A Guide to California's Gold Country

A Guide to California's Gold Country

By Rachael Medina June 23, 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.

Nestled between Northern and Central California lies a stunning and historic region known as Gold Country. As the name implies, this segment of the Golden State rose to fame during the Gold Rush, when flecks of the precious metal were found along the Sierra Nevada mountain range in 1848. After the first bits were discovered, hundreds of thousands of people migrated west in search of their own fortunes and a way to realize their California dreams. While it’s steeped in decades of history, the Gold Country we know today has much more to offer than lessons of days gone by.

An Introduction to California’s Gold Country

Complete with powerful rivers, wide-open valleys, giant groves of sequoias, and dozens of charming towns, Gold Country is as much of a destination today as it was during the Gold Rush. With quaint destinations such as Auburn, Placerville, Nevada City, and Sonora tucked throughout the region, it’s easy to connect with nature, history, and one another when you take it slow and enjoy the journey. Whether you’re searching for somewhere to go river rafting in the warmer months, a place to see fall foliage when the leaves begin to change, or an underrated town for your next weekend getaway, you can find it all near Highway 49 (also known as the Golden Chain Highway) in Gold Country.

Top 9 Things to do in Gold Country

Head to Mariposa County to learn about the state's rich mining history. Photo courtesy of California State Mining & Mineral Museum.

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1. Visit The California State Mining and Mineral Museum

See the rare, crystallized gold Fricot Nugget that was found in 1864 in the American River. This impressive, 13.8-pound mass is the Golden State’s largest remaining piece of crystalline gold from the 1800s. During your visit, see how gold was discovered and extracted from the surrounding rocks, walk through a mine tunnel, and check out the rotating displays honoring the Mother Lode. 

2. See Tuolumne County’s Columbia State Historic Park 

Immerse yourself in Gold Country with a walk down Columbia State Historic Park’s wooden sidewalks, a ride in an authentic stagecoach, and a trip to the blacksmith.

3. Dip your toes in the river at South Yuba River State Park

If you’re only going to make a few stops on your way through Gold Country, California, South Yuba River State Park ought to be one of them. With miles of hiking trails, plenty of swimming holes, and wildflower meadows in the spring, this is one of the most stunning expenses near the Sierra Nevada. The park is also notable for housing the longest single-span covered bridge on the planet as well as for having the first-identified wheelchair-accessible wilderness trail in America.

Escape to Folsom Lake in Placer County for a day of swimming, fishing, and windsurfing in scenic surroundings.

4. Take a dive in Folsom Lake

Located in Placer County, Folsom Lake is an ideal place to kick back and relax. Whether you want to go fishing, windsurfing, swimming, or picnicking, Folsom Lake is the spot to be if you’re willing to take a detour west of Highway 49. 

5. Go camping

Stay at the Gold Country Campground Resort for a unique experience in the elements. Though this campground offers RV camping and cabin rentals, the best way to see California is outdoors, under the stars—so pitch a tent and unwind without giving up the amenities you crave. Enjoy a firepit and picnic table at your campsite, plus Wi-Fi, mini-golf, a swimming pool, dog park, horseshoes, showers, a camp store, and more. Settle in and hike one of the nature trails in the Sierra Nevada foothills before heading back to appreciate the company and camp amenities as the sun goes down. 

6. Visit Empire Mine State Historic Park

The Empire Mine State Historic Park is one of the richest, deepest, and oldest gold mines in California. Over its 100-plus year history, the site excavated 5.8-million ounces of gold before it closed in 1956. In addition to the mine itself, there are 367 miles of abandoned mine shafts, 856 acres of backcountry, and over a dozen miles of trails to explore at the park.

Admire lavishly restored locomotives and cars at the California State Railroad Museum. Photo courtesy of the California State Railroad Museum.

7. Stop by the California State Railroad Museum 

Situated in Old Sacramento, the California State Railroad Museum is home to 19 steam locomotives dating from 1862 to 1944. The Gold Country museum also features several exhibits detailing railroad workers’ experiences, the evolution of railroad photography, and an impressive collection of toy trains. 

8. Spend a day on the American River

The American River is full of rapids, making it a thrilling stop on any road trip. Go with a group and choose your own adventure with river floats, active rapid rides, and everything in between. If you’d prefer to kayak, hike, or fish, the South Fork won’t disappoint—as the friendliest of the American River’s three forks, there’s something for everyone. 

9. Drive into Yosemite Valley or west to San Francisco

Now that you’ve made it all the way through Gold Country, travel east into Yosemite National Park or west to San Francisco to continue exploring the state’s wondrous history and natural attractions. The Gold Rush helped to shape the state, and without it, California would look much different. Yosemite was founded about 50 years after the Gold Rush, yet it is a major destination today. On the other hand, San Francisco was the stopping point for many gold miners back in the day, leading to a diverse population and a plethora of inventions that turned the Bay Area into an innovation hub. 

Whether you’re seeking a better understanding of the Golden State’s history, a gorgeous landscape, or an escape from regular life, there’s nothing that quite compares to Gold Country.

WRITTEN BY
Rachael Medina

WRITTEN BY Rachael Medina

Rachael Medina is the staff writer and content manager for California.com. She was born and raised just outside the Mojave Desert in Southern California and moved to the redwood forests of Humboldt C…

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