For somewhere I used to frequent at minimum once a year, four years was a long-time in-between visits to the Golden State and for no good reason at all.
It might happen like this:
Out of nowhere it comes back on your radar, perhaps then you meet someone who starts talking about their upcoming trip to The States and whilst listening to their plans you find yourself lost in thoughts reminiscing of a times and places along your journey and the people who made you who you are. You start saying out loud how you “really want to return soon,” how you “love the natural beauty and National Parks there,” yet have no immediate or even future plans to visit. However still, the thoughts linger. Then one afternoon you check your inbox and synchronistically there is an invite to pack your bags (with quite short notice) and head back to one of your happy places, on a road-trip along Highway 49 to learn more about the history and culture of the Gold Rush era.
You had me at road-trip and ‘history and culture.’
And so, that’s how it happens. You’re standing alone on the other side of the world (again) ready to embark on a journey, to meet new people, to hit the asphalt with new lessons to unfold; as they always do along on the road.
In celebration of National Travel & Tourism week and the 150th anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad, traditional media, journalists, photographers and influencers alike were invited from all over the world to participate in the Californian “Gold Rush Rally.”
The Rally put together to showcase California’s Gold Country, with seven different itineraries created to highlight the types of experiences and historical gems travellers can find along Highway 49 and to celebrate the state’s global reputation as the ultimate road-trip destination.
“History and culture, South.”
Four strangers, four languages spoken, six days and one highway. We travelled back through 170 years of fascinating history to the Gold Rush era, where the past, present, and future are merge into one eventful destination. My new travel companions and I spent the days visiting a string of mining towns, which have maintained their 1850’s charm and explored the stunning, panoramic vistas of the Sierra Nevada foothills.
From Sacramento County to Madera, Mariposa, Tuolumne and Calaveras County - -
this was our itinerary:
Day One: Sacramento County
On day one, we walked. And then we drove. A lot.
Kicking off the Gold Rush Rally with a nice visit to the longest continuously-operating art museum in the West; home to one of the state’s premier collections of Californian art. Followed by a Capital tour and an underground tour of Old Sacramento from the History Museum. We did it all and saw it all, learning about the city that lifted itself (literally) up out of the flood waters during the 1860s and 1870s!
Sometime after lunch we departed Sacramento, heading 180 miles in the direction of Madera County. The beautiful Spring days made for some stunning, blurry scenery flashing past the window as my travel companions and I began swapping life stories and crossing off the challenges and activities of our Gold Rush Rally list card.
One of us from Mexico City, one from Brazil, the other from Japan and me – the little Australian. It’s very interesting the common ground you can find, and the connection and intimacy shared along the road - it breaks down social norms quite quickly. It didn’t take me long before I realised that I was the only person in the car who had been to Yosemite National Park before and it was a big (life-long) dream for the other three.
Madera County is located in the Sierra Nevada Foothills and known as the gateway to Yosemite National Park. Yosemite National Park famously heralded by naturalist John Muir as ‘The Range of Light,’ and personally, one of my favourite places in the world. It is an area of beauty beyond comprehension that attracts several thousands of world visitors yearly to bask in the wilderness of an iconic natural treasure.
So, even though we had already driven a lot that day, we pushed on a little further and made it to ‘Tunnel view’ - a must stop for any first time visit to Yosemite Valley - right on sunset.
You could have wiped the tears of happiness from our cheeks and heard the ring of the collective, uncontrollable gasps of awe leaving our lips from miles away. For me, the second sojourn still devoured my body in goosebumps and left me completely, perfectly breathless.
An excerpt from my travel diary that day:
“…it was one of those stop-the-car-right-now moments. The valley before me was filled with light, I felt the cool air on my face, a distant stranger told me “there are bears down there,” but it was muffled. I was completely and utterly lost in that magnificent view before me. Breathing it all in, along with the smell of that forest.
It had been a huge week of work. I know what I do doesn’t seem like it, but as with any job it’s tough sometimes. It’s hard to leave my home, it’s lonely, I miss my people and my routine ... but it’s moments, like these ones, when the jet lag instantly fades away, the long hours of driving blur into oblivion and time becomes irrelevant. I could feel and hear my heart beating fast, nothing felt small, except me, in the vast nature, and that in itself is insignificantly significant.”
Day Two: Madera County
Starting the day with the rise of the sun at beautiful Bass Lake set the tone for day two.
“Atop of the mountain, you can look into the past.” – Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad.
We rode into history on day two on a steam train through the Sierra National Forest, which took us on an hour-long journey back in time, where powerful locomotives once hauled massive log trains through the Sierra Mountains and into the distant valleys below. Lunch was notably worth me writing home about, as we visited Love Café - the first all vegan restaurant in Madera County. In the coming weeks I visited Love Café a few times (more to follow on a separate Yosemite blog I am also working on) but I can positively confirm that “The Garden,” “Acai bowl,” the “Tempehsada Taco’s” and “Thai Peanut Fries” are all a delight for your taste buds.
After lunch we were taken to a very special Giant Sequoias grove, known as Nelder Grove with a woman named Brenda Negley. We explored, by foot, a small jewel just outside of Oakhurst and learned about the cultural and natural history of the Giant Sequoias (beginning with the Southern Miwoks). Nelder Grove is an ecological unique area, which covers approximately 1540 acres inside the Sierra National Forest.
That afternoon Brenda shared personal stories from her youth, as her grandparents volunteered at the Grove for 25 years (staying for 9 months of the year) and we stood in awe of the world's most massive trees, and arguably the largest living organism on Earth, whilst discussing the importance of protecting them. I recall a significantly humbling moment beneath “Bullbuck” - a Giant Sequoia approximately 2700 years old – as I went about photographing the forest from the very bench that Brenda’s grandfather made.
