Striking Culinary Gold In California's Sierra Foothills

A couple short hours outside of San Francisco near Sacramento lies a playground so rich in activities, it's hard to narrow them down for one single vacation. El Dorado County in the Sierra Foothills Gold Country is steeped not just in American prospecting history but also decadent restaurants, picturesque wineries, and loads of outdoor opportunities. Check out this itinerary for the best way to enjoy the region.

Where to Stay

Near the small mining town of Lotus, Eden Vale Inn offers an escape from the everyday B n' B. Vast, impeccably landscaped grounds with quiet, scenic nooks perfect for cozying up with a book, delicious breakfast fare and friendly concierge services await visitors to Eden Vale. Food lovers will covet the dense vegetable garden and fruit trees that dot the expansive property and animal lovers will enjoy the company of Sidney and Mr. B, the inn's furry mascots. Their five-star ratings and reviews are well-earned and not overblown — it's a true Eden in a farm-dotted valley. Sure, other cozy places to stay abound, but Eden Vale is the... ahem... gold standard.

Where to Taste

There are over 70 wineries to explore in the El Dorado American Viticultural Appellation (AVA). I found it lush with earnest smiles, low-priced tasting fees, and no attitude — a refreshing departure from the glitz and glam flourishing in many other wine regions. With over 30 different grape varieties growing there, it's an enchanting place to explore Italian-origin varietals like barbera and sangiovese as well as riesling, viognier, and malbec.

Driving from one winery to the next allows for scenic views of rolling vineyards, orchards, grazing cows, and mountain vistas — a respite from bustling city life. In the Apple Hill/Camino growing region, don't-miss wineries include Madroña Vineyards, where welcoming owners Maggie and Paul Bush host guests on a daily basis at their homey estate winery. Paul talks passionately about winemaking; bend his ear if you get the chance. Organically grown, the wines are also reasonably priced. Best tastes include the Madroña Dry Riesling, Zinfandel, and Barbera. 

Second-generation Boeger Winery, a windy 15-minute jaunt from Madroña, is the ideal picnic place to enjoy pastoral scenery and a bottle of wine. A haven for history enthusiasts, Boeger sits on one of the oldest vineyard sites in California, dating back to the 1850s. Be sure to take a peek at the original winery and distillery. And don't miss the Barbera, Pinot Gris, and an Italian-varietal blend called Migliore.  To begin the day, grab pinic fixings at Farm Table in Placerville like housemade charcuterie and unique sandwiches. 

Foodies should plan their El Dorado trip during the summer and fall months to experience the Pairings Lunches at Miraflores Winery. From June through October, owner Victor Alvarez brings in a different Sacramento-based chef and sommelier each weekend to create and serve four-course lunches overlooking his rolling, hillside vineyards. The sommelier or chef describes each dish in detail and explains how all the flavors work together in harmony. Paired with four Miraflores wines, no menu is ever the same. Exceptional Miraflores wines include Viognier and Barbera, and their divine sweet wines can substitute for dessert. 

Where to Eat

If you're staying at Eden Vale, Café Mahjaic is a must-try. Just a short drive down the road in the tiny, old mining town of Lotus, this restaurant is housed in an historic General Store built in 1855. John and Gina Metropulos serve up Greek-inspired dishes but also have a few surprises available. Ask about the prix fixe options as they offer the best value. 

Placerville, the main city in the El Dorado area, has the feel of a small town but offers big-town culinary tastes. Within a short walk on Main Street, there's the hip New American Heyday Café, French-inspired Allez!, creatively casual The Independent, and a burger joint called Bricks. They're all reasonably priced and serve an eclectic variety of dishes to please all palates. And take a little time before or after dinner to walk the neighborhood's collection of galleries and antique shops.

What to Do

To burn off the culinary exploration calories, choose from a myriad of outdoor activities, like hiking, cycling, kayaking, and whitewater rafting on the American River near Placerville. Rafting companies like American River Recreation will help you navigate the level three rapids, no matter how nervous you might be. The river is also home to salmon in season, and fly fishing is allowed.

Throughout the stunning hillsides, there are hundreds of hiking trails, from easy to challenging, from river's edge to mountain top, offering plenty of ways to enjoy the great weather spring until fall. And if you fancy a post- or pre-trip ski excursion during winter, slopes are only an hour east in Lake Tahoe.

But if panning for gold strikes your fancy, El Dorado reportedly still has gold in them there hills. You will see remnants of the gold rush era throughout your stay, from abandoned mines to beautiful old brick buildings, leftover from the shiny days of old. No matter what your focus, El Dorado should make your list of desired destinations.

Food, wine and health writer at