treats and warm quilts for the doggies. There is also the Tenaya Lodge located at the south gate of Yosemite.
Follow historic Highway 49 north to Jamestown, home of the Railtown 1897 State Historic Park. Not only are dogs allowed to join their people as they check out what is considered the most photographed railroad in the world, now they can also ride along in the train. If you’ve ever seen “Petticoat Junction,” “High Noon,” or any of the other hundreds of television shows and movies it has been featured in, the Railtown 1897 will be instantly recognizable. Call ahead for departure times, as they are limited in November and December. Jamestown also boasts one of the oldest continuously operating inns in California. Established in 1859, the National Hotel and its outdoor restaurant allow dogs. It’s also close to Stanislaus National Forest; as well as Pine Crest Lake, another great place to walk the dog, gawk at nature’s wonders, and even rent a pontoon boat (April–October) for you and your dog to enjoy.
To truly step back in time, drive a little farther up Hwy 49 to Columbia State Historic Park. Although its name implies trees and more trees, the Park is actually a well-preserved Gold Rush-era town. Plan to buy some sarsaparilla and penny candies from shopkeepers garbed in authentic 1800s wear. They might even have a treat for your four-footed friend since dogs are allowed to stroll the village with their humans. Bed down that night at the Columbia Gem Motel in one of their warm and cozy log cabins. The pup will have an acre of landscaped beauty to do his or her biz (which you will graciously pick up, of course).
Anyone who has read Mark Twain’s short story of the famous jumping frog will be familiar with Calaveras County. Although Angels Camp, where Twain’s tale was based, gets most of the attention, consider veering east instead onto Highway 4. Aspen trees in the fall should be both seen and heard. The musical rustle of the Populus tremuloides as its leaves flutter and twist in the breeze adds its own soundtrack to your nature hikes. One of the best places to experience the quaking aspen is in Calaveras Big Trees State Park, about a half hour east of Angels Camp. Although the park is best known for its giant sequoias, the largest trees in the world, it is also populated with autumn spectaculars like blue-leaf maples, dogwoods and hazelnuts. If it’s time to take a break from all that nature, sip on a Zinfandel or Chardonnay at one of the numerous wineries in Murphys.
Wrap up your trip in Sutter Creek where it’s time to look down for gold instead of up. You and your pup can tour Kennedy Mine (open March–October), one of the deepest gold mines in the world. The town’s main street will also bring you back to the 1850s, but with important modern details like wine tasting and drive-in diners. Dog-friendly accommodations as well as restaurants with patios are available in Sutter Creek and the nearby towns of Jackson, Volcano, and Drytown.
You don’t need to pan for gold to find the most valuable things in life. Just take a road trip with your favorite furry friend. The memories are priceless.