There's autumn gold in them hills, pardner

There's autumn gold in them hills, pardner
GILDED: The reds and yellows of fall tint the trees of Nevada City, which is at an elevation of 2,500 feet in the Sierra foothills. (Matt Lait / LAT)
You can stare at a palm tree a long time before you realize it's fall in Southern California.

About the only clues that I, a native Angeleno, see of autumn's arrival are the shorter days and football on TV. Seeking more traditional evidence of the season, my wife and I headed to Nevada City in California's Gold Country two weeks ago to have a quiet weekend together and check out the changing foliage.

Nevada City isn't New England or the Shenandoah Valley, but it's not a bad alternative. In fact, for a guy who lives near the beach and rarely sees leaves in colors other than green, the old mining town is downright spectacular.

We flew to Sacramento on a Friday and rented a car for the scenic, hourlong drive to Nevada City. Oaks, maples and dogwoods with brilliant red, orange and yellow leaves lined Highway 49 along the way.

My wife, Leslie, had booked us a two-night stay at the Red Castle Inn, a bed-and-breakfast in a historic four-story red-brick mansion built in 1857 and run today by the mayor of Nevada City. The inn, with its Gothic Revival architecture, has been well preserved and boasts that it was one of the first B&Bs in the state.

The grounds are lushly landscaped and have sitting areas and gardens where guests can read, enjoy a glass of wine or simply rest. Inside, the mansion's décor is decidedly Victorian.

The rooms, $120 to $165 a night, all have their own personality. Some come with high ceilings, verandas or private gardens. Our room, which was on the children's floor of what originally was a private residence, was "cozy." Translation: a tad small. I'm 6 feet 1, and I was bumping my head on doorways. Still, our room had a sitting area, a private bathroom and a nice view.

The inn is known for its gourmet breakfasts. During our stay it served a tasty baked egg dish, a pastry filled with creamy mushroom sauce, a "harvest pie," stuffed tomatoes, potatoes, muffins and fruit smoothies. The breakfast was good enough and big enough to carry us through to dinner on both days.

Echoes of the Wild West

Another nice feature was the inn's location. Just a short walk down Prospect Hill led us to the edge of town. Shortly after checking in, we made that walk.

Nevada City, originally called Deer Creek Dry Diggins when it was a mining camp, is a charming, homespun place straight out of the days of the Wild West. The entire downtown is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Looking at the western-style storefronts and restored gaslights, one almost expects to run into Hoss and Little Joe moseying down the street.

Today, tourism is the town's gold. Many of the 2,800 residents are artisans, musicians and small-shop owners. Galleries, saloons, a theater and fine restaurants lie throughout the business district. Visitors can find live music on the weekends with no cover charge.

Les and I window-shopped and visited tasting rooms, where we sampled the local wines. We scouted out restaurants for dinner and made it back to the inn for afternoon tea, which is served daily at no extra charge.

For dinner, we took the advice of some townsfolk and went to Friar Tuck's, where the house specialty is fondue. We had a cheese fondue and a hot oil fondue in which we cooked chicken, shrimp, scallops, meatballs and sirloin, dipping the items in one of several sauces. I was looking forward to the chocolate fondue for dessert but was too full by the end of the meal to order it.

The only setback that evening: I accidentally scratched my eye shortly after dinner. We went back to our room and went to sleep, and by morning it was fine.

With the emergency room off our itinerary, we made plans after breakfast to visit the Empire Mine, formerly the state's longest-running and most profitable hard rock mine, and now a state park.

The park was less than a 10-minute drive from Nevada City and it turned out to be one of my favorite parts of the trip. It costs $3 per adult, plus $1.50 for each of several tours offered. We went on two.

The first was a living history tour of the cottage and gardens built by the Bourn family, who ran the mine from 1869 to 1929. The cottage's impressive exterior was built from the mine's waste rocks, and the interior was paneled with unfinished redwood.

Volunteers dressed as members of the Bourn family interacted with visitors and talked about events as if it were 1906. It was fun and informative.

The other tour offered an in-depth look at the mine, which closed in 1956 when the cost of mining the gold exceeded its worth at the time. By the time the mine closed, 367 miles of tunnels and 5.8 million ounces of gold had been dug out. We saw the stamping stations where ore was crushed into small pieces, the refinery where gold was extracted from the rock and the blacksmith's shop where tools were made. But the highlight was going a short way into a mine that was hundreds of feet deep.

Park officials are working on a multimillion-dollar Underground Tour Project, expected to be completed in two years. Visitors will ride a tram 800 feet into a mine and see how miners lived and worked.

After the tours, we drove through Grass Valley, another former mining town that's larger but similar in appearance to Nevada City.

We then traveled 30 minutes north on Highway 49 to the Double Oak Vineyards & Winery for more wine tasting and, because we were the only visitors, a private tour of the place. Tom, our guide, walked us through the winemaking process, from picking grapes to putting labels on the bottles.

A colorful saloon

Back in Nevada City, we strolled around downtown again and found ourselves drawn to the saloon-style bar at the National Hotel, which says it's the oldest continuously operating hotel west of the Rocky Mountains. We downed a couple of frosty pints of beer and made it back to the inn, where we rested and read books until dinner.

We ate at Bellavista, a new restaurant in town. Though the food was good — I had risotto, Les had lobster ravioli — the service and ambience left something to be desired.

On the walk back to our room, a biting chill was in the air — like changing leaves, something I rarely experience.

The next morning, after breakfast, we looked for more fall colors. In the couple of days we had been here, it seemed as if the leaves had grown more vibrant.

By the afternoon we were on a plane back to Southern California. Back to green palm trees and shorts. And football on TV.

Matt Lait is an investigative writer for The Times.



Budget for two

Expenses for this trip:


Los Angeles-Sacramento

round trip $246.40


Red Castle Inn,

two nights with tax $264.00

Car rental

Two days $43.08


Friar Tuck's $89.63

Admission, tours

Empire Mine

State Historic Park $12.00


National Hotel $16.75


Bellavista $63.31

Gas $15.63

Final tab $750.80


Red Castle Inn, 109 Prospect St., Nevada City, CA 95959; (800) 761-4766 or (530) 265-5135, .

Empire Mine State Historic Park, 10791 E. Empire St., Grass Valley, CA 95959; (530) 273-8522, and .

Double Oak Vineyards & Winery,
14510 Blind Shady Road, Nevada City, CA 95959; (530) 292-3235; .

Nevada City Chamber of Commerce,
132 Main St., Nevada City, CA 95959; (800) 655-6569 or (530) 265-2692,