During the California Gold Rush, and in the years that followed, 19th-century Argonauts carved countless roads through the Northern Sierra Nevada Mountains. While most of the miners ended up broke, they nonetheless left behind a wealth of old mountain roads that wind through a landscape still marked by diggings, ruins, and dashed dreams.

Three backroad tours in particular offer the chance to spend a weekend following the trails of the Forty-Niners in which to enjoy superlative Sierra Nevada scenery.

East-West Henness Pass Road, a rare trans-Sierra back-country way, courses along high ridges through meadows of the seemingly impenetrable Yuba River region north of Interstate 80. It extends between Verdi, Nevada (at the eastern end), and California Highway 49 near Camptonville (at the west end). A mix of rocky, two-wheel-drive high-clearance roadbed and paved two-lane segments, it covers upward of 90 miles, depending on whether the scenic spur to the 8444-ft Verdi Peak at the east end is included in the trip.

Patrick Henness developed the route around 1850, and for years it was the primary freight road across the Sierra between the mines of the Comstock Lode at Virginia City, Nevada, and Marysville, California. Today, those who travel it encounter sparkling lakes, ruins left from its heyday, grand vistas across Tahoe National Forest, and even Native American rock art.

Another sojourn through the region of the northern mines begins at historic Nevada City. It mixes dirt county roads with narrow and fairly rough high-clearance trails.

From Nevada City, North Bloomfield Road (No. 552) twists and bends to cross the South Yuba River, then climbs through mountains that remain scarred from hydraulic mining. At places like Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park, visitors can see the lingering effects of the mining, where mountainsides were hosed away to expose gold-bearing gravels.