For more than two decades, I lived right down the way from Disneyland, a dream destination for countless families around the world, and I probably visited the park maybe six times with my children in all those years. (Lost opportunity, I know.) I live up in Northern California now, and true to my nature, I remain oblivious to so much of the travel treasure in this area. But I was awakened recently, when my youngest daughter and I spent the weekend in Amador County — Gold Country, as it is better known — a jewel of a destination within 45 minutes from home that is the province of the Miwok Indians.
Amador County is rich with history. For untold generations, it was inhabited by small bands of Miwok Indians, who sought its cooler, higher elevations to escape the blistering heat of the lowlands, and to harvest their cherished acorns. It is, however, best known as the heart and soul of the Gold Rush era, when people rushed into the region to find their fortune in precious gold, being discovered in rivers, creeks and quartz rocks at every turn.
If you’re a history buff, you’ll strike it rich in Amador County. The small, adorable cluster of towns that make up this region and are intertwined by the past are: Ione, Jackson, Volcano, Sutter Creek, Amador City, Drytown, Plymouth, Fiddletown, Pine Grove, Pioneer and Upcountry.
While the gold miners are long gone, the travelers rushing into this area now are those in search of great wine, fine antiques, endless shopping, gourmet food, restful sleep in the many bed and breakfast inns that dot the landscape. One of those wonderful places to stay is owned and operated by the Miwok themselves.
The Jackson Rancheria Casino and Hotel
We were fortunate to be invited guests at the Jackson Rancheria Casino and Hotel, owned and operated by the Miwok Indians, a tribe that was first recognized by the Federal Government in 1898. It was easy to find, too. All we had to do was follow the caravan of cars winding through the foothills, as it seems people are still flooding into this area to find their fortunes. The casino offers all the gaming tables and slot machines that you’d find in Las Vegas, without the crowds, so maybe that improves your chances of winning? Not really sure about that, but the same, Vegas-like fever filled the air.
We stayed in the newly renovated three-diamond, three-star hotel, a short walk up the hill from the casino. There are only 86 rooms in the hotel, and maybe that’s why ours was so large and spacious. You’ll be treated to all the hotel amenities you would expect in a classy place like this – valet parking, WiFi, wake-up calls, massage, heated pools, hot tubs, coffee bar in your room, and a GREAT coffee stop downstairs — perfect for a quick breakfast, without having to wait in the long buffet line at the casino.
Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park
In the late afternoon, we drove to Volcano, about 10 miles from Sutter Creek, to visit a park that I had heard so much about: Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park, where you’ll find the largest collection of bedrock mortars in North America. Chaw’se is the Miwok word for grinding rock, and this is where the Miwoks, who had established their villages along the rivers and streams of the Sierra Nevada, ground acorns and other seeds into meal. Over time, all that grinding formed cup-shaped depressions in the stone, and all these years later, visitors can see the evidence of how hard the Miwoks worked to feed their families.
Apparently, the Miwoks were also gifted artists. On the main grinding stone, there are decorative carvings, known as petroglyphs, some as old as 3,000 years. These mortars decorated with petroglyphs are believed to be one-of-a-kind. Sadly, the Gold Rush forced the Miwoks out of this land and way of life. The mining industry moved in and surrounded the area.
Besides the wealth of hiking trails (not my thing!) and the camping sites, other park attractions are the ceremonial roundhouse and the Chaw’se Regional Indian Museum, featuring an impressive display of American Indian history, crafts and treasures from regional tribes, such as Northern, Central and Southern Miwok, Maidu, Konkow, Monache, Nisenan, Tubatulabal, Washo, and Foothill Yokuts.