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Take In Fall Foliage in the Golden State

California has its own splendor that's every bit as special as Vermont's.

It's not all about the palms.

California has a bounty of aspens, oaks, dogwoods, maples and other deciduous trees too. And when fall arrives with its crisp breezes and falling temperatures, leaves turn scarlet, gold, copper and rust. It's drive time in the Golden State's foothills and mountains.

Some of the best places to ooh and ahh over brilliantly colored leaves are found along or just off of state highway 49, a two-lane blacktop that snakes more than 300 miles through Gold Country, where gold was discovered in 1848, setting off the biggest gold rush in American history. The mines are long played-out, but the jerrybuilt towns, gushing streams, dramatic rock formations and tree-covered landscapes draw visitors in search of a relaxed version of the area's feverish past.


Photo gallery: Spectacular Fall Vacations


Highway 49, which runs north-south along the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, can be rugged and lonely. On a recent drive along 49, my wife and I spied maybe six cars in nearly two hours in remote country. The isolation evaporates, however, when the road meanders into colorful mining towns like Angels Camp and Placerville, blossoms with genteel restored Victorian homes and hotels in Nevada City and Grass Valley, then climbs to more than 6,000-foot elevations at its northern end near Vinton.

Highway 49 and its surrounds are rich in history year-round, but October is the best month to catch colorful fall foliage. As in leaf-watching favorites like Vermont, Tennessee and Pennsylvania, timing is everything and local leaf conditions vary. You can survey much of the blazing scenery from a car window, but there are good places to hike and bike to take in the views too.

It would take days to drive all of highway 49 and truly do it justice, so breaking a trip into segments is the way to go.

One fine place to linger is along the central section of the road near Angels Camp, in Calaveras County. The best colors are not so much in the town itself, but nearby, accessed via secondary roads.

One gold mine for fall color is Ebbetts Pass, found outside Angels Camp, on highway 4. This scenic area -- designated as a national scenic by-way -- can be surveyed from one of many turn-outs along the winding road, which is flanked by stands of aspen and juniper. Aptly named Big Trees State Park, studded with dogwood and also near Angels Camp, is another good choice.

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If you want to spend the night in this area -- and don't mind sharing the premises with spectral guests -- you can tuck yourself in at Murphys Historic Hotel, a circa-1855 hotel in the town of Murphys that is said to be haunted. The town will host a "haunted tour'' of old buildings and a cemetery on Nov. 1.

Back on 49 heading north, you roll into Amador County, home of one of California's many wine-producing regions. Which brings up an interesting note: Grapevine leaves, like tree leaves, change color in the fall. Just don't forget to look down, rather than up.

The big town in these parts is Jackson. If you need to fill the gas tank or stop for a bite, Jackson presents a range of choices. Now, grab a cup of joe and climb back behind the wheel.

If you have a little time -- and you'd better, because 49 and its tiny tributary roads are not built for fast driving -- consider branching off along highway 88 to the hamlet of Volcano. Like many old Gold Country places, Volcano had a larger population in the 19th century than it has in the 21st. Stretch your legs and take the short walk around town and check out the shops: crafts and antiques are on offer, and abandoned buildings give the air of a ghost town. The 1862 St. George Hotel's restaurant is a good spot for a snack and more caffeine if you're so inclined.

Highway 49 crosses Interstate 80 -- the buzzing freeway that connects the San Francisco Bay Area with Reno and Lake Tahoe and places east -- at Placerville. Originally known as Hangtown, for its frontier-days hanging tree, the town gave birth to a gold prospector's favorite: the hangtown fry. This hearty, stick-to-your ribs dish is an omelet enriched with bacon and deep-fried oysters. Who says California is all about leafy baby vegetables and microscopic portions?

Near Placerville, you can catch fall colors around Grass Lake. Quaking aspens border the lake, which can be seen from the top of Luther Pass on highway 89, off highway 50, two more tributary roads.

North of I-80, highway 49 climbs into higher terrain, the towns become impossibly pretty in that quaint way, and the fall foliage opportunities multiply and intensify. The big town here is Auburn, but you want to push on to Grass Valley and Nevada City.

The town of Grass Valley sprouts unexpected bits of show-business history. The visitors' center at 248 Mill St. used to be the home of Lola Montez, a 19th century celebrity dancer and entertainer famed for her affairs with the rich and famous of her day. A few steps away at 238 Mill St. is a private residence that was once the home of Lotta Crabtree, another 19th century show-biz figure.

If all the driving has tuckered you out and you want to spend the night, you can check into the 1861 Holbrooke Hotel, a favorite of presidents from the Gilded Age of the 1880s and '90s. Grass Valley, right on highway 49, is a good base for daytrips. A prime route for spying beautiful leaves is the Yuba-Donner Scenic Byway, a 130-mile looped road that winds through the magnificent Sierra Nevada.

Nearby Nevada City, also on 49 and decked out with white churches and spires and picturesque Victorians, looks like a New England village plopped right down in the West. It, too, boasts easy access to the Yuba-Donner leaf-watchers' paradise road and has a trove of charming bed and breakfast spots.

David Armstrong is a San Francisco Bay Area-based writer. He covers airlines and airports, hotels and resorts, food and wine, and writes travel destination features.