El Dorado County is just a two hour drive from my house and yet I had no idea that it was a gold mine of a getaway. Mr. TWS and I have driven through parts of the county and its county seat of Placerville on our way to or from South Lake Tahoe many times. However, we’ve just passed through while admiring the rural Sierra Nevada foothill scenery that has always evoked for me visions of Gold Rush miners hoping to make their fortunes in California.
We were in for quite a surprise when we finally took some time to explore Placerville and the surrounding area of El Dorado County on the third and final full day of our Sierra getaway.
Food, wine, attractions, and surprises
Once off our main route, U.S. Highway 50, we drove along the country roads in the hills and valleys of the county, taking in its rich agricultural landscape. Surrounded by vineyards, apple orchards, pumpkin patches, and berry farms, I began to think of this part of El Dorado County as a giant fruit basket with something to please everyone’s taste buds. It was mid-November and many of the trees were full of color, uncommon in most areas of California where the seasons aren’t usually visibly distinguishable. We found an abundance of natural beauty, attractions, and history for visitors as well as locals to enjoy throughout the year.
We began our day with a drive through the area where the more than 50 farmers of the Apple Hill Growers Association (which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year) have their orchards with bake shops, entertainment facilities, and gift shops. When describing the area, “Apple Hill” is only an informal name taken from the association of apple farmers, but it fits well bringing to mind a quaintness of times gone by with beautiful apple orchards on rolling hills.
Beginning in early September through December, the ranches (the term often used for the farms in this area) really come alive with harvests, special events, and visitors ( out-of-towners and local residents) who flock to the area for apple picking, picnics, music festivals, and buying baked goods. We were pleasantly surprised to find this area abuzz with people on this bright, crisp November day, some coming to spend the whole day at a single farm, but many sampling activities, tastings, and produce at several ranches along the road. The ranches vary in size, with the largest ones offering plenty of entertainment for the kids with hay stacks, hay rides, pony rides, or other fun activities.
Our first stop was Larsen Apple Barn, which is one of the oldest of the Apple Hill™ growers going back six generations.They also are proud of being the “Home of the Original Apple Turnover on the Hill”. Larsen grows over 20 varieties of apples including Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Winesap, Rome Beauty, Pippin, Granny Smith, Braeburn, Jonathon, Gala, Fuji, Pink Lady and Honey Crisp, some of which we sampled several delicious slices.
Directly across the road is the Larsen Family Park, a lovely area for a stroll, and it is also available for weddings and other special events. In the Larsen Family Museum, there is an impressive number of exhibits featuring furniture, farm equipment, and other antiques showing how apple farmers worked the land and lived over the years.
At Rainbow Orchards, a family-run farm since 1977, I took a local’s advice to try what she believes to be the best donut on Apple Hill – their Hot Apple Cider Donut. It was a very light but satisfying cake donut that was totally delicious. However, I’ll need to sample all of the area’s donuts before declaring it “the best”. Rainbow Orchards is also popular for musical events and there are activities for the kids including a Hay Bale Hop. That looked like a lot of fun to me, but I refrained from jumping on the circular path of bales.
It’s not just about apples on Apple Hill. In fact, several of the apple ranches also produce wine, and you can also find one of El Dorado’s craft breweries, Jack Russell Brewery and Winery, where you can take your pick — beer or wine.
There was a lot of activity at Jack Russell when we stopped with several tables set up with a variety of treats to sample. Among the goodies were interesting variations of jerky and kettle corn. The large lawn had lots of people enjoying lunch and beverages under colorful umbrellas.
Depending on when you visit Apple Hill, you might be able to see apple processing or picking. Or you can do your own apple picking which is always a lot of fun. We were just a little late in the season for that but there were many other activities that were in full swing. While many of the ranches are only open to visitors from about early September through various times in December, some are open year-round. There are about 30 Christmas tree farms (Douglas Firs and Noble Firs are among the common types) on Apple Hill, so the area is bustling with activity through December. The wonderful lovely drive along the winding roads through woods and farmland would have been enough to make the time well-spent – so even if you’re off-season, you might enjoy a detour drive.
