Nestled in the Sierra Nevada’s historic gold rush region, El Dorado County (Spanish for “The Gilded One”) is a year-round playground — ski and snowboard in the winter, enjoy beautiful colors and fewer crowds in the fall, raft white water and pick luscious fruit in the spring and summer. Pan gold whenever you’re feeling lucky. And, enjoy delicious wine every month of the year.
Often people head straight for Lake Tahoe and miss the rest of what the county has to offer. Don’t make that mistake.
Built in 1857, the historic Cary House Hotel in Placerville is an attraction unto itself. If you stay, remember: It’s a mix of antique, vintage, and modern; it can be noisy with the sounds you might hear from the spirits who haunt the hotel; and the amenities are limited. But the wood lobby and its beautiful stained glass windows are worth a visit. (530-622-4271, caryhouse.com)
We opted for one of the B&Bs spread around the county. Lucinda’s Country Inn in Fair Play is as the name describes — a comfortable retreat. The guest rooms are modern and spacious with numerous amenities. And in the morning, a sumptuous home-cooked breakfast, like “country eggs Benedict,” scones, fruit, and dark-brewed coffee, is waiting to be enjoyed together with the other guests. Each evening, kick back and share stories and local wines and hors d’oeuvres. Fair Play is within easy driving distance of many attractions and about 30 minutes southeast of Placerville. (530-409-4169, lucindascountryinn.com)
SHOP & PLAY
Placerville, known in the mid-1800s as Hangtown (named for the fate of Gold Rush murderers), sits in the foothills and is the starting point for many visitors. Main Street offers visitors a glimpse into everyday life in El Dorado’s foothills. When a farmers’ market is in full swing, it is right beneath the historic Bell Tower, built to honor the town’s volunteer firemen.
During the Gold Rush, Main Street was an important supply source, and today it is lined with shops, restaurants, galleries, and more. If you’re there on the third Saturday, join the monthly Art Walk. The Placerville Hardware Store, stocked with everything imaginable, has been a community tradition for more than 150 years; it’s the oldest hardware store west of the Mississippi. (530-622-1151, www.truevalue.com/placervillehardware/Home.aspx)
At Winterhill Tasting Room (530-626-6369, winterhillfarms.com), find delicious olive oil and wonderful cookware. Across the street, don’t miss The Wine Smith (live music some nights), which offers a great assortment of wines from the area (530-622-0516). The Town Center shopping area (similar to others with a similar name) has more shops and restaurants like Zia’s, where you’ll find homemade gelato at her Italian coffee bar. (916-939-9427, ziasgelato.com)
If farm trails are your thing, visit Jollity Farm, a goat dairy, creamery, and lavender farm where you can feed the goats and of course buy the delicious cheeses and purchase the fragrant lavender (530-333-2311, jollityfarm.net). And don’t miss the Apple Hill Scenic Drive, which is loaded with orchards and farms where, depending upon the season, you can pick your fruits and vegetables or cut down a holiday tree (530-644-7692). Don’t forget: As you tour the county, shop locally at the many gift shops, wineries, and orchards along the way.
Steeped in history, El Dorado County has lots to see. If you’re excited by the gold rush, head straight for Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, where you’ll find Sutter’s Mill (the spot where the gold rush began). Explore the first settlement and pan for gold — entertaining for all ages. (530-622-3470, marshallgold.com)
Close by in Gold Hill is the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Colony Farm, established in the late 1800s by the first group of Japanese to settle in North America. The area is in the process of being restored to its original glory. It is fascinating to learn how traditional Japanese horticulture began here — silk worming and tea and rice cultivation. (530-621-1224, arconservancy.org)
Wineries abound throughout the mountains and hillsides, and you’ll find vintages that are vibrant and flavorful. We especially liked the stunning setting of David Girard Vineyards and these two Reserves: 2013 Grenache and 2012 Syrah, as well as the 2012 Coda Rouge blend. (530-295-1833, www.davidgirardvineyards.com). Lava Cap, in the Apple Hill Region, farms sustainably and produces a number of excellent wines, including these 2013s: Old Vine Zinfandel and Nuee Ardente, a Rhone blend. (800-475-0175, lavacap.com). Boeger Winery maintains its original house, cellar, and distillery still in use today. Try the Pinot Noir and Barbera — both 2014s — and the 2105 Rosé (Barbera/Mouvèdre). (530-622-8094, boegerwinery.com). If it’s beer you crave, enjoy fresh ales (like Blackberry Abbey Ale) and scenic vistas at the Jack Russell Brewery (530-647-9420).
El Dorado County is a food lover’s delight. Wonderful small restaurants are tucked off Placerville’s main street and in small storefronts along picturesque roads.
Family-owned, local favorites such as Hey Day Café and Cascada’s are in downtown Placerville. Hey Day offers delicious California cuisine (530-626-9700, heydaycafe.com). Cascada’s features Mexican dishes served with upscale ambience and Latin flare (530-344-7757, cascadainplacerville.com).
For something quick to take on the road or for an El Dorado picnic, try Smokey Ridge Charcuterie (530-295-8140) or the gourmet pot pies from Z Pie’s (530-621-2626). Around Fair Play, neighbors and friends seeking good food and a casual atmosphere eat at the Gold Vine Grill. Try small bites like the ginger shrimp ravioli. And for the main course: Grilled pork chops topped with grilled Asian pears and an apple brandy reduction. Pair each with your favorite El Dorado wine (530-626-4042, goldvinegrill.com).
El Dorado County Visitors Authority: visit-eldorado.com
El Dorado Winery Association: eldoradowines.org
Placerville Downtown Organization: placerville-downtown.org
Farm Trails Association: edc-farmtrails.org