Recent spring rains have brought the Sierra foothills to splendor with verdant greens, California poppies, and other wildflowers bursting forth brightly.
Add the wild and scenic Mokelumne River, gold rush history, and quaint historic towns that beckon around every turn, and you have a road trip waiting to happen.
The Mokelumne River stretches almost 100 miles from its headwaters in the Sierra as it flows west to merge into the Delta just west of Lodi. The river is divided into the Upper Mokelumne River, which stretches from the high Sierra to Pardee Reservoir in the foothills, and the Lower Mokelumne River, the section of the river below Camanche Dam to the Delta.
In its lower section, the Mokelumne is heavily employed for irrigation and water for the east Bay Area through the Mokelumne Aqueduct.
The river bisects Amador and Calaveras counties, especially beautiful this time of year.
Conveniently located in the heart of Gold Country, we used Jackson Rancheria RV Resort as our home base to explore this part of the Mother Lode.
New in 2008, the RV resort is part of a casino complex. Even if you’re not a fan of the casino scene, you’ll love this 5-star resort. Big rig friendly 50/30-amp electric service, water, sewer, and cable TV are centrally located. Wide, paved interior roads with wide concrete sites. Back-in sites over 55 feet with pull-through sites in the 70-75 foot range. Reservations over a weekend are required well in advance.
From Jackson Rancheria Casino RV Resort we drove southwest 4.5 miles to Jackson.
Jackson is a vibrant old and new town, with quaint Main Street preserving gold rush history with a variety of cute shops and eateries.
The early gold rush camp turned city was, like so many other gold rush towns along California Highway 49, destroyed by a raging fire in 1862. The city was rebuilt with as many as forty-two of those Civil War era buildings still standing today on and around Jackson’s Historic Main Street.
At the turn of the 19th century Jackson had about 3,000 residents with three churches, three newspapers, four hotels, five boarding houses, two candy factories, cigar and macaroni factories, eight physicians, and two dentists.
Stop at the National Hotel at the south end of Main. Built in 1852 and visited by many noteworthy guests over its history, the hotel was extensively renovated a few years ago.
Visit the old Kennedy Mine and the historic Kennedy Mine Tailing Wheel #4 north of town on Highway 49 for a quick dose of early mining history. At 5,912 feet, it is one of the world’s deepest gold mines.
The Kennedy has approximately 150 miles of underground tunnels, a great deal of surface equipment, which once included the famous Jackson Gate elevator wheels, and miles of flumes. The total production was $34,280,000. The Kennedy was closed in 1942 by order of the government while in full production.
From Jackson, follow Highway 49 south for 7.5 winding miles to the wonderful old town of Mokelume Hill.
Just outside Jackson, you can detour down Middle Bar Road back to the river to find wildflowers. Just before crossing the Mokelume River, detour east on Electra Road along the river for more wildflower sightings.
The village of Mokelumne Hill nestles on a small flat at an elevation of approximately 1,500 feet surrounded by hills and within a few miles of the river.
“Moke Hill,” named for the Mokelumne River, sits high above the river with a variety of well-preserved buildings dating to the 1860s. Visit the Leger Hotel—a portion of the building served as the Calaveras County Courthouse from 1852 to 1866, but when the courthouse was moved to San Andreas, George Leger made it part of his hotel.
Fire damaged the building, and it was restored in 1879, renamed the Leger Hotel. Today, if offers quaint rooms and delicious meals in its Whitewater Grill.
Mokelumne Hill was known as one of the most violent, bawdy towns in the Mother Lode. As the gold played out, Mokelumne Hill shrunk from a wild and woolly 15,000 to the much less populated, quiet historic village that it is today. Take the time to walk the historic blocks of Moke Hill and you will feel the ghosts of gold rush days.
Tourism has become a new industry to the town. Many of the early homes on the hillsides and the historic buildings downtown have withstood the boom and bust economy of the gold regions of the west.
There are not many places in the world where you can get to the beach in an hour, the desert in two hours, and snowboarding or skiing in three hours. You can do all that in California.