California Flying

Gold, ghosts, and Old Hangtown

April 1, 2004

The nuggets in the foothills of the Sierras have changed since James Marshall discovered gold at Sutter's Mill in Coloma on that sunny day in 1848. The rush of '49ers heading west with dreams of striking it rich has long since ended — today tourists and vacationers make up most of the travelers who are drawn to the rolling tree-covered hills that form the northern end of California's famous Gold Country.

There's a pie-shape section of Gold Country that lies east of Sacramento. This land, bounded by U.S. 50 on the south and Interstate 80 on the north, is filled with attractions, history, beautiful scenery, and El Dorado County's Placerville Airport.

Placerville Airport

Landing at Placerville Airport is not without its hazards, but they only lie in wait for the incompetent, unlucky, or foolish pilot. The airport is situated on a mesa — the runway covers all the flat land, leaving precipitous drop-offs on each end. It's like trying to land on an aircraft carrier that's moored. During windy conditions, carry power on final or fly a steeper than normal approach — landing a little long is less hazardous than being caught in a downdraft.


Placerville is located between Sacramento and South Lake Tahoe. It is situated above the fog line and below the snow line, offering an ideal climate with four distinct seasons. Sutter's Mill, site of the gold strike that led to the California Gold Rush, is 10 miles from Placerville which is named after the placer deposits found in the river bed there. Placerville is the county seat.

The runway has a hump in the middle and it's impossible to see a small airplane on the opposite end. Normal traffic is left for Runway 23 and right for Runway 5. Noise-avoidance measures dictate a 10-degree turn to the left after takeoff from 23. The Hangtown VOR is on the field, but because there's no continuous monitoring system installed on the VOR, the only approved IFR approach is via GPS guidance.

There are more than 225 airplanes based on the Placerville Airport. One reason is that, at 2,300 feet msl, the airport is located above the fog that covers the Central Valley to the west. It's also on the way to Yosemite National Park and is near the historically significant town of Placerville. Many pilots land and tie down, rent a car, and spend a week on a driving tour of this fascinating part of the state.

It's a long walk to town from the airport, and without a restaurant on the field for day-trippers, most fly-in visitors call Enterprise Rent-A-Car in advance. Here is a starting list of the many attractions located in the Placerville area.

Ghosts, mine shafts, and the hanging tree

The hills around Placerville are laced with mine shafts. Those '49ers were not slackers in their quest for a big payoff. One of the more accessible examples of a hard-rock-type gold mine tunnels more than 350 feet back into bedrock. The Gold Bug mine, located one mile north of U.S. 50 on Bedford Avenue, also features a museum and gift shop, hiking trails, and self- or docent-guided tours. For the small sum of $2, visitors can try their hand at panning for gold. For more information on Gold Bug Park and the Gold Bug mine, visit the Web site ( or call 530/642-5207.

If you think you might need a scone and a cup of organically grown and freshly ground coffee before venturing underground, stop by the Cozmic Café at the corner of Main and Cedar streets. The café, recently remodeled by owner and manager Kim Cooper, is housed in the Pearson's Soda Works building. After a disastrous fire destroyed most of the town's wooden buildings in 1856, the soda works building was constructed in 1859. It features 3-foot-thick masonry walls. After refreshments, head to the back of the building — there's no extra cost to tour the mine shaft but be advised that the shaft is reported to be home to a ghost. I didn't see the ghost, but the flash unit on my camera malfunctioned while I was trying to photograph the entrance to the shaft.

Many of the buildings in town predate the twentieth century, and a few remain from the Gold Rush days. The Historic Cary House Hotel, located at the southern end of Main Street, has 37 fully restored rooms. The original Cary House was built in 1857. In 1915 that building was torn down and replaced. The fourth story was added in 1931. The present owners bought it in 1978. Rooms and suites feature authentic antique and vintage furnishings. For more information, visit the Web site ( or call 530/622-4271.

Across the street from the Cary House is the Hangman Tree. You'll recognize this historic spot by the life-size dummy hanging by the neck off a branch that sticks out of the front of the building. Placerville was called "Old Hangtown" for years because the locals strung up three desperados from a tree that stood in the spot the building now occupies. It has been reported that a sociable ghost resides in the building.

The Hangtown Fry, a well-known breakfast dish, was first served in Placerville. According to local history, a cook first whipped it up after a pros-pector who had just made a strike ordered "the most expensive dish in town." The cook replied that the most expensive things he had were oysters, eggs, and bacon. The rest is history.

Victorian downtown and Apple Hill

There are many historic buildings on Main Street — the original firehouse that has been in continuous use as the City Hall since 1854; the Placerville Hardware store at 441 Main Street is the oldest continuously operating hardware store west of the Mississippi River; and the Bell Tower, which was originally used to summon the local volunteer firemen, dates from 1865.

There are also a number of Victorian-era buildings, replete with the fanciful gingerbread craftsmanship typical of the finest edifices of that era, that have been converted into small bed-and-breakfasts. One good example, the Combellack-Blair House, is only a short distance off Main Street on Cedar.

For more information on these and other downtown attractions, visit the Web site ( day_trip1.html).

Apple Hill is up the valley six miles and is located north of U.S. 50, Carson Road, and the original Pony Express Trail. The area is a wonderland for apple lovers. The 32 orchards are abloom with apple blossoms in the spring, and the farms come into their own in the fall as apples — as well as other fruit such as pears, peaches, cherries, persimmons, and plums — ripen to harvest.

The farms are open long hours during the harvesting season from mid-September through mid-December. Apple Hill also is home to vineyards and Christmas tree farms. For more information, visit the Web site ( or call 530/644-7692.

Placerville's 150th (sesquicentennial) birthday takes place on May 15. For information, visit the Web site (

You owe it to yourself to fly in to Placerville. The airport is a good one and the town has its own unique qualities that will draw you back.

E-mail the author at [email protected].