Discovering 2-Wheeled Gold in the Mother Lode

Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

There's a new gold strike for active travelers in California's Mother Lode country.

Bicycles are being rediscovered as one of the best of all possible ways to recapture the spirit of the Gold Rush. With two wheels you can travel as slowly as the '49ers moved through this countryside that helped shape the history of California and the nation.

In recent years hiking, horseback riding and river rafting have received top billing from Gold Country inns and tourism bureaus as recreational options for visitors who usually arrive on four wheels.

Now the awareness is growing that the Mother Lode is as ideally suited for cycling as the wine country of Napa Valley or the villages and countrysides of Europe. Historic inns are close together so there's leisurely time to explore while pedaling between them.

With its International Bicycle Race, Nevada City will be in the forefront of spotlighting Gold Country cycling this summer.

'Breathtaking Daffodils'

Many of the historic inns of the Mother Lode do not feature cycling opportunities, but American River Inn of Georgetown is one that does. It provides bicycles for guests and suggests "a day of bicycling amid the colorful breathtaking daffodils, iris and the brilliant yellow-gold Scotch Broom."

Among cycling tour operators, Backroads Bicycle Touring has pioneered Gold Country tours. The group points to April, May and October as the best months for cycling here because of "crisp mornings, warm days and plenty of blue sky." Coming up next are Backroads three-day tours April 16-19, May 7-10, Oct. 15-18 and Oct. 22-25.

My wife and I have enjoyed bringing our tandem bicycle on our car to the Mother Lode, checking into an inn and biking around from there before moving on to another inn.

We recommend the Backroads route, whether you do it on your own or with a tour group, and its guides who know the back country and much of its history. Here's how Backroads temptingly describes its route and inns selected for this springtime and autumn:

"These roads, which aren't easy to find, have names like Calaveras, Dogtown, Sheep Ranch and Railroad Flat. Our route is laced with remnants of one of the most eventful migrations of human history--the California Gold Rush.

"The heart of the Mother Lode has changed relatively little over the years. It is pastoral country dotted with towns of celebrated histories--Volcano, Jackson, Sutter Creek and Angels Camp. Although much of the gold is gone, these towns are treasures in themselves."

As for the inns on its bicycle tours, Backroads tells prospective cyclists:

"Our inns date back from 1852 to 1862, each retaining its 19th-Century atmosphere and distinct personality. At the Monterey-style St. George Hotel, Virginia creepers and trumpet vines climb the veranda and porch columns--and the rooms have hand-crocheted bedspreads.

"After dinner you can move to the lively bar or finish the evening in the parlor before the crackling fire. Every room in Murphy's Hotel, the 'Queen of the Sierra,' is decorated with inlaid wood, marble and velvet trim. . . ."

Gently Rolling Country

The first two days of the Backroads tour are in gently rolling country and can vary from 17 to 67 miles of cycling daily, depending on your experience and physical condition. The third day is through more hilly countryside, with distances varying from 22 to 55 miles.

A shuttle van is available to give cyclists a lift when necessary. Cost of the bike tour is $348 per person, including lodging, three meals daily and snacks along the way. Each cycling tour is limited to 26 persons.

Contact Backroads Bicycle Touring at P.O. Box 1626, San Leandro, Calif. 94577; (415) 895-1783. You may also want to ask for the listing of cycling tours on many back roads of the world.

When we carry our bike into the Gold Country, we drive east from Merced on California 140 to pick up California 49 at Mariposa, southern gateway to the Mother Lode.

From there the highway named after the '49ers reaches for about 130 miles toward Nevada City. Historic inns along the way make it easy to drive/bike in whatever combination is best for you.

The courthouse at Mariposa is a symbol of the coming of law and order to the gold fields. The nearby California State Mineral Exhibit is an orientation to the Gold Rush era with a working miniature model of a gold mine, complete with stamp mills.

'Gem of Southern Mines'

The Gunn House Inn at Sonora is a gracious stop for biking the Mother Lode. It was originally the home of a doctor who sailed around Cape Horn. It has a heated swimming pool for relaxing beneath your flowering balcony. Rates single or double, with continental breakfast, $39-$61; phone (209) 532-3421.

Columbia, "Gem of the Southern Mines," is less than six miles north of Sonora. As a state historic park, Columbia is the most carefully preserved of the major Mother Lode settlements. Park your bike and explore everything from the oldest barber shop in the state to freight wagons and the State Driver's Retreat Saloon.

The City Hotel in Columbia, another tempting choice for overnighting, dates back to 1856. Its nine rooms have been lovingly restored. Single rate $50-$60, double $60-$70, breakfast included; phone (209) 532-1479.

At the What Cheer & Coffee Saloon you can rest your elbows on the original cherrywood bar shipped around the Horn from New England. You can dine on the hotel's California/French cuisine, then head next door to the Fallon repertory theater.

At the American River Inn of Georgetown, where bicycles are provided for guests who don't bring their own, the day of cycling begins with breakfast served in the dining room or on the patio. The original inn, built about 1853, was destroyed by fire in 1899, then rose from the ashes again.

A spa and pool await you after a day of pedaling through the daffodils. So does a choice of wines served each evening in the parlor. American River Inn rooms are $69 with private bath, single or double; phone (916) 333-4499.

27th Annual Race

The 27th annual International Bicycle Race in Nevada City will be held on Father's Day, June 21, and almost 100 competitors are expected. Past years have seen cyclists from France, Germany and Southern Ireland.

"In the past," reports a spokesperson for the Nevada City Chamber of Commerce, "most of the people we've seen on bikes around here have been practicing for the race. But now bicycling tourists are beginning to show up."

Cyclists visiting this Queen City of the Northern Mines are aurged to carry a camera, especially when fall colors frame the old homes and churches around the city's seven hills.

Downtown is a Historic Preservation District, complete with gas lamps. For a break from pedaling, the American Historical Museum is nationally recognized for its preservations of mining days. After dinner we tend to forget bicycling during an evening at the National Theater, the oldest continuously operating theater west of the Rockies.

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