Day three: Mariposa County
A short drive north along the “49ers” (Highway 49) to the next historic mining community, Mariposa, located in the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains.
The morning was spent admiring California’s State Park’s official mineral collection and learning of the colourful history and geologic diversity of the state. We stopped for lunch at the Original Bon Ton Café where ‘Chef Big Will’ whipped up a vegan version of Southern Cajun cuisine for me and a we had a really interesting conversation about his life and health journey with a side of ‘this-building-is-haunted’ ghost stories. I walked away from the lunch feeling very satisfied (the food was delicious) but also very touched by the kindness of the staff and those fleeting connections + human interaction. As always, it is the people you meet along the way, which make the place special and memorable.
The mid-afternoon saw us gawking at every nook and cranny inside the Mariposa Museum and History Center. I had my eye in particular on the 3D photos of Yosemite that are over 100 years old and the incredible display of ‘Miwuk Village and Indian life.’
Just outside the museum they started up the old “5” stamp mill and we were lucky enough to see that in motion, as it is one of the few stamp mills in California Gold Country today.
Our itinerary read “free time” and with a swift unanimous decision we pilled in and drove back to Yosemite National Park, alongside the Merced River blooming with spring’s wildflowers and entering the park via the dramatic Arch Rock Entrance. With some more time up our sleeves to explore I tour-guided for us. First stop: standing underneath the thundering, windswept “Bridalveil Falls” with a double rainbow to boot. After a very good and, from what I heard from the locals, much needed Winter season just gone, the waterfalls were raging and ready to be admired in all their tremendous glory. We got saturated and I’m not over exaggerating here, we had to change out clothes in the car park kind of saturated, but all of our cheeks hurt from smiling and laughing uncontrollably and we agreed it was worth every second of soaking. One of those right place, right time experiences we won’t forget in a hurry.
From there we wandered through the valley floor, stopping to marvel as the mighty “Yosemite falls” from afar and the ever-so-famous granite monolith of El Capitan. With little light left of the day the team decided they wanted another lasting soak-it-all-in vista from “Tunnel view.” So, we lined up with the hundred or so other photographers and natural world spectators and watched as the afternoon light illuminated the valley before us and dusk transform into the night.
You might be shoulder to shoulder with strangers come sundown at “Tunnel View,” but as I stood in silence I happily observed the many people around me and their child-like behaviour, watching their eyes fill with wonder at the spectacular view before them. In that moment, I thought about myself as a little girl and buddying photographer and those big, wild dreams to visit the place she has seen in Ansel Adams’ life’s work. I reflected and considered myself incredibly fortunate to stand before this beautiful masterpiece of Mother Nature, again. Its beauty, will never been lost on me.
Day Four: Tuolumne County
We’d explored the outdoors and historical charm of Gold Country, but there was still a lot of Highway 49 to see, so we hit the road again. This time to check out Jamestown, Tuolumne. A morning spent exploring the Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, a designated California Historical Landmark where history comes to life with vintage steam trains and a functional, working roundhouse.
The afternoon to follow was a guided walking tour at one of the most popular of all State Park’s Gold Rush towns, Columbia State Historic Park. Here in this Mother Lode town, the Gold Rush era is preserved by shops, restaurants and hotels and all the workers wear period correct clothing, whilst reenacting the window of time from 1850-1870.
Stepping into the past we strolled down the street of Columbia State Historic Park listening to the notes of a harmonica played by the man on the porch stoop and happily eating hard candy from the candy shop. Of the evening we stumbled across the sweetest local produce store Mother Lode town deli and found ourselves sharing pizza + wine in the local pub before retiring to our haunted accommodation for the evening.
Day Five: Calaveras County
Onto Murphys, Calaveras County- where the picket fences and beautiful lawns line the colourful, fragrant gardens and the stone-walled buildings date back to the 19th century. We meandered along main street happily perusing the local tasting rooms filled with spices and olive oils, checked out the gold-mining paraphernalia at the museum, followed by a wine tasting at Twisted Oak (famous for their point of twist-ed-ness) then relaxed by beer tasting at Murphys Pourhouse.
Sharing a table speaking to the locals in the beer garden over lunch, I discovered two things: 1 – the lifestyle is very relaxed, and the small town is exceptionally inviting. 2 – there is an abundance of nature to be explored within a short drive. And with approximately two hours before a big finale dinner, there is a lot you can cram into one day with the right determination.
Located just outside of town is Calaveras Big Trees State Park, preserving two groves of Giant Sequoia trees. A major tourist attraction since the first Sierra Redwood was discovered in 1852, Calaveras Big Trees includes the “Big Stump” which is also known as the “discovery tree.” We only spent a short, yet memorable time standing beneath these ancient giants with a deep admiration for the true skyscrapers of the natural world.
The evening was spent at the incredible Ironstone Vineyards in Murphys for the Rally Finale Celebration and where all of the Rally teams united, swapped stories and shared photos of their individual adventures across the state. A night of beautiful food, Californian wine, speeches and some amazing prizes being handed out to all the Rally participants. We left the beautiful garden breezeway with very big, full bellies and new connections.
Day Six: The finale goodbye.
After full-days on the road, four people from very different parts of the world became close and come day six we bid our finale farewells with promises to stay in touch and a couch offering in our respective corners of the world. That’s another beauty of travel, you know, it’s the people you meet along the way and the sincerity of those memorable connections.
Day six for me - - I still had more of California to (re)discover, adventures to continue and more roads to (re)travel….