From Gold Rush towns preserved in time to 140-year-old grapevines, the Sierra Foothills area keeps one foot in the 19th century. In this region, known as Gold Country and the Mother Lode, you will uncover rich history, best explored via raft or wine glass.
Where to Start
Many places claim to be farm to fork, but Rosebud’s Cafe in Jackson guarantees it. The restaurant sources ingredients from its own farm and makes everything in-house, right down to the syrup. Order the 1894 Benedict for brunch, which features challah toast topped with duck eggs, and wash it down with a watermelon or lemon-drop Mimosa. For an elegant breakfast, grab a table at Element in Sutter Creek, where classic dishes get the Gold Country treatment. Try the Motherlode (an omelet packed with crispy lardons, spinach, caramelized onion and goat cheese) or the Gold Country Cakes (gingerbread flapjacks topped with maple-molasses drizzle, pomegranate and roasted nuts).
Wild West Adventures
Work off breakfast with a hike under the shade of the majestic giant sequoias at Calaveras Big Trees State Park. Tourists flock to the North Grove, where California’s first giant was recorded, but the five miles of trails in the South Grove contain 10 times as many redwoods and some of the most massive ones in the park.
Depending on your sense of adventure, you can walk, spelunk or even rappel through the blackened depths of three historic caverns: Moaning Cavern, California Cavern and Black Chasm Cavern. Tours can be booked through Cave and Mine Adventures.
Adrenaline junkies will relish a whitewater-rafting trip down the American River, where various-sized rapids bait both greenhorns and risk takers. For daring experts, some of the most technical, heart-stopping Class V+ rapids in the country rage at Cherry Creek on the Tuolumne River. With names like Coffin Rock and Blind Faith, consider yourself warned.
One of the largest American Viticultural Areas in California, Sierra Foothills covers 2.6 million acres and contains vines planted throughout eight counties. If you only have time to sip through one section, head to Amador County’s Shenandoah Valley, home to some of the state’s oldest Zinfandel vines. Deaver Vineyards has been a family operation since the namesake prospectors came here for gold in 1853. The winery produces bottlings from Zinfandel and Mission gvines planted 140 years ago. Andis Wines bottles wine from the Original Grandpere Vineyard, California’s oldest documented Zinfandel vineyard, planted in 1869. Keeping with the theme of its contemporary, über-sustainable winery, Andis also serves wine on tap, straight from the barrel.
From Arnold to Volcano, small and charming old mining towns abound in the Mother Lode, but Murphys, which has been dubbed the Queen of the Sierra, checks all the boxes. Browse antique stores, collectibles shops and art galleries, and pick from 18 downtown wine-tasting rooms. For the full experience, visit Val du Vino, the only working winery on Main Street. Stay overnight at The Murphys Historic Hotel, in continuous operation since 1856. Rest your head in a technology-free room named after famous former guests like Mark Twain and President Ulysses S. Grant. Before you go, get your morning coffee from Gold Country Roasters, where the beans are roasted on site.
Where To Stay
Built in 1879, the Imperial Hotel in Amador City has preserved its old-timey spirit without sacrificing modern-day comforts. The building’s original brick makes an appearance inside each of the six rooms, and with no TV, you can unplug and dive into a good book from the in-house library. Sip local wines downstairs at the saloon-style Oasis Bar. If you happen to roll through town midweek, take advantage of the chef’s choice three-course dinner special in the dining room for $29.
Where to Eat
The medieval pursuit to turn base metals into gold, The Alchemy Market Café, in Murphys, makes an apropos name for Jason Wright’s Gold Country restaurant. Classic comfort dishes get a major upgrade, like the “Ultimate Meatloaf” wrapped in bacon. All dishes come with a generous side of Alchemy’s locally acclaimed cheese bread.
The Farm Table, in Placerville has everything from the charcuterie to condiments—including wine jelly—is house-made with ingredients sourced from neighboring farms. Good luck choosing between the crème brûlée French toast and bacon pancakes for brunch, or the duck confit and pork osso bucco for dinner.
Sarafina’s Italian Kitchen in Arnold is a cozy, cabin-like restaurant carries a comprehensive local wine list to pair with hearty Italian dishes, some inspired by chef/owner Sarah Beaudreau’s childhood, like Nonnie’s spaghetti with meatballs. You also can’t go wrong with the chef’s choice, Sarah’s Favorite. It features penne pasta with cremini mushrooms, Italian sausage and arugula in a tomato-cream sauce. —Jess Lander
Tips from Local Experts
Isy Borjón, Owner, Borjón Winery
“Our gold comes in the form of berries,” says Isy Borjón, founder of Borjón Winery. He manages 500 acres for other vineyard owners, but the 15 acres he owns yield some of the highest priced Zinfandel “berries” in the area.
People should see Sutter Creek downtown, too. The architecture is great, and there are lots of tasting rooms.
An avid cyclist, Borjón recommends that road bikers pedal from Plymouth to the town of Volcano, a 20-mile ride that climbs 1,000 feet in elevation.
“There’s a really good spot to eat there, the Union,” says Borjón. “People should see Sutter Creek downtown, too. The architecture is great, and there are lots of tasting rooms. The wine and beer bar [Sutter Creek] Provisions is a really cool spot. I would drink the Evil Cousin Imperial IPA from Heretic.”
Main Street in Jackson, the Amador County seat, features numerous antique shops and the well-preserved National Hotel. “The food is amazing, and they have a great wine list, too,” he says. “Another really good idea is Brick House Brews. It has a rustic, easy feel and casual food.”
Marco Cappelli, Winemaker, Miraflores Winery, Toogood Estate, Indian Rock Vineyards
“Murphys [has] modernized its amenities while keeping the town’s Gold Rush roots intact,” says Marco Cappelli, a winemaker at Miraflores Winery, Toogood Estate, Indian Rock Vineyards and consultant in the region. “It was the stomping ground for Mark Twain, but today, it has a thriving younger population. Their presence helps the quality of the food and shopping.”
Mari Wells Coyle, Director of Wine, One Hope
A former river guide in the foothills and now winemaker at OneHope in Napa Valley, Mari Wells Coyle thinks that wine lovers should make time for whitewater rafting adventures during their visits to the Sierra Foothills. “It’s pretty exhilarating. The American and Tuolumne rivers have everything from Class II streams [that are] OK for kids, pushing it to Class V on Cherry Creek.”—Jim Gordon
Last Updated: May 4, 2023