The four-mile drive out from the center of Placerville seems a bit further than that, winding through thick stands of pine trees, climbing up into the Sierra foothills where the California Gold Rush is never far from one's mind. Then, all of a sudden, there it is: Shadowridge Ranch, the place that had piqued our curiosity so much we had to include it on a recent roadtrip through Northern California.
Barely in the driveway, we are greeted by our hostess, Carlotta Davies, who strolls outside from the main lodge to personally beckon us to come and explore the ranch. We're quickly off for a brief tour of the main lodge and surrounding property and, by the time we're all done, the witty and charming Carlotta already seems like an old friend.
Such is the feeling you get when you spend some time at Shadowridge Ranch, an idyllic little piece of real estate in a part of California just loaded with historic attractions and outdoor activities. Placerville — or more precisely, nearby Coloma — is where the California Gold Rush all started, and no one around Placerville is likely to let you forget that fact.
Shadowridge Ranch caught our attention because of the particular type of accommodations. What better place to stay in California Gold Rush country than a historic cabin built with hand hewn logs? While there are three such cabins at Shadowridge, we stayed in Betty's Cabin, a three-room building (including a small kitchen) that is set back away from other buildings and painstakingly decorated with antiques and western memorabilia -- such as the saddle and gun holster hanging from the rafters. The main room is furnished with a Queen size feather bed, round oak dining table, and a river rock hearth with wood stove. With its 130-year-old pine paneling, pine and slate floors and exposed log walls, Betty's Cabin makes it easy to pretend you're a gold miner for the weekend -- albeit a pampered gold miner.
Pampering is what it's all about at Shadowridge. Carlotta made certain that, within 15 minutes of arrival, we were sitting outside in our own garden setting, enjoying country views and drifting off with the help of a chilled bottle of Shadowridge Wicked Wildcat White wine, a platter of cheese and fruit and a basket full of warm gooey chocolate chip cookie bars.
This pretending to be a gold miner could really get to be addictive.
One is tempted at the Shadowridge to simply enjoy the creature comforts, burrow in and not come out to the real world again until checkout time. But with historic Placerville so close, that truly would be a mistake.
Placerville actually is a hub for many nearby historic attractions, perhaps the best known being Sutters Mill in the nearby town of Coloma. Just 10 miles from Placerville, this tiny hamlet has several historic buildings, many included in the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park. The California Gold Rush was ignited when James W. Marshall discovered gold in 1848 on the South Fork of the American River — a site preserved today as part of the state park.
A working replica of nearby Sutters Mill has been constructed to scale, and a pathway takes you to the actual site where the original mill stood. Further down the path is the site on the American River where Marshall reached in and pulled out the first gold. It's easy to visualize how it must have been that day more than 150 years ago, especially with historic photographs in the nearby museum that show the original buildings against a backdrop of the same hills, mountains and streams you see today.
We found a small crowd gathered behind Bekeart's Gun Shop, the oldest building still standing in Coloma. Gold miner wannabes had ponied up $3.75 apiece and were trying their hand at panning for gold.
One middle-aged woman had been trying to find gold in her pan and was shaking and massaging the rocks and dirt to no avail. "No, look," said the historically clad panning instructor. "You got some — see right there?" She looked again and, at first couldn't find anything. Then she spotted her prize.
"But it's just a flake!" she exclaimed.
"Well it's gold, ain't it?" the instructor responded.
To be sure, visitors will often find flakes of gold due to the fact that the river-bottom materials hauled up from the river are seeded in a kind of Easter egg hunt for history-lovers. But lest you think you'll find the golden egg, the panning instructor readily admits he's careful about what he hides in his rocks.
"Sure, we'll find gold nuggets in the river," he said, "but we're not going to put those in here."
Other historic buildings in Coloma include James Marshal's house, a Chinese store, two churches and some other buildings. There are large picnic areas and a small but fascinating museum that includes many historic photos, artifacts and a real stagecoach.
In downtown Placerville, it's worth some time to visit the shops up and down the historic Main Street. The town became a major supply depot in the Gold Rush that, within months of finding gold, brought 12,000 miners to Coloma. Today Placerville still has that historical feel as well as some interesting landmarks such as the Bell Tower, built in the 1860s to call out firefighters.
The El Dorado County Museum, at 360 Fair Lane, houses period settings, a fully stocked general store, a Concord stage coach and early transportation displays. The Placerville Historical Museum is located in a particularly interesting 1850s-vintage building that was once the old Fountain and Tallman Soda Works.
After a rewarding day of sightseeing it was back to Shadowridge Ranch where we prepared our own light dinner and then decided it was time to curl up with a good book and enjoy our cozy cabin. With no traffic noise (it wasn't that long ago that the route to Shadowridge was just a dirt and gravel road), the night in our historic cabin was as peaceful as it gets.
Like the miners of 1848, we woke up early and tore into a hearty breakfast. The country-style breakfast at Shadowridge is served up fresh and hot, and in more than ample supply. The miners probably did not have poached pears with wine sauce or English muffins, but they may have had ham, bacon, sausage, eggs and potatoes — all piled high at the Shadowridge and served with fresh-squeezed orange juice.
After breakfast was a great time to learn a little more about Carlotta and the Davies family, who have owned the property for many years but began in the mid-90's to turn it into a special place for weddings and other events. The property has lots of wide open spaces including an expansive lawn that helps to separate some of the out buildings from the Main Lodge. Shadowridge has hosted numerous major events, some with up to 800 people. Today, the primary business at Shadowridge is event-planning and hosting but, as a sideline, Carlotta has set aside the three cabins for overnight guests.
Fewer cabins means fewer guests, and that means you get the feeling at Shadowridge that you've rented the entire ranch. You're not quite as isolated as some of those early gold miners were, but then none of them had a Carlotta Davies plying them with Wicked Wildcat White wine and her famous "Four-thigh" chocolate chip cookies.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: Shadowridge Ranch is located four miles outside of Placerville, California. Placerville is about 45 miles east of Sacramento and easily reached on Highway 50, a main route to South Lake Tahoe.
WHAT: The ranch offers an unusual combination of a historic cabin experience with the amenities and decoration normally found only in high-end lodgings.
WHEN: Generally anytime in the spring, summer or fall are ideal times to visit — the ranch is closed during the winter months.
WHY: Placerville and the old mining towns close by are some of the most historic parts of California and offer a glimpse into what life was like after the discovery of gold at Sutters Mill in 1848. The Shadowridge Ranch, with its historic cabins and rural location, helps to complete the experience.
HOW: You can book your stay at Shadowridge Ranch by calling the ranch at 1-800-644-3498 or writing to Shadowridge Ranch and Lodge, Fort Jim Road, Placerville, CA 95667. More details are online at www.shadowridgeranch.com. Betty's Cabin rents for $175 per night.
OTHER DESTINATIONS: If this coastal city is your idea of a California vacation, be sure to check out California Weekend articles on other destinations not far from the Bay area: Sausalito, Monterey and Point Reyes.