Plan a trip to California Gold Country: A Gold Rush road trip
In California Gold Country you can follow in the footsteps of Gold Rush pioneers, try your hand at gold planning, enjoy cute little towns, get outdoors, and eat at amazing restaurants. We’ll help you plan a road trip to Grass Valley, Nevada City, Placer County, Auburn, and Placerville.
When we moved to the Gold Country in California’s Sierra Nevada foothills, I got terribly excited about the sign marking the Overland Emigrant Trail a quarter mile from our house-to-be. I envisioned the old days with covered wagon trains circling for the night along the creek it paralleled – and here I was going out for runs where horses and pioneers likely trod 170 years ago.
California Gold Country stretches some 300 miles along the beautiful rolling foothills east of Sacramento – remaining for the most part above the fog line and below the heavy snow line. Small, picturesque, historic towns dot the main highway that runs along the east-west swath where the 1849 Gold Rush began. In fact, the highway is officially designated Highway 49, named after the “49ers” who wasted no time rushing to the area from the East Coast to seek their fortunes. Many of the same small towns, then with muddy streets in winter and dusty in summer and lined with raucous bars and plenty of brothels, are today’s charming tourist destinations. You will find panoramic Sierra vistas, historic facades and streets, quaint hotels, covered bridges, small town festivities, not to mention many of today’s Gold Rush pioneers — restauranteurs and winemakers — still seeking their fortunes.
With eight counties and 15-20 towns (depending on what you call a town) to explore up and down Highway 49, not to mention notable parks, trails, and lakes, covering the entire stretch in one slam is, well, impossible. So, let’s take a peek at five spectacular places to visit in the Northern Central Gold Country area — from more developed to a little quirky.
Things to do in Grass Valley / Nevada City
For visitors, the lines may blur between these twin cities, but make no mistake they are different (and I have always sensed a bit of friendly competition between them). Nevada City, just four miles north of Grass Valley, has a Victorian flair with magnificent mansions and quaint B&Bs lining hilly streets – that’s because it was a richer town where the owners of the gold mines and other businessmen lived. Grass Valley was, and still is, the commercial center. It is where the Cornish miners from Cornwall, England, lived as well as the even less privileged Chinese workers. Notable is that Grass Valley is home to the oldest Gold Country hotel in continuous operation, the Holbrooke Hotel, founded in 1862 and a California State Landmark, which saw famous guests, such as Ulysses S. Grant as well as infamous ones such as entertainer Lola Montez. In 2020, a long renovation was planned to be finished.
Today, any visitor to the area should poke around both towns, walking around the back of the main streets since you can find old stone walls and buildings that were once banks or jails.
Winemakers and restauranteurs too have also transformed the scene. Each town now has three winery-specific tasting rooms, and the area, with nearly ideal weather for winemaking, has nearly 20 wineries – not a bad count when the population of the two towns combined doesn’t inch much over 15,000. Don’t miss Nevada City Winery in the heart of Nevada City – it is not only a tasting room but the winery itself that kicked off the re-emergence of area winemaking in 1980. If you time it right, you can watch a fall crush in the parking lot below the tasting room’s (secret) back deck and take a peek into the cellars there, too.
Getting outdoors is a must all up and down Highway 49. From your Grass Valley or Nevada City base, there are a couple of spots to try: The Deer Creek Tribute Trail, a short walk from downtown Nevada City, has a beautiful suspension bridge crossing the creek. Family-friendly Pioneer Trail just north of Nevada City on Highway 20 has easy access. Be sure to get a look at the “Lone Grave” where then-2-year-old pioneer Julius Apperson was buried in 1858. Other options: Empire Mine State Historic Park trails (no fee required), or South Yuba River State Park, where a couple of swimming holes are clothing optional, so choose wisely. Note: We are sad to report that the Jones Bar fire in 2020 destroyed the nation’s first handicapped-accessible wilderness trail, the Independence Trail, which followed a former gold-mining ditch with its flumes and bridges – rebuilding is planned.
Things to do in Auburn
Probably one of the most accessible Gold Country towns, Auburn hugs the east-west Interstate 80 artery from San Francisco to all parts east. Just before arriving in Auburn, the interstate starts to gain altitude as you head into the Sierra Nevada Mountains from the Sacramento Valley. You know there is history ahead because the first things you’ll spy are an old railroad trellis tracking over Interstate 80, and the historic county courthouse’s graceful dome looming high above you. The old courthouse was completed in 1884 and is still in use today.
Bathed in Gold Rush history, there are more buildings than you have fingers on the National Register of Historic Places in the county seat of Placer. Former historic rail depots, slanting brick buildings that were perhaps once jails, wooden sidewalks, and old firehouses will all compete for attention.
