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History thrives in Sierra Gold Country

For those planning a trip, spring in California’s Sierra foothills is a colorful panorama of wildflowers and fruit orchards in bloom. Clumps of lilac-blue lupine growing 3 feet tall mix with batches of orange poppies along the roadside and up the hillsides.

This is how I found the Sierra Gold Country en route to the now reopened Yosemite National Park. It’s worth a few extra days to explore the historic mining towns along state Route 49 before taking in the glory of Yosemite’s falls and granite domes. Spring is the perfect time to share the blooming of the Golden State before summer heat burns out the grassy slopes dotted with oak trees.

For some down-home country cooking and friendly providers, quaint and affordable towns abound in a Western pioneer environment. Take advantage of comfortable motels and inns under $70 a night, and steak dinners with all the fixings under $20. These are incentives to take a short vacation not too far from San Diego.

I chose the Gold Rush town of Mariposa for a stop at the gateway to Yosemite and the crossroad of state Route 49. North of Mariposa are the historic mining towns of Jamestown, Jackson and Columbia. Each has its own character with various stages of preservation or restoration to maintain the historic character of the town.

I limited my visit to the southern tier of the Mother Lode which ran right through the middle of Mariposa County. My alternate reason for picking Mariposa was to research the early gold-mining activities of the Mariposa Land Grant, which was owned by John Charles Frémont, the 19th-century pathfinder who opened up the West. His mistaken purchase of 44,000 acres of foothill land unsuitable for farming turned into a bonanza when a rich vein of gold was opened.

The Mariposa Museum and History Center has a vast collection of mining artifacts and an archive of historical records that document the past of a rich gold-mining heritage.

I was able to explore records of the early Spanish and Mexican era in Las Mariposas (butterflies in English), which was one of the largest land grants given to prominent Californios. During the American period the property became the Mariposa Estate. Frémont acquired the grant in 1847, just before gold was discovered.

Although he lived on the estate for less than two years from 1857, Frémont managed the mining operations with partners and lessees until he sold the land in 1863 and never returned to California. His adobe ranch house no longer remains in Bear Valley, north of Mariposa, but there are a few deserted buildings left from the mid-1840s.

Touring the Sierra foothills offers a gold mine of early California history. Jamestown was a booming Gold Rush town that still has a flavor of mining days. Enjoy a family meal at The Willow Steakhouse founded in 1862, serving large steaks and other country specialties. Drive by an early Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory built in 1858 and now an historic ruin in tiny Hornitos, almost a ghost town.

The discovery of Yosemite Valley began from Mariposa in 1851. Indians had been raiding local ranches and outpost trading stores, so a vigilante group of volunteers called the Mariposa Battalion was formed.

As the natives retreated into the High Sierra, the troop followed to capture the chief and hold him for ransom. No white man had penetrated that deep into the Merced River Gorge. Imagine their surprise to emerge at today’s Inspiration Point and see the falls and granite domes.

Tourists began to see these wonders for themselves in 1855, when a party of four venturesome businessmen set out by horseback from Mariposa with Indian guides to find this glorious valley.

An artist, Thomas Ayres, was in the group, as well as James Hutchings, a popular San Francisco publisher, who joined their talents to record the wonders of Yosemite for fascinated readers. The rest is history.

A visit to Yosemite Valley is an awesome experience. Being there in the spring is the best time, when the spectacular falls are at their full force. Hiking up the John Muir Trail from Happy Isles reveals even more falls not seen from the floor of the valley.

Accommodations range from the luxurious Ahwanee Hotel to tent cabins at Camp Curry. Camping by RV or even walk-in tent areas is another option. Reservations during the peak spring and summer season are a must. No matter where you stray, a meal in the striking dining room at the Ahwanee Hotel and a peek of the public areas will impress.

The Yosemite Museum offers more historical background about early tourism in the valley. Ansel Adams’ signature photography is displayed for sale at his studio in Yosemite Village. As you stroll around the meadows and forests at the foot of the falls, you can feel the spirit of John Muir. Don’t miss the pioneer cemetery behind the Park Headquarters where the early settlers and recorders of Yosemite history are resting in peace.

Ford is a freelance writer in San Diego. He can be reached at johnpatrick.ford@sddt.com

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