A thriving wine region
It may surprise you, as it did us, that El Dorado County is a thriving wine-growing region with two of its own appellations — El Dorado and Fair Play. I’m always interested in experiencing new wine regions and I’m sometimes surprised where I find them – such as in Nova Scotia during my visit there last year. El Dorado County completely surprised me with the beautiful vineyards I saw and the fine wines that I tasted. I was also wrong in assuming that this must be a completely new wine region. Although many of the wineries were established in the 2000s, there’s a longer history. Wine production actually began back in the gold rush days of the mid-1800s and the county had more wineries than Napa and Sonoma at that time. After the gold rush, the population left the area for the cities and wine production slowed down. Later, phylloxera (a grapevine pest) and then Prohibition hit the El Dorado wine region hard. But in 1973, the Boeger family started a winery (still located on Apple Hill) and was followed by four others by 1980, each producing mostly Zinfandel and Bordeaux varieties, and later Syrah and Rhône varietals.
Today there are over 70 wineries dotting the hillsides of El Dorado producing mostly small lots on 1, 5, or 10 acres. The county’s micro-climates due to the hills, valleys, and other factors create diverse growing conditions for the grapes and thus a wide selection of wines. The most common red wines are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Grenache and Barbera. Although not as prevalent as the red wines, the predominant white wines of the area are Viognier and Roussanne.
We visited two wineries in Pleasant Valley, a small community near Placerville and about 8 miles from Apple Hill. They do not charge for wine tasting nor do any of the other El Dorado County wineries, unlike tasting rooms in other California wine regions.
The Mediterranean-style building in the photo above is the Miraflores Winery tasting room overlooking 40 acres of estate vineyards. It is beautiful inside and out.
The tasting room has a 16th century Provençal countryside design combined with modern art pieces, ceiling beams constructed of historic salvaged wood from the Port of Oakland, and Mediterranean stone flooring.
Miraflores winemaker Marco Capelli comes from a background of winemaking in Napa Valley. At Miraflores he has created award-winning wines such as the 2013 Viognier which was awarded a Gold Medal in San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition and Viogniers and Zinfandels which score 90- 92 points by Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast. Miraflores describes their wines as “Beautiful. Approachable. Elegant”. Based on the ones I tasted as I admired the art in the bright and pleasant tasting room, I agree. We also stepped outside on the terrace to enjoy the view and breathe in the fresh Sierra foothills air. Our personal favorites during our tasting were the Barbera and Zinfandel.
Miraflores owner Victor Alvarez is a practicing pathologist in Arizona who established Miraflores in 2003.
Growing up in Colombia, South America near his family’s cattle and dairy operations, he continued to indulge his love of agriculture by establishing Miraflores Winery in 2003 and spending time at the winery on weekends.
Narrow Gate Vineyards is a lovely small winery owned and operated by Frank and Teena Hildebrand since 2004. It’s just down the road from Miraflores and a contrast in styles. Narrow Gate’s tasting room has an intimate French ambiance and cozy décor.
Narrow Gate is a Demeter Certified Biodynamic® farm, signifying their commitment to biodynamic farming practices for agriculture and healthful, pure foods. On the 13 acre estate vineyards, their wines are made with very little technological intervention. We tasted and enjoyed a few of their signature red wines, but my favorites were the 2012 Estate Viognier Rousanne and the unique Chocolate Splash, a blend of six Port varietals bittersweet, natural chocolate essence.
El Dorado County Wine Event tip: 24th Annual Passport Wine Event is coming up April 11 and 12, 2015.
Gold Bug Park and Mine
One of my favorites on a day full of eclectic activities brought us back to California’s historical roots – gold mining. We visited the Gold Bug Park and Mine, which offers a self-guided audio tour all the way (352 feet) to the back of an authentic hard rock gold mine. Although I’m not a fan of close spaces, I had no problem taking this tour. Although it is an authentic shaft, the mine was well-lit and not too close for comfort, and having Mr. TWS with me kept me calm. The tour was well done, pointing out key aspects along the way with a combination of humor and authenticity provided in the voice of an old Gold Rush prospector.
The short mine tour is worth the visit but there are several other attractions that are bonuses. A short walk up a hill from the mine (located in about its original location) is the Joshua Hendy Stamp Mill where we were able to see equipment used to extract the gold from the ore. The building held many artifacts including a stamp mill into which ore would have been dumped and crushed (“stamped”) and then after several other steps the gold was automatically pulled from the water crushed rock mixture.
Around the corner up the hill in the same building is a working black smith shop also located in its original spot where iron needs for the mine were produced. There were two blacksmiths at work using equipment that would have been used at the time. Staffed by volunteers, the shop also offers training programs for anyone wanting to become a journeyman blacksmith. The Gold Bug Park and Mine also has a small museum with many artifacts from the time, hiking trails and several picnic areas in the park.
If California history is of interest to you or you just like exploring old towns, Placerville (originally known as “Hangtown” in the Gold Rush days), is an El Dorado County must-see. It has numerous historical landmarks and several of California’s oldest buildings. Other sites and relics of the early California history also remain.