Although many towns and burgs along Highway 49 are “Gateways to the Sierra,” Auburn is in fact a pure gateway to the Auburn State Recreation Area with 40 miles of the North and Middle forks of the American River and hundreds of miles of trails. Recently, the town has taken on the moniker of the Endurance Capital of the World (sounds good so I won’t judge the superlative nature). The town is home to numerous endurance events, both professional and recreational, like the Western States 100 Endurance Run (which I completed a few years back), not to mention the place to come for everyday outings on foot, horse or bike, or in a boat, or even a splash in the river. Once you descend to the confluence of the river folks, you’ll see the old Mountain Quarries Railroad Bridge, now a footbridge across the river for pedestrians and on the National Register of Historic Places. Honestly, the graceful triple arches of the 1912 reinforced-concrete bridge remain a favorite of mine (Pssst, sound like a local and call it “No Hands Bridge”).
One difference in Auburn’s Gold Rush history is its claim to the Pony Express and Transcontinental Railroad history, plus the famed cross-country Lincoln Highway of 1913 tracks through Auburn. Currently, the Gold Rush Museum is housed in the historic Auburn Depot, which was the fourth depot on the site. The first one was completed in 1865 to serve the new Transcontinental Railroad through town.
With Auburn as a base, you can head deep into the hills to get a real feel for how the ‘49ers lived with a visit to the tiny village of Michigan Bluff. Today, it houses 20 or so people, give or take, but in its heyday, there were 10,000 living in the encampment founded in 1849.
If you happen through the area during the summer months, take a look for the Heritage Trail of museums with free visits up and down the county every weekend.
Things to do in Placerville
Placerville’s nickname of “Hangtown” tells the story of the town’s rather lawless past: Anybody caught misbehaving in those days met swift justice … at the end of a rope. Today, it celebrates that bawdy history at its annual Hangtown Days in June when a reenactment of a pioneer wagon train pulls into town after a week on the trail from Nevada. Spectators can watch all kinds of other historic reenactments, including a shoot-out. Aside from a saunter through town, travelers will find Placerville a superb gateway not only to the wine country and bountiful “Apple Hill,” but also to the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park – THE spot where gold was discovered in 1848. Demonstration days there recreate history monthly, tours are available, try your hand at gold-panning, and consider the Coloma Gold Rush Live event normally in October where a tent town is filled with “adventurers, gold-seekers and charlatans” recreating the era.
Also, not to be missed, is Apple Hill, just east of Placerville. The sprawling region once was home to a few pear orchards. A blight in the early ‘60s forced the ranchers to pull together to decide what to do – and Apple Hill was born. Today, it is home to 55 farmers, including Christmas tree farms, as well as wineries and tasting rooms (Our lead photo with Michael and HI Travel Tales pup Kayla was taken at Wofford Acres Vineyards). In the fall, the orchards burst with dozens of varieties of apples, while on-site cafes churn out fresh-pressed cider, apple fritters, and apple pies stacked high with fresh fruit. Wander from farm to farm to taste and sip – and you will end up with some booty to take home any time of the year.
Things to do in Dutch Flat
Now comes the quirk that still exists in tiny burgs smattered here and there in the Gold Country. You could easily drive right past the exit to Dutch Flat since you can’t see anything along the road itself. But don’t. Dutch Flat has changed a lot over the years: Back in about 1853, it had some 6,000 residents. Today, the population is maybe 200. This is the home to long-timers who like the off-the-beaten-path peace, and new-timers and artists who want to escape city life. Even in the 19th century, it was called “the Athens of the Foothills” with its thriving theater and debating societies. Today, the quaint Golden Drift Museum is jammed with historical photos and writings – you really could read for hours. And don’t miss the town cemetery or the renovated Dutch Flat Hotel (circa 1852).
Then comes the annual 4th of July Parade, which has to make two loops around the tiny town otherwise the parade doesn’t last long enough. Held non-stop since the 1860s, the parade has a reputation and long history of water-fight hijinks. Although the town fathers (and mothers) have enforced a few rules when things got out of hand a few years ago, the water fights have continued. Parade spectators show up with super soakers, water blasters, and buckets, prepared to take on anybody who wants to get wet. As one local told me a couple of years ago, “We take our water fights very seriously here.”
Try gold panning in California Gold Country
With the entire Gold Country area’s heritage stemming from the Gold Rush, who doesn’t want to visit a gold mine or try their hand at gold panning once there? Grass Valley’s Empire Mine State Historic Park is a must-see for any visitor. It was once the richest hard-rock mine in California, producing 5.8 million ounces of gold in its 106-year history.
At the South Yuba River State Park, outside of Grass Valley, you can also try your hand at gold panning on weekends and at special events, swishing grit around in a pan to find riches – sometimes gold flakes do appear, no joshing. To the south, closer to Placerville, at Marshall Gold Discovery State Park, you can try gold panning on certain Saturdays and at special events.
With so much to see, when is the best time of year to come to the Northern California Gold Country? Every season is! Fall in Gold Rush towns offers changing leaves and cooler temperatures; winters are moderate with plenty of holiday fairs and fare; in the spring, you can find bounties of wildflowers; and although summers can be pretty warm, rivers and lakes can keep you cool.
Even after calling the Gold Country home for a number of years, I still get excited about the discoveries that exist around every corner.