There are two routes out of Sacramento to Lake Tahoe which carry
fully nine-tenths of the motor travel to that interesting region. Both
traverse a picturesque mountain country with a spice of historic and
romantic interest and most motor visitors, naturally enough, go by one
route and return by the other. Our first visit to the lake was made over
the northern fork of the "wishbone" (as they usually style the forked
road) via Colfax and Emigrant Gap. For personal reasons we did not
complete the round trip at the time of our first visit, but a year later
found us again enroute to the gem of mountain lakes over the southern
fork by way of Placerville. I shall describe the two trips in order of
their chronology. In each instance we passed the night in Sacramento-the
best starting point for the day's run to Tahoe, the distance being about
one hundred and twenty miles by either route. It is well to get an early
start, whichever route is taken, for the road will not admit of speed
and there are many points where a pause is well worth while. And so we
were away bright and early on the Auburn road to the lake.
Out of the city for several miles through a fertile orchard and farm country, we pursued a level, well-improved road which led us toward the great hill range that marks the western confines of the valley. Entering the rounded brown foothills, we kept a steady ascent through scattering groves of oak and pine, with here and there along the way a well-ordered stock farm or fruit ranch. It was in the height of the peach season and a sign at a ranch house gate tempted us to purchase. A silver dime brought us such a quantity of big, luscious, rosy-cheeked fruit that we scarcely knew where to bestow it about the car. It was just off the tree and ripe to perfection, and by comparison with the very best one could buy in a fruit market, it seemed a new and unheard-of variety-ambrosia fit only for the gods. And they told us that so immense was the crop of peaches and pears in this locality that some of this unequalled fruit was being fed to the pigs.
Following a winding but fair road through the hills, we soon came, as we supposed, into the main part of Auburn, for we had taken no pains to learn anything about the town. At the foot of a sharp hill we paused in a crooked street with a row of ramshackle buildings on either side and it was apparent at a glance that the population of the ancient-looking town was chiefly Chinese. A few saloons and one or two huge wooden boarding houses were the most salient features and a small blacksmith shop near the end of the street was labeled "Garage." We mentally classed "Sweet Auburn" with Chinese Camp and following the road leading out of the place began the ascent of an exceedingly steep hill. At the summit of the hill, however, we found quite a different Auburn-a fine modern town with a handsome courthouse, an imposing high school and a new bank building that would not seem out of place on any city street. All this in a town of less than three thousand population. Nor should I omit to mention the comfortable up-to-date hotel where we had a very satisfactory luncheon.
Beyond Auburn the road climbs steadily to Colfax, a few short pitches ranging from fifteen to twenty per cent. The surface was good and we were delighted by many fine vistas from the hilltops as we hastened along. At Applegate was a deserted hotel and "tent city" said to be very popular resorts earlier in the summer. Colfax was the Illinois Town of mining times and still has many buildings dating back to the "days of gold." The town was given its present name when the steam road came and it is now a center of considerable activity in railroading. There is much beautiful scenery about Colfax. From the nearby summits across long reaches of forest-clad hills, one may see on one hand the mighty ranks of the snow crested Sierras and on the other the dim outlines of the Coast Range. On exceptionally clear days, they told us, the shining cone of Shasta may be seen, though it is more than one hundred and fifty miles away.
Out of Colfax we continue to climb steadily and soon come upon reminders of the days when this was one of the greatest gold-producing sections of California. The hillsides everywhere show the scars of old-time placer mining. Millions of the precious metal were produced here in the few years following '49, but operations have long since ceased and the deserted villages are fast falling into ruin. Dutch Flat and Gold Run, now stations on the Southern Pacific, could no doubt have furnished Bret Harte with characters and incidents quite as varied and picturesque as Angel's Camp or Sonora had his wanderings brought him hither. For the disappearance of the good old golden days, the natives console themselves in this fashion, quoting advertising literature issued by Placer County: "In days gone by the gold mining industry made this section famous. To-day the golden fruit brings it wealth and renown." And it also holds forth the hope that scientific mining methods may yet find "much gold in the old river beds and seams of gold-bearing rock."
From Dutch Flat to Emigrant Gap, perhaps a dozen miles, the road climbs continually, winding through pine forests that crowd closely on either hand. Here is one of the wildest sections of the Sierras accessible to motor cars, and the weird beauty culminates at Emigrant Gap, a great natural gash in the Sierras which in early days gave its name to the road by which the majority of overland emigrants entered California. Near this point, a little distance to the right of the road and some two thousand feet beneath, lies Bear Valley, one of the loveliest vales of the Sierras-in early summer an emerald-green meadow-lying between Yuba River and Bear Creek, shut in on every hand by tree-clad slopes. From Emigrant Gap to the summit of the divide, a distance of twenty-seven miles, the road mounts steadily through the pines, winding around abrupt turns and climbing heavy grades-the last pitch rising to thirty per cent, according to our road book, though we doubt if it is really so steep. Crystal Lake and Lake Van Orten are passed on the way, two blue mountain tarns lying far below on the right-hand side of the road. From the summit, at an elevation of a little over seven thousand feet, we have a wonderful view both eastward and westward. Behind us the rugged hills through which we have wended our way slope gently to the Sacramento Valley-so gently that in the one hundred miles since leaving the plain we have risen only a mile and a half. Before us is the sharper fall of the eastern slope and far beneath, in a setting of green sward and stately pines, the placid blue waters of Donner Lake, beautiful despite the tragic associations which come unbidden to our minds.