Getaway Gold in My Own Backyard

Photos courtesy of Lynn Armitage

Our guest posts comes from Lynn Armitage, a radio news producer, columnist and freelance writer. She loves to travel whenever she can — even if it’s to run a few errands. Lynn lives in Northern California

For more than two decades, I lived right down the way from Disneyland, a dream destination for countless families around the world, and I probably visited the park maybe six times with my children in all those years. (Lost opportunity, I know.) I live up in Northern California now, and true to my nature, I remain oblivious to so much of the travel treasure in this area. But I was awakened recently, when my fiance and I spent the weekend in Amador County — Gold Country, as it is better known — a jewel of a destination within 45 minutes from home.

Amador County is rich with history. For untold generations, it was inhabited by small bands of Miwok Indians, who sought its cooler, higher elevations to escape the blistering heat of the lowlands, and to harvest their cherished acorns. But it is best known as the heart and soul of the Gold Rush era, when pioneers, miners, Native Americans and adventure-seekers galore rushed into the region to find their fortune in precious gold, being discovered in rivers, creeks and quartz rocks at every turn.

If you’re a history buff, you’ll strike it rich in Amador County. The small, adorable cluster of towns that make up this region and are intertwined by the past are: Ione, Jackson, Volcano, Sutter Creek, Amador City, Drytown, Plymouth, Fiddletown, Pine Grove, Pioneer and Upcountry. As you wind your way through the quiet and peaceful Sierra foothills, from one town to the next, past towering oaks and mighty elms . . . oh, who am I kidding? I don’t know an oak from an elm from an ash tree. Anyhow, you get a real sense of what Western life was like back in the Gold Rush days, mostly because many of the old buildings and sidewalks still remain.

While the gold miners are long gone, the travelers rushing into this area now are those in search of great wine, fine antiques, endless shopping, gourmet food, restful sleep in the many bed and breakfast inns that dot the landscape. And, like my sweetie and I, a quick and memorable weekend getaway to the country. And I mean COUNTRY, folks! Nothing but winding, twisting, two-way country lanes flanked by grazing cows, tall grasses and charming farmhouses. Half the fun is getting there.

The Jackson Rancheria Casino and Hotel

We were fortunate to be invited guests at the Jackson Rancheria Casino and Hotel, owned and operated by the Miwok Indians, a tribe that was first recognized by the Federal Government in 1898. It was easy to find, too. All we had to do was follow the caravan of cars winding through the foothills, as it seems people are still flooding into this area to find their fortunes. The casino offers all the gaming tables and slot machines that you’d find in Las Vegas, without the crowds, so maybe that improves your chances of winning? Not really sure about that, but the same, Vegas-like fever filled the air.

We stayed in the newly renovated three-diamond, three-star hotel, a short walk up the hill from the casino. There are only 86 rooms in the hotel, and maybe that’s why ours was so large and spacious. You’ll be treated to all the hotel amenities you would expect in a classy place like this – valet parking, WiFi, wake-up calls, massage, heated pools, hot tubs, coffee bar in your room, and a GREAT coffee stop downstairs — perfect for a quick breakfast, without having to wait in the long buffet line at the casino.

We slept soundly . . . or at least I did. I am not proud to admit this, but my fiancé told me that I snored a little too loudly. I would like to blame his restless night’s sleep on the fact that I was overly relaxed in a very soft bed, with plump pillows and a warm, down comforter. Sorry, Honey. Next trip, we’ll have to pack you some earplugs, I guess.

Saturday in Sutter Creek

We happened to ride into town on the same weekend as the annual wine festival called, “Behind The Cellar Door.” We bumped elbows with enthusiasts bending elbows to enjoy wine tastings, from barrel to bottle, gourmet food and live entertainment at the 37 participating Amador wineries. I am not much of a wine drinker. I have an occasional glass of Merlot just to feel like a grown-up. But I was impressed by the passion for wine that pours out of this region. I used to think Napa Valley was all that, but wine makers are due their bragging rights, too, in Amador County.

Sutter Creek was voted by Money Magazine as one of the “Top 10 Places to Vacation.” To fully enjoy this historic town, you have to take a stroll through it. And we did, from shops to boutiques to art galleries to candy stores to the Ice Cream Emporium – we covered it all in about two hours, staying the longest in an intriguing little shop called “On Purpose,” where we learned all about angels, dreams, and the power of crystals. I bought a lavender stone to help me sleep better. Can’t say that it works real well, but it sure looks pretty on my nightstand.

All that walking made us hungry, and we were confused about where to go for lunch with so many great options: J & D’s Steakhouse, Pepita’s, Thomi’s Café and Eatery, and Pizza Plus, to name a few. We settled on Susan’s Place, a wine bar and eatery off the main street, because I liked the feeling I got when I walked onto the patio. It was like walking into a peaceful garden, with plants wrapped around trellises and little white lights twinkling in the patio trees. Any place that goes to that much trouble to hang lights must go to even greater lengths in the kitchen, right? The logic seemed reasonable. Turns out, my hunch was right.

Susan’s Place serves freshly prepared Mediterranean/California cuisine. Translation: delicious, fresh salads, homemade pasta dishes, succulent meats and fish, great paninis, and more. They have an impressive vegetarian menu, too, if you’re into that kind of food. I had the tortellini salad with black olives, artichoke hearts, sundried tomatoes, cucumbers, fresh tomatoes, and greens tossed with Susan’s own garlic Mediterranean vinaigrette. It was divine. Rob is a Panini freak, so of course he had the grilled chicken breast and pesto Panini. We left very full, extremely satisfied and happy. Thank you, Susan!

Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park

In the late afternoon, we drove to Volcano, about 10 miles from Sutter Creek, to visit a park that I had heard so much about: Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park, where you’ll find the largest collection of bedrock mortars in North America. Chaw’se is the Miwok word for grinding rock, and this is where the Miwoks, who had established their villages along the rivers and streams of the Sierra Nevada, ground acorns and other seeds into meal. Over time, all that grinding formed cup-shaped depressions in the stone, and all these years later, visitors can see the evidence of how hard the Miwoks worked to feed their families.

Apparently, the Miwoks were also gifted artists. On the main grinding stone, there are decorative carvings, known as petroglyphs, some as old as 3,000 years. These mortars decorated with petroglyphs are believed to be one-of-a-kind. Sadly, the Gold Rush forced the Miwoks out of this land and way of life. The mining industry moved in and surrounded the area.

Besides the wealth of hiking trails (not my thing!) and the camping sites, other park attractions are the ceremonial roundhouse and the Chaw’se Regional Indian Museum, featuring an impressive display of Native American history, crafts and treasures from regional tribes, such as Northern, Central and Southern Miwok, Maidu, Konkow, Monache, Nisenan, Tubatulabal, Washo, and Foothill Yokuts.

Fun Things To Do In Amador County:
• Wine-tasting year-round
• Explore caves
• Historic gold-mine tours
• Antique shopping
• Hiking
• Biking
• Zip-lining
• Gambling
• Golfing
• Visiting art galleries and museums
• Fishing
• Looking at the scenery, as you drive down the winding, country lanes