COLOMA — The place that triggered California’s two-year journey from wilderness to statehood and ballooned San Francisco’s population 2,000 percent in 20 months today is a quiet wide spot along Highway 49 that winds through the Gold Country from Nevada City in the north to Sonora in the south.
Every fifth grader in California knows Coloma is where James W. Marshall discovered gold on Jan. 24, 1848 while working on a sawmill along the American River to supply lumber to Sutter’s Fort some 45 miles to the west in what is today Sacramento. That discovery took California — that today has just a tad less than 40 million residents — from a non-Indian population of 14,000 to 200,000 within two years.
Coloma — roughly a two-hour drive via Highways 99, 50 and 49 or a more pleasant three-hour drive taking Highways 120, 108 and 49 through the spine of the Golden Country — is home to the Marshall Gold Discovery Park.
And while Coloma has a multitude of river recreation attractions especially in summer, visiting the El Dorado County community that has a bit more than 300 residents in the Lotus Valley area where it is located, there is something magical simply just venturing where gold was discovered to trigger the start of California’s growth still going strong almost 174 years later.
Bright and deep greens sweep over the hills thanks to the rainy season in the Sierra foothills within three months or so will turn into the reserved mute greens of oak tree leaves while the grass will turn into golden hues. The scenery in itself makes it a classic Sunday — or Saturday — drive as you pass through or by historic mining towns such as Jamestown, Sonora, Columbia, Angels Camp, Murphys, Jackson, Sutter Creek, and Ione to name a few. The longer journey also takes you across New Melones Reservoir that can hold 2.4 million acre feet of water.
The state park features a replica of the sawmill that started it all as well as more than 20 historic buildings including a school, stores, housing, and mining structures.
Overlooking the park from a hill above is California’s first historic monument. Fittingly, it is a statue of James Marshall pointing toward the gold discovery site below.
Guided gold discovery walking tours are offered for individual family groups from the same household. You can check with the museum/visitors center at 530.622.3470 for information. The cost is $3 per adult and $2 per child. Tours are not offered when the temperature is over 92 degrees.
There are two hikes that you can also take.
The Monument Loop Hike is a difficult 1.5 mile walk that includes a 250-foot climb. From the alternate start the total length of the loop walk is 1.25 miles.
From the mill site, take the trail marked “Marshall Monument.” After crossing the highway, you will pass a large bedrock outcrop behind the picnic area where Nisenan Indian women ground acorns for food. Look for mortar holes in the rock.
After passing the restroom (the alternate start), the trail climbs for about a half mile through forest and chaparral. At the top is James Marshall’s Monument, built over the discoverer’s grave in 1889.
The return hike brings you down the one-way road (or a short steep trail) past Marshall’s Cabin to Church Street. St. John’s Church and Emmanuel Church were built in the 1850s and are now historic structures protected by the state park.
On your way down High Street you will pass the Noteware-Thomas House, a restored residence that is sometimes open for tours. The stone ruins of the old El Dorado County Jail can be seen on Back Street as you return to the Visitor Center.
The Monroe Trail is approximately 2.3 miles long. It connects the Marshall Monument with the North Beach picnic area at opposite ends of Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park. The southern end of the trail climbs 300 feet; the northern end climbs 400 feet. Nearly one mile is on top of a ridge. The entire length of the trail runs through natural areas.
You can also learn how to pan for gold by taking a 15-minute lesson, then spend the next half hour panning the troughs looking for garnets, fools’ gold, and real gold flakes.
Gold panning lessons are offered at 10 a.m., 11 a.m., 1 p.m., 2 p.m., and 3 p.m. with proper physical distancing and increased cleaning protocols between panning lessons. Space is limited and slots are given on a first come first serve basis.
There are picnic areas if you choose to pack a lunch.
If not, the small burgs along Highway 49 offer plenty of quaint restaurants and cafés or — if you prefer — chain style establishments in and around Jackson and Sonora.
The drive alone is worth it although history buffs and the curious alike will enjoy a leisurely stroll through and to the various state park sites. This is the place that inspired the phrase “and the world rush in” given that the gold rush triggered what still stands as the greatest migration in the Western Hemisphere.