Follow the Gold

Andrea Gross | May 29, 2013, 11:40 a.m.

I enter my hotel room, open the drape, and there it is—Colorado’s Pikes Peak, one of the world’s most famous mountains, outlined against the setting sun. This is the very same view that greeted Katharine Lee Bates when, after a day atop the 14,000-foot granite mound, she penned the words to “America the Beautiful.” As I look out the window of our hotel, the Hilton Antler (called the Antler Hotel in Bates’ day), I’m similarly inspired but less talented. Fortunately, my husband captures the scene with his camera.

Long before Bates wrote about the “spacious skies,” the mountain had energized other Americans. As the easternmost big peak of the Rocky Mountains, visible for 100 miles, it was a beacon for gold prospectors as they set forth on the last, and longest-lasting, American gold rush.

Where it all Began—Georgia, 1826


A walk along the three-mile trail in Villa Rica lets people see old mining sites and experience the environment in which the miners worked.

We begin our Gold Route Tour 1,500 miles from Pikes Peak in the small towns west and north of Atlanta. Both the Cherokee and the Spanish found nuggets of Georgia gold as early as the 16th century, but the real rush didn’t begin until the mid-1820s.

We learn this while watching a film at Villa Rica’s Pine Mountain Gold Museum, which is built on the site of an old gold mine. Afterward, we walk a three-mile trail that’s dotted with old mining equipment. Interpretative signs tell us that the equipment was abandoned when a man who was out hunting deer 100 miles to the northeast quite literally tripped over a golden rock. Within a year, 15,000 men left Villa Rica to go to the new site, Dahlonega, which gets its name from the Cherokee word for “yellow.”

The town has a charming main square, a museum located in an historic courthouse, two gold mines and, best of all, a place where we can—or so we fantasize—strike it rich.

After touring the underground consolidated Gold Mines, we head to Crisson Gold Mine where we find several locals panning for gold.

“I come every weekend,” one confesses. “It’s fun, but I’d be better off playing the stock market.” We leave without investing in a gold-panning experience.

The Rush in the West—California, 1849


Dahlonega Square is rich with historic buildings that house restaurants and boutiques.

The Dahlonega rush paled in comparison to the one that took place in California in the late 1840s. On Jan. 24, 1848, a man named James Marshall was building a mill for Capt. John Sutter when he spotted a gold rock. News traveled fast, and soon an estimated 300,000 people headed west to try their luck and test their skill.

The old mill is long gone, but there’s a replica in Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park near Coloma, along with other reminders of gold rush days: a store mill, 19th century school and two stores that are reminders of the Chinese who helped settle the area.

Later we drive south on Highway 49, which links old mining towns filled with quaint bed and breakfasts and award-winning wineries housed in restored gold-era buildings. After about two hours we reach Columbia State Park, where costumed actors show us how folks lived during the golden days. We visit period-specific stores, see blacksmiths at work and take a ride in a stagecoach.

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