Six to eight days • 360-540 miles • 34,000’—41,000′
165 years ago, gold was discovered in the western foothills of the Sierra. Within a few frenzied years, miners had scoured every square inch of those foothills in pursuit of their precious metal. In the wake of their fevered exploration, they left a wonderfully tangled web of tiny roads connecting tiny towns. No other region in California presents the cyclist—and tour planner—with such a complex and confusing network of interesting little back roads. From a cyclist’s point of view, it’s an embarrassment of riches. As a tour planner, confronted with so many choices, I felt like a kid in a candy shop: what to include…what to leave out. Fortunately, I had the advice and assistance of many experienced riders from the local bike clubs in Sacramento and Stockton. Their extensive local knowledge helped me sort through a bewildering number of options in preparing this route. The result is a package that ranks as one of the best tours we offer. (Note: it is also probably the hilliest and most arduous of all the tours offered here.)
While the tour travels in the general north-south direction of Highway 49, the route spends most of its time dodging around this busy main road on more lightly-traveled alternates nearby. You will catch most of the better historical hot spots along the way through this region famous for the Gold Rush and the rough-and-tumble boom towns that sprang up and prospered at the height of gold fever…and then went into suspended animation after the fever had passed. In between the pioneer towns are miles of dinky little roads through the hills that have riders climbing or descending most of the time, sometimes over steep, wooded ridges, sometimes out across open, rolling grasslands, and sometimes down into canyons where some of California’s last, best wild rivers still run free.
This tour shares many roads and camps with the The Motherlode Tour and also with our Gold Rush Mini-Tour. If you’re contemplating a trip to the Gold Country, study all three tour packets before settling on a final plan. This tour has access to indoor lodgings on every night except for the glaring exception of Cherry Lake. There are no motels or inns within 30 miles of that camp. You could press on with Stage 5, past the lake, to Evergreen Lodge, well along into the next day’s route, resulting in a very hard day of around 90 miles. (It might be worth it if you can handle the miles.) If you want another tour in this region that does have easy access to lodgings, check out either the Motherlode Tour or the Gold Rush Mini-Tour.
Day 1: Grass Valley to Coloma
59 miles, 3000′ up, 4700′ down
69 miles, 3800′ up, 5500′ down
72 miles, 4500′ up, 6200′ down
Rolls downhill (most of the time) from Grass Valley to the outskirts of busy Auburn. Plunges steeply down to the North Fork of the American River before climbing up to the town of Cool. (That’s the big climb of the day.) At Cool, the short route heads downhill to Coloma on the Middle Fork of the American River…the site where gold was first discovered. The longer routes head up into the hills, with the longest route making it all the way to the pioneer settlement of Georgetown before both routes fly downhill to rejoin the short route near Coloma. Showers and river access at camp.
Day 2: Coloma to Pine Grove
67 miles, 4300′ up, 2500′ down
75 miles, 4600′ up, 2800′ down, plus a 13-mile bonus loop
Begins by visiting the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park. One steep climb and several rolling descents in wooded foothills work the route around the outskirts of Placerville’s suburban fringe. The middle third of the stage winds through open, grasslands and scattered oaks on its way to the picturesque Victorian town of Sutter Creek. From there, the route climbs gently alongside Sutter Creek and ends with a short but very steep climb to our camp above the town of Pine Grove. Showers and pool in camp.
Day 3: Fiddletown Loop
68 miles, 6000′ up and down
73 miles, 6500′ up and down
A delightful loop to the north of Volcano, including some challenging climbs and absolutely fantastic downhills. The numbers don’t quite do justice to the difference between the short and long routes: both are hilly, but the longer route gains its elevation on much steeper pitches, including the infamous Slug Gulch climb. A great ride.
Day 3.1: Optional Jesus Maria Loop
59 miles, 6700′ up and down
Although this optional loop to the south of Volcano is shorter in miles than the Fiddletown loop, local riders consider it harder, and it is the one loop that is not really suitable for moderate riders, having no shorter, easier option. Much of it is extremely remote, and it includes at least three climbs that are rated at the high end of any measure of difficulty. On the other hand, it’s very beautiful and well worth doing if you have the fitness for it.
Day 4: Pine Grove to Columbia
73 miles, 4500′ up, 4700′ down
Drops steeply from the mountains to the town of Jackson, crosses Hwy 49 and rolls out into the empty, grassy hills around Pardee Reservoir. At the town of Valley Springs, head back east to the town of Angels Camp, and then the last leg of the route climbs–sometimes quite steeply–to the town of Columbia, the best preserved of all the old Gold Rush towns. The entire town is a State Historic Park. Swimming pool and showers at camp. (Note: we reinvented this tour as The Motherlode Tour on our second visit to the region. We plotted a better middle section for this stage on that tour, so check out that option for getting from Pine Grove to Columbia.)
Day 5: Columbia to Cherry Lake
57 miles, 7300′ up, 4700′ down
Not too many miles, but a lot of hills! Starts climbing immediately with a long and sometimes steep ascent of aptly named Big Hill Road. Another climb and a wild descent wrap around the town of Twain Harte and shoot the route down to the town of Tuolumne. Beyond Tuolumne, the route becomes increasingly remote (and quiet and beautiful) as it climbs into the mountain wilderness, ending up on a pretty lake just outside Yosemite National Park. With a few, short exceptions, the climbs are all long but fairly gradual…not as tough as the numbers would indicate. No showers at camp, but a beautiful creek and lake shore swimming hole.
Day 6: Cherry Lake to Lake McClure
51 miles, 2900′ up, 6800′ down
70 miles, 4300′ up, 8200′ down, plus an optional 20-mile out-&-back
Now you get the payback for all that climbing yesterday, as the roads drop, mile after mile, in one of the best runs of downhill fun you’ll ever have. (There is one brutal uphill in the middle of all this descending: a 3-mile, 1500′ wall.) The route heads south from Cherry Lake on utterly deserted roads through the forest to a brief run along Hwy 120, followed by more intense downhill thrills through Greely Hill and Coulterville to a camp on the shore of the lake. The longer route heads toward Camp Mather, while the optional out-&-back goes all the way to Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, in the little-known valley that John Muir said was as beautiful as Yosemite Valley. Showers and beaches at camp.
Day 7: Lake McClure to Mariposa
56 miles, 2100′ up, 1200′ down
A quiet day…perhaps even a bit of an anticlimax after the wild mountain stages that precede it. But it makes a great way to wind down the tour: easy rolling roads through very quiet, empty foothills. No major climbs, nor any hairy descents. Just peaceful cycling through pretty countryside, and a short enough day to allow you to travel for home in the afternoon if you choose to (although overnight camping can be arranged at the finish). Showers at camp.