(FOX40.COM) — Any time outside of winter, when the roads are more accessible and the vegetation has a little more color, is a good time to explore from the foothills to the Sierra Nevada and Lake Tahoe.
Not to say that wintertime is not a good time to visit, but the weather and road conditions allow for more daylight and more ability to move around on foot and by vehicle.
A good route to explore and learn about the area will start you off in historic Auburn, continue onto Nevada City, up the grade to Truckee, along Lake Tahoe to Meyers, back down to Placerville and finish where you started, in Auburn.
It’s a route that could be done in a day, but it’s better to take it over several days, exploring the historic communities and breathtaking natural scenery.
Auburn to Nevada City
Besides being the capital of Placer County, Auburn is a gold rush town in the lower part of the foothills, sitting alongside Interstate 80, a short drive from the Sacramento metro area.
While only a relatively small amount of gold was found in Auburn it would become a supply hub between Sacramento and the gold fields further into the foothills.
Today, Old Town Auburn has numerous restaurants and shops inside historic buildings. Perched at the top of Lincoln Way is the Historic Auburn Courthouse.
Taking CA-49 north towards Grass Valley and Nevada City you will see a mix of commercial areas, wineries, forestland and remote retail areas.
After a 40-minute drive, you will end up in the city of Grass Valley, which is home to Empire Mine State Historic Park, where more than 5.8 million ounces of gold were pulled out of the ground between 1853 and 1956.
A few minutes more on the 49 gets you to Nevada City, with its iconic Broad Street and its countless historic Old West buildings.
Strolling along the streets of downtown Nevada City, one will find more modern brick buildings mixed in with Victorian-era timber buildings and homes.
Not far from the city center there are walking trails at Hirschman’s Pond and the Nisenan Tribute Site.
Nevada City to Truckee
Getting back onto CA-49 north, it will become SR-20 and begin turning east towards Interstate 80 towards Truckee. This section of the drive is about an hour and 20 minutes.
Before even getting on Interstate 80, though, there are some beautiful views along the mainly two-lane SR-20.
About 20 minutes out from Nevada City, a vista point parking lot will be seen along the westbound side of the state route. This provides a look over the forest surrounding Jefferson Creek.
Another five minutes along the roadway will bring drivers to a large scenic overlook of the Omega Diggins, the site of a large hydraulic mining site.
There is a short trail down to a lower observation deck that provides a better overlook and diagram of the Diggins.
Before joining I-80 at Yuba Pass, detour onto Bowman Lake Road and visit the Sierra Discovery Trail for a short loop trail along raised walking platforms that take you into the surrounding forests and include a small waterfall.
From Yuba Pass, drivers will follow I-80 east to Truckee for about 30 miles, which usually takes about 40 minutes.
A popular alternate route is exiting the main interstate and taking Donner Pass Road along Historic US 40, along Donner Lake to the Donner Memorial State Park.
This is a great spot to recreate in the lake or walk along its beautiful shores. Getting back onto Interstate 80 it is only another seven minutes to Truckee.
Truckee to Meyers
Taking SR-89 south, it is a little over one hour drive from Truckee to Meyers with the roadway following the western coast of Lake Tahoe.
Some notable stops along the way include Tahoe City, Ed Z’berg Sugar Pine Point State Park and Vikingsholm.
This area has beautiful views of Lake Tahoe, smaller surrounding lakes, campgrounds, hiking trails and ski resorts.
Meyers to Placerville
Although this stretch takes you back to the main highway of US 50, it is one of the most breathtaking portions as you make your way down from the Sierra toward the foothills.
About 30 miles of the 52-mile stretch takes drivers along a two-lane highway through pine forests, steep granite rock walls and mighty rivers.
This area is notable for its hiking trails and recreation areas like Echo Lake, Pyramid Creek Trailhead, Lovers Leap and Sierra-at-Tahoe Resort.
For those on this roadway at night, a stop at Ice House Reservoir might be good as it is one of the best places in the area to see the night sky.
From US 50, it is about a 10-minute drive up Ice House Road to the Ice House Observation Point 1.
Another popular recreation area along this section of US-50 is the Sly Park Recreation Area where many people camp, boat, hike and swim. Sly Park is located about 10 minutes from Pollock Pines.
Finally arriving in Placerville, the capitol of El Dorado County, you will find a downtown that still holds its Old West charm with a few mid-century buildings mixed in.
The city is the gateway to the famous Apple Hill region with its dozens of family-owned apple orchards, wineries, bakeries and other local businesses.
If you want to dive into some gold rush history, Gold Bug Park and Mine, located about 4 minutes from downtown Placerville, is a special experience.
Placerville to Auburn
The final stretch of the journey has drivers rejoin CA-49 North for about 26.5 miles and towards one of the most historically significant places in California history.
The first nine miles will take you through rural El Dorado County as you pass various orchards, farmlands and open fields. There are several wineries along this stretch of the roadway.
As you complete the first nine miles you will be transported to the 1850s as you find yourself in the historic town of Coloma and the Marshall Gold Discovery Site State Park.
CA-49 cuts straight through the town that brought millions of people from around the world to the West after gold was discovered there.
Although the population has dwindled in the last 174 years since then, there is still an operating blacksmith’s shop and a café, The Argonaut, that serves more than tasty coffee and cakes.
At the peak of the park is the James Marshall Monument, a larger-than-life-size recreation of the man who discovered gold in John Sutter’s Wood Mill just a few hundred feet below the monument.
You can hike Monument Trail or drive up what is claimed to be California’s shortest highway, California SR-153, to the top of the hill.
Beyond being an area full or California’s golden history, this is also a popular spot for kayakers and rafters to put their vessels into the South Fork of the American River, as it boasts some of the best whitewater rapids in the state.
Once you’ve finished taking in the history and natural beauty of Coloma, it is back onto CA-49 North towards Auburn.
If there is still a need to take in more of the natural beauty of the Northern California countryside, stopping at Dave Moore Nature Area, Magnolia Ranch or Cronan Ranch Regional Trails Park is a must-do.
The Bureau of Land Management owns and maintains these properties and it is free to park and hike.
Cronan Ranch is about 6.3 miles from Coloma and the furthest of the trails from the town.
If there is no longer a desire for hiking, it is an 18.1-mile drive back to downtown Auburn to finish this exciting road trip.
However, before completing this journey, there is one more place to stop at that you don’t need to go too far to appreciate, the Auburn State Recreation Area.
You will notice that after leaving the small community of Cool, you’re heading back downhill and into a very wide and tall canyon.
As you pass Cool and Cave Quarry, you’ll pass through some switchbacks and come upon a large green bridge as you make the final large bend.
The Foresthill Bridge, California’s tallest bridge, towers over the confluence of the North and Middle forks of the American River as the clear water makes its way into Folsom Lake.
This is one of the largest state recreation areas in the Sacramento region, spanning from Auburn to Colfax along the North Fork of the American River.
There are countless hiking trails, including the Western States Trail that runs for 100 miles from Olympic Valley to Auburn.
Even if you don’t hit the trails it is still a great place to pause and take in the natural beauty.