Barely an hour from Sacramento, Amador County beckons history buffs, wine enthusiasts, antiques seekers and folks simply looking for an escape from city and suburban life. Gold Rush history is ever-present in the oak-dotted hills and towns of this Sierra foothills region, where fortune seekers flocked in the 1850s to pan the creeks and mine the mountains. Today, many of the Gold Rush settlements still stand, with Main Street buildings that range from renovated to rundown, often inhabited by cafes and shops. In one fun-packed day, you can gamble, rediscover history, tour caves and mines, pan for gold, browse boutiques, taste some wine and have a couple of great meals.
On the road to Amador County, you’ll see heat shimmering off Highway 16 and wonder about snakes and wildfires as you view golden grassy meadows and rolling hills. Imagine the area before roads were built, and daydream about the gold prospectors’ adventure-loaded travels. Today, trucks driven by guys wearing cowboy hats mosey along in front of you and leather-clad folks on motorcycles, mostly sans mufflers, whiz by at their first opportunity to pass. Relax and enjoy your journey—there’s plenty to see once you get off this two-lane highway.
Jackson: The city of Jackson anchors the county, and there you’ll find the comforts of home—chain restaurants, gas stations, big box stores. The city’s Main Street, however, turns back the clock to forty-niner times with museums, hotel saloons, an old jail site, an Odd Fellows Hall, churches, and shops and restaurants in original storefronts. Stop here long enough to window-shop and reacquaint yourself with Gold Rush history before venturing farther into the hills of Amador County.
Volcano: Are you the gambling type? After you turn onto Highway 88 toward Pine Grove/Volcano, signs will direct you left to Jackson Rancheria Casino Hotel, where 48 gaming tables and 1,500 slot machines await. Play a roll of quarters or belly up to the poker table at this casino resort, owned by the Jackson Rancheria Band of Miwuk Indians. Marvel at the sheer size of the place, which includes several restaurants, a hotel, an RV park, a general store—it feels like a city in itself.
For a flavor of long-ago Native American life, pull into the Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park, if only to walk the trail out to the huge chaw’se—the giant limestone slab pockmarked with hundreds of acorn-grinding holes. Imagine local tribal members huddled here thousands of years ago, chatting as they worked. Watch for rattlesnakes; the hot limestone lures them out for a little sunbathing.
If you’re into caves, venture onward and take a 50-minute guided tour of the Black Chasm Cavern. The cave, once frequented by gold miners who likely used it as a cool hangout on hot days, descends beneath the National Natural Landmark’s visitors center. Take a deep breath and curb any claustrophobia: The stairs are narrow and steep; the cave chilly, damp and dark. Peer 70 feet below to a lake turned turquoise by naturally occurring calcium bicarbonate. Admire oddly shaped stalactites and creamy-white helictites—formations that twist and spiral sideways from the cave’s rock walls. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a cave kiss—according to American Indian folklore, it’s good luck to feel a drip from the cave’s dewy walls. One thing’s for sure: It’s bad luck if you drop your camera or your car keys here.
After your cave tour, cruise into Volcano proper (pop. 100 or so), where many of the community’s original buildings still stand. Dig into a slice of housemade blackberry pie at Humble Pies and Coffee, and ponder life 150 years ago while you wander the bare-wood floors and appreciate the extensive variety of goods sold at the General Store. Check out the graves of two miners; headstones stand at the center of town adjacent to a hydraulic mining nozzle leftover from days gone by. Old Abe, the oldest remaining 6-pound bronze cannon in the nation, stands on its original wooden cart in a shed nearby. The cannon was smuggled in during the Civil War by a pro-Northern state militia unit, the Volcano Blues, to deter rebel sympathizers.
Sutter Creek: Registered as a California State Landmark, Sutter Creek charms antiques collectors and browsers who enjoy taking a walk down memory lane. Today, the town’s Gold Rush-era buildings house shops selling antiques, home accessories and collectibles, and restaurants feeding hungry tourists. On Main Street, in the American Exchange Hotel (still operating), stop into Bellotti’s Italian Restaurant for lunch and devour lasagna, spaghetti, eggplant Parmesan or—yikes—a deep-fried hot dog. If you’re enjoying gorgeous weather, Susan’s Place Wine Bar & Eatery’s courtyard, bubbling fountains and cooing doves included, is the perfect spot to sip a glass of Amador County wine and grab a bite. Make sure to visit Pedal Pushers, a vintage toyshop, where you’ll find relics such as pedal cars, games from your childhood (check out the old Monopoly box and tell us it doesn’t bring back memories) and metal lunchboxes with 1960s cartoon and movie characters. Theater lovers may wish to catch a matinee at the Sutter Creek Theatre, originally a silent-movie house. Finish your visit here with a massive single scoop from Sutter Creek Ice Cream Emporium, worth a stop even if you don’t want the ice cream. Once the town’s drug store, it draws crowds seeking shakes, sandwiches or just good conversation. Grab a game off one of the shelves and settle in for a restful hour or two.
Plymouth and Shenandoah Valley Wine Country: Some 28-plus wineries populate these country roads, where signs warn of slow tractors (outside one winery, a sign shows a wine bottle-tipping, wheelie-popping tractor driver), and you better pray that designated drivers took the wheels in surrounding cars. Although Shenandoah Road and its offshoots are no traffic-jammed Highway 29 or Silverado Trail in Napa, it’s clear that some marketing has taken hold in the Shenandoah in the past decade or so—professionally created directional arrows point the way to off-road wineries, and the Amador Vintners website (amadorwine.com) gives a detailed map and listings of numerous winery events. Explore this gorgeous wine country, drink in its views, taste some of its renowned Zinfandel and chat with the family winemakers who share their expertise in its tasting rooms. When you’ve had your fill, backtrack into the one-horse town of Plymouth for a big-city-quality dinner at Taste. Suggestion: Order the cheese plate to start, follow with grilled Alaskan halibut, and finish with a trio of crème brulée (vanilla bean, pistachio and blood orange).
Picnic, Anyone?—Pick up lunch at Plymouth’s Amador Vintage Market, where chef Beth Sogaard creates picnic specialties and more. Take a chicken curry salad sandwich (on a crunchy housemade rustic roll), some fancy chips and a cold beverage to go, and head into the Shenandoah Valley to the heritage-oak-canopied picnic grounds at Amador Flower Farm. Open year-round, the farm’s 12 acres of gardens showcase some 800 varieties of daylilies.
Directions from Sacramento to Volcano to Sutter Creek to Plymouth and back to Sacramento: Take Highway 16 and bear right on Highway 49 toward Jackson. To get to Volcano, turn left on Highway 88 in Jackson and follow signs to Pine Grove; turn left on Pine Grove-Volcano Road. Coming back on Pine Grove-Volcano Road, to reach Sutter Creek, turn right on Sutter Creek Road and wind along the creek for about 12 miles. From Sutter Creek to the Plymouth wineries, continue on Old Highway 49 through Amador City, turn right on Highway 49 to Plymouth and turn right on Shenandoah Road. For the return trip, head back to Highway 49 and veer left on Highway 16.