Placerville was very near the site of the first gold discovery on January 24, 1848 at Sutter’s Mill and quickly attracted not only miners but also those who sought gold by less honorable means. By 1849, it was the sight of frequent robberies and murders and, for those suspected of these crimes, hangings. Though there are many stories about the first hanging, in common (and probably characteristic of other hangings) is the part where the suspects were quickly (in minutes) “tried” by an informal citizens’ jury and sentenced to hanging by the shouts of the crowd, a sentence carried out posthaste.
There are many places to explore in Placerville but our schedule only gave us time for a short walk down Main Street and around the town. A few points of interest included:
- The bell tower on Main Street – an important historic landmark as a monument to the city’s volunteer firemen. The bell was placed in the tower in 1865 used to call the firefighters into action.
- Placerville City Hall — a two-story brick building built in 1860, originally housed the Confidence Engine Company.
- Placerville Hardware — the oldest hardware store west of the Mississippi, first established over 150 years ago. It was fun to walk through the store on the original hardwood floors and see the incredible variety of products for sale, including items not typically seen for decades, such as screws and nails in bins sold by the piece, or rope and string sold by the foot.
- Robinson’s Pharmacy — established in 1932, the shop still has its iconic Rexall drug store sign.
- Fountain-Tallman Soda Works — the oldest building in Placerville (built in 1852), it was built with 2-foot thick brick walls to keep ice and soda cool. It was one of the few buildings on Main Street to survive the 1856 Placerville fire.
There are a surprising number and variety of places to indulge the taste buds, many with a farm-to-table philosophy taking advantage of the many fresh products readily available in the area.
We had a delicious and hearty lunch in the comfortable setting at Smith Flat House about three miles east of the historic downtown. The restaurant supports local farmers, winemakers and other food producers in its homemade seasonal dishes. Originally a hotel built in 1853, there is an opening in the cellar to the old Blue Lead Mine which you can view through a hole in the wall. The beautifully well-preserved building has also served as as a stage coach stop, general merchandise store, post office and community hall during its 135 years.
In downtown Placerville, we can suggest Bricks Restaurant so named because of the simple reason it is almost entirely made of bricks, a common building material used in most of the historic Placerville buildings. From a menu that included burgers, sandwiches, pizzas, comfort food like meat loaf, and steaks, I chose Chicken Cavatappi, a pasta dish with grilled chicken, bacon, artichoke hearts, tomato, basil & smoked Gouda. Mr. TWS chose shrimp sauteed with cognac, butter, shallots, and garlic. Sorry — no food photos!
We can also recommend Sweetie Pie’s for breakfast. It’s located in a Victorian building that was built in 1865 as one of first homes on Main Street, presumably the home of the sheriff of Hangtown. I had Olallieberry pancakes and bacon and Mr. TWS had a vegetarian omelet. Thumbs up all around for the food and the homey atmosphere.
Sleeping (or not)
I was a little excited and a little nervous about staying at the Historic Cary House Hotel after I read online that it is believed to be haunted. One of the staff at the hotel told us she had felt the presence of resident ghosts, and others verified that numerous guests had made similar claims over the years, but we were assured that those ghosts are friendly. Our suite was on the 4th floor, which is a newer addition and supposedly not inhabited by spirits. Nonetheless, I kept a light on all night; however, no incidents to report. Mr. TWS was much braver and after dinner took a walk the full length of the halls on the two haunted floors – no incidents to report there either.
Nicknamed “The Jewel of Placerville”, the hotel lobby is decorated with period pieces, antiques, stained glass windows depicting the four seasons, and a mahogany staircase leading to the guest room floors. Whether the hotel is haunted or not, it’s a lovely place to stay and is conveniently located for wining, dining and all the other activities of El Dorado County.
Map of the Placerville area
We loved the surprises of our day in El Dorado County, and we were a little reluctant to be ending our 3-day whirlwind getaway that had also taken us to Carson Valley and South Lake Tahoe. For your next Bay Area getaway, or if you’re passing through the Sierra foothills, consider stopping in for a look or staying for a few days. It’s a picturesque and historic area with plenty of good food and activities to enjoy any time of year, making it a great getaway weekend or day trip from the Bay Area, Sacramento, and other locations in Northern California.
For more information: El Dorado County Visitors Authority
Disclosure: Our El Dorado County experiences were made possible by the El Dorado County Visitors Authority, but our opinions and perspectives are our own — as always.