The Gold Country Road Trip of a Lifetime

The Gold Country Road Trip of a Lifetime

By California.com
September 20, 2020

As California mitigates health risks during the COVID-19 pandemic, some travel restrictions may remain in certain communities. Call the local and regional tourism offices to learn more about the restrictions in your intended destination. Thank you for reading, and stay safe.

The tales of Gold Country—a huge part of the California Dream we live today—have inspired millions of people throughout the ages. For your next Northern California vacation, venture off on an unforgettable Gold Country road trip to learn more about this fascinating region. Immerse yourself in California’s Gold Country spirit by following Highway 49, which takes you back through history while leading to the unsung small towns, historic museums, and spectacular natural landscapes of the area.

Start your adventure in Sacramento, where Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park will remind you of the pioneer Johann Augustus Sutter and his carpenter James Marshall, who discovered gold in California. Since the Gold Rush started in 1848, the town of Sacramento grew in prominence by acting as the transit link for miners between the western slope of the Sierra Nevada and the port of San Francisco. Today, Sacramento is not only the state’s capital, but also an energetic cosmopolitan city offering an abundance of entertainment, eateries, and pampering stays. Spend some time in the city for sightseeing before heading north along Highway 49, also known as the Golden Chain Highway.

Can't-Miss Gold Country Museums and State Parks

Explore the collection of 19 locomotives dating from 1862 to 1944. Photo courtesy of California State Railroad Museum Foundation.

 1. See for yourself where it all began—at Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park. It was here that James W. Marshall discovered shining gold flecks in 1848. To experience one of the top things to do in Gold Country, pan for gold in the American River and transport yourself back in time. Walk through the ghost town of Coloma and explore an abandoned jail and other ruins. 

2. Visit the California State Railroad Museum to explore the locomotive collection, find out what really happened at the famous Golden Spike ceremony, and enjoy a train ride on The El Dorado lounge car. 

3. Make your way to the California State Mining and Mineral Museum and lay eyes on the legendary Fricot Nugget. Weighing 13.8-pounds, this nugget is the state’s largest remaining piece of crystalline gold from the 1800s.

4. Imagine the actual size of one of California’s oldest, deepest, and richest gold mines by looking at the scale model—now presented at the Empire Mine State Historic Park’s Visitor Center—which was originally hidden in The Secret Room when the mine was in operation. 

5. Examine the operating stamp mill at The Gold Rush Museum in Auburn, and find out more about the impact the Gold Rush had on the town. 

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6. While in Auburn, also drop by the Gold Country Medical History Museum, located on the site of Placer Country’s first hospital (established in 1855). 

7. Tour the North Star Mining Museum & Pelton Wheel Exhibit to learn about the mining industry and the heritage left behind.

8. Explore Columbia State Historic Park in Columbia, California—once known as the "Gem of the Southern Mines"—and discover what an Old Western town would've looked like back in the 1850s.  

9. Educate yourself at Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park, which showcases the culture and lifestyle of tribes living within a Miwok village. The park also has an exhibition displaying technology and crafts of the Miwok and other Sierra Nevada Native Americans such as the Maidu and Konkow.

Visit the legendary Yosemite National Park to view cascading waterfalls, towering granite monoliths, and ancient sequoias.

10. Wander through Yosemite National Park's Yosemite Museum—the first building erected as a museum in the national park system—to learn about the structure's construction in Yosemite Valley and its unique architectural style. Make a day of it and spend the night at a Gold Country campground; after all, Yosemite is one of the best national parks for camping

11. Visit the Old Jail Museum in Truckee. Built in 1875, this is one of the only surviving 19th-century jailhouses in the West. Stop by to learn about the work of town’s peace officers during the Gold Rush era. 

12. Step back in time at Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park—the reason for America’s first environmental lawsuit—and observe huge cliffs carved by mighty jets of water in the hopes of finding gold. Soon after the lawsuit, the practice of nearly washing away entire mountains in search of gold was abandoned, and the park became a natural and historical preserve.

Things to do in Gold Country

Make a pit stop at the Calavera Big Trees State Park to unwind under the groves of looming sequoias.

Hiking

After seeing the top Gold Country museums, make your way to the Calavera Big Trees State Park. Traverse through the two groves of giant sequoias preserved in the park and let the magical power of the trees soothe your soul. Fish for rainbow trout at the Stanislaus River, take a swim at Beaver Creek, hike the 2.5-mile Lava Bluffs Trail, and gaze upon the immense size of the Empire State tree.

Hike along the roughly three-mile Point Defiance Trail at South Yuba River State Park and unplug from the modern world. Traipse through oak woodland, South Yuba River Canyon, and the river itself while taking in vistas of the mountain landscape surrounding you. Follow the trail to Englebright Lake for a quick dip, then continue on to reach the historic Bridgeport Covered Bridge—the longest intact single-span covered bridge—before the pathway comes to an end. Head to Kneebone Beach to see what all the hype is about and bask in the sun after completing the easy trail. 

Spelunking

Continue your adventure and visit California Cavern; draw inspiration from the caverns just as John Muir did decades ago. Join the walking tour or one of the expeditions and create everlasting memories. Stop by Black Chasm Cavern and Moaning Cavern to round out your Gold Country cavern experience. Then, go for a hike along Miners Trail, and purchase souvenirs in an unusual way by panning for gemstones just like in the olden days. 

Rafting

Once you had enough of the underworld, experience the waters of Gold Country. River rafting in Central California is almost a tradition. The American River—the life source for Gold Country miners—now provides water fun for any age. Rush down the North Fork for some scenic vistas, spot remnants of the Gold Rush along the Middle Fork, and take it easy at the South Fork. 

Must-See Gold Country Towns

Cruise over the American River to reach Gold Country's string of charming and historic towns.

Nevada City

Cruise down Broad Street and admire Old Western buildings representing the spirit of Gold Country. Don't miss the Nevada Theatre, which was established in 1865 and is considered the oldest operating theater on the West Coast. Swing by the historic Firehouse No.1 Museum, too. Completed in 1861, this locale gives visitors the opportunity to learn more about life during the Gold Rush.

Auburn

No California Gold Country road trip is complete without seeing one of the most underrated small towns in California: Auburn. Visit on a Saturday morning to savor the real farm-to-fork experience at the town's farmers market. Meander through Old Town to view historical landmarks of the settlement established in 1849 and to discover mouthwatering eateries, captivating specialty shops, and an authentic small-town atmosphere.

Placerville

Go apple picking at one of the many Apple Hill farms in Placerville, and dig into one of the best homemade apple cakes you’ve ever tried. Feast on a lovely luncheon at the Bodhaine Ranch, established in the late 19th century, before fully immersing yourself in pumpkin season with an organic pumpkin pie for dessert. Remember to stop by the Harris Family Farm to purchase your pumpkin for the upcoming Halloween holiday, too. 

Plymouth

Pumpkin patches are aplenty along Highway 49. Stop in Plymouth—known as Pokerville when it was established in 1871—and pick a pumpkin before continuing on your way. Visit Amador Flower Farm and meander through the corn maze, go pumpkin picking, and grab a potted daylily to plant in your garden. You'll always remember this adventure. 

Sonora 

Nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, the city of Sonora was established in 1848 and known as the “Queen of the Southern Mines.” Explore the historic downtown; swing by the quirky Legends Books, Antiques, and Soda Fountain; and spend the night at the Barretta Gardens Inn to immerse yourself in Victorian times.

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