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Placerville knows a little something about re-branding. The rowdy mining camp known as “Hangtown” shrugged off its
gallows-inspired sobriquet back in 1854 in hopes of drawing a more stable and law-abiding population. These days the Sierra foothill town is in the midst of another metamorphosis, attempting to ditch its reputation as a quick stop on the way to Tahoe to become a vacation destination unto itself. It’s a goal that’s within reach, helped in no small part by the area’s sublime natural beauty, as well as the surprising array of casually confident eateries, wineries, shops and inns that have popped up in recent years. While it may be hard to convince Sacramentans of Placerville’s overnight worthiness—even though it’s the perfect hub for some of the best hiking, biking, rafting and sightseeing that historic Gold Country has to offer—open-mindedness will be rewarded. Just as people change, so do small towns, and few pleasures can outweigh the thrill of discovering new riches in what was thought to be an old claim.
WHAT TO DO
Hiking and Biking
With the South Fork of the American River cutting through rolling hills dotted with scrub oaks, pines and manzanitas, the area surrounding Placerville is heaven for hiking and mountain biking. Cronan Ranch Regional Trails Park (near Pilot, off Hwy. 49, coloma.com), a tract of 1,400 acres opened to the public only a few years ago, is the perfect spot to find some solitude. Hikers can pass a leisurely afternoon by packing a basket from Placerville’s Dedrick’s Cheese and hiking almost a mile up the East Ridge Trail to a lone picnic table shaded by an oak grove. Bikers should check out the Down and Up Trail, which, true to its name, climbs up to peaceful hilltop vistas before dropping down a mile-long slope. For a less-strenuous adventure, head to David Moore Nature Area (two miles west of Marshall Gold Discovery State Park in Coloma, on Highway 49), where you’ll find an easy one-mile loop that meanders by the azure rushing river.
Gold Bug Park & Mine (one mile north of Highway 50 on Bedford Ave., 530-642-5207, goldbugpark.org) gives visitors a chance to don a hard hat and go inside a 352-foot drift that drips with history (and water, so wear walking shoes that you can dirty up). Check out the nearby stamp mill where excavated rock was crushed by 1,000-pound cylinders (run off a Cadillac engine for a number of years) to extract the gold dust via mercury. Ask the docent to fire up the working miniaturized model for a sense of the merciless beat of the machinery that ran 24 hours a day well into the 20th century.
Want to get on the river without spending your entire vacation wearing a helmet? Try a half-day trip with Whitewater Excitement (6580 California 49, Coloma, 800-750-2386, whitewaterexcitement.com). The South Fork’s 11-mile “Gorge Run” lets you get out of the boat and float through some gentle whitewater. Or you can get your heart racing on the “Chili Bar Run” that starts with six miles of bouncy, rolling rapids.
Downtown offers a number of unique shops, many stocked with locally made products. Start out at Winterhill (321 Main St., 530-626-6369, winterhillfarms.com), where delicious artisanal olive oils are pressed with jalapeno, Meyer lemon or blood orange. Purchase some in a bottle whose labels were created by developmentally challenged women, one of whom works at Sacramento’s Southside Arts Center and part of your purchase price will be donated to that organization. Up the street, check out Tony Matthews (447 Main St., 530-626-9161, tonymatthewsstore.com), an elegant home store with high-end items for cooking and entertaining. Then head across the street to Metal Dragonfly (352 Main St., 530- 626-6952, metaldragonflydesigns.com), where you’ll find both locally and internationally made crafts, including rough-hewn wood lanterns, giant glass-and-metal garden ants and soy-based candles.
WHERE TO EAT
What Placerville lacks in fine dining, it makes up for in simple yet satisfying fare that won’t break the bank. For example, try the reasonably priced Heyday Café (325 Main St., 530-626-9700, heydaycafe.com). With its dark wood tables, extensive by-the-glass wine list and a convivial atmosphere, it’s one of the most popular (and thus consistently crowded) places in town. And with good reason. Substantial salads made muscular with strong-flavored cheeses, nuts and fruit and thin-crust pizzas highlight an ever-changing menu that includes items such as a Dungeness crab pizza with a garlic cream sauce. Daily soups like the rich lobster bisque are worth the order as well.
Tucked down a side street, Z Pie (3182 Center St., 530-621-2626, z-pie.com) has made a name for itself by doing one thing really well: flakey-crusted pot pies with hearty-yet-inventive fillings. Inspired by the savory pasties served all over Australia and New Zealand, Z Pie has certainly upped the ante, offering much more than just beef, peas and potatoes. Try the Southwest chicken, rich with shredded meat, black beans, red pepper, corn and cream or the Thai chicken with silky coconut milk, red curry paste, lemongrass and makrut lime. Both pair nicely with their playful yet precise salads, including the California, with butter leaf lettuce, avocado, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, bean sprouts and pumpkin seeds in a Japanese miso dressing. Intrigued but too full for pie at this particular moment? No worries. You can always pick up a few frozen ones to heat up at home once your appetite returns—they make perfect traveling companions.
Dedrick’s Cheese & Zia’s Gelateria
Looking for a picnic to take on your hike? There’s no better place to pack a basket than Dedrick’s Cheese (312 Main St. #105, 530-344-8282, dedrickscheese.com). Set inside a walk street off Main, this gem is a gourmand’s delight, with Salumi artisan-cured salamis (made by Mario Batali’s dad Armandino), cheeses like Big John’s Cajun Rub Cheddar (coated with cayenne, celery salt and garlic) and fresh breads and tarts. For the truly adventurous epicurian, step across the walk to Zia’s Gelateria (312 Main St. #101, 530-642-9427, ziasgelato.com) and try the Winterhill olive oil gelato. It’s a savory sweet mind bender that somehow tastes exactly like it’s dominant ingredient yet nothing like it. But trust us, it’s phenomenal.
WHERE TO STAY
Eden Vale Inn
How can a converted 1919 barn provide such an unforgettable experience of rustic refinement? It’s a question to ask Eden Vale Inn ($149-$349; 1780 Springvale Rd.; 530-621-0901, edenvaleinn.com) owners Mark and Gayle Hamlin, who purchased the 10-acre property just west of Placerville in 1985 and opened the seven-room B&B two years ago. Since then, the two have been making careful additions (stone patios, vine-covered footbridges, hidden gardens) and it’s hard not to notice the loving attention to detail in this well-appointed establishment. Sip freshly brewed Temple Coffee in the inviting living room with its soaring timbered ceilings, or take the rowboat out for a leisurely pull around the swimming pond. Stay in one of the two of the newly completed rooms—Madrone or Gray Pine—each with a private outdoor patio and two-person Japanese soaking tub (stocked with complimentary Gilchrist & Soames fig and lemon bath salts). Once inside, towel off with thick, white Turkish cotton towels. A press of the wall button labeled “Romance” will ignite the fireplace and dim the lights recessed into the room’s cathedral ceiling. The rest is up to you. —T.S.