Pluck a bit of gold from a riverbed scoured by the original ’49ers. Descend deep into the earth to check out unusual rock formations. Get your heart racing with a ride down whitewater rapids. For all this adventure and more, Gold Country has your number—and your kids'.
Sporting California’s capital, Sacramento, this region is steeped in history, and fun ways for your family to learn about it firsthand abound. Here are eight places you can experience history, California style.
1. Columbia State Historic Park, Columbia
With throwback charm and a treasure trove of historic artifacts, the Columbia State Historic Park presents the Gold Rush in living, breathing color. Costumed docents do more than lead tours of this carefully preserved Mother Lode town—they actually live and work here in a variety of period-appropriate shops and trades. Catch a ride on an authentic stagecoach, order a cold, locally made sarsaparilla soda in a Western-style saloon, or feel the heat in a working blacksmith's forge. There’s also a Wells Fargo express office and other relics of California's early mining days. The town even sounds authentic—no cars allowed here, though you will hear the clip-clop of horses. (More: Columbia State Historic Park)
2. The American River, Placer County
The most popular whitewater-rafting river in the West, the American River tumbles through Gold Country, an inviting jumble of churning rapids, deep pools, and tumbling cascades. Each of the American’s three forks serve up their own style of watery fun, and outfitters offer everything from family-friendly half-day floats to white-knuckle multi-day adventures, as well as rentals of everything you need.
Which fork works for you? The most popular is the South Fork—starting at Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, its Class II-III rapids are perfect for families with young children and first-time rafters. The lower segments of the North and Middle Forks offer easy Class II rapids—a great place to try out whitewater canoeing or kayaking. But it’s a whole other story upriver, with upper segments of both forks boasting Class IV-V rapids with names like Bogus Thunder and Texas Chainsaw Mama. (More: The American River)
3. Black Chasm Cavern, Amador County
Gold is not the only treasure hidden underground in this part of the world. Natural caves are another remarkable find in the region. Black Chasm Cavern, a National Natural Landmark located a little more than an hour’s drive east of Sacramento, offers a the friendly 50-minute Walk Tour, letting you see varied rock formations, including stalactites, stalagmites, flowstones, and rare delicate helictite crystals. Children ages 8 and up can join you in a three-hour, aboveground Labyrinth Tour; once they don the required hard hats and safety goggles, they can scramble, slide, climb, and slither through rock formations uncovered by hydraulic mining in the 19th century.
For tamer discoveries, try gemstone mining, using screen bottomed boxes to sift for treasures, and gold panning, also offered on site. (More: Black Chasm Cavern)
4. Old Sacramento
Get a sense of Sacramento’s raucous Gold Rush-era years in renovated Old Sacramento, a 28-acre/11-hectare National Historic Landmark. Stroll along wooden-plank sidewalks, past restored buildings housing shops, taverns, and restaurants in this back-in-time quarter. There are also excellent museums, including the California Railroad Museum and the California Museum. A restored riverboat, the Delta King, invites you on board for brunch, dinner, and even an overnight stay. Horse-drawn carriages offer rides, and docents in period costumes lead historic walking tours—a great way to learn about some of the district’s secrets, like underground passageways and chambers. (Kids love the spooky ghost tours, offered in October.) Climb aboard a historic steam locomotive for a scenic ride on the Sacramento Southern Railroad. If you prefer to be on the water instead of beside it, hop aboard a scenic one-hour Hornblower cruise. (More: Old Sacramento)
You can feast on tasty bivalves in a number of beautiful California locales, but it’s much more satisfying to do so right where they’re harvested. Enter the town of Marshall, located just north of Point Reyes National Seashore, where more than half of the state’s shellfish growers lease acreage on the shallow bay’s floor.
Taste the fruits of their labor at The Marshall Store. Order oysters prepared every which way—not just raw, but also barbecued, smoked, Rockefeller (spinach, cheese, and breadcrumbs), and Kilpatrick-style (bacon and Worcestershire sauce). Then find a spot at the outdoor tables—live-edge wood slabs perched on oak barrels—and gaze at the bay while you toss back your bounty.
After your meal, rent a boat at Blue Waters Kayaking and paddle along the bay. Twelve miles long and one mile wide, Tomales Bay is home to dozens of shorebird and waterbird species, including blue herons and glistening white egrets. On moonless nights, Blue Waters offers an unforgettable guided paddling tour to witness the magic of bioluminescent plankton glowing in the dark. (More: Marshall)
6. Moaning Caverns, Calaveras County
Discovered by miners in 1851, Moaning Caverns, a vertical chamber near Angels Camp, is so massive it could hold the entire Statue of Liberty. Take a spiral staircase or consider rappelling the 165 feet from the top of the chamber to the bottom, where you’ll find beautiful, otherworldly rock formations glistening with moisture. For intrepid explorers (prepare to belly crawl), a 2.5-hour adventure tour delves into the cave’s deepest burrows, roughly 280 feet below the floor of the main chamber, through narrow passageways with names like Meat Grinder, Pancake Squeeze, and Birth Canal. (More: Moaning Caverns)
7. Empire Mine State Historic Park, Grass Valley
Get a one-two punch of experiences with a visit to this remarkable site in Grass Valley, roughly 60 miles northeast of Sacramento in Nevada County. First, spend time in the Visitor Center to learn about one of California’s oldest, largest, deepest, longest, and richest gold mines. To get a sense of the size of the mine, see the scale model representing the mine’s 5-square-mile network, then walk outside to visit the entrance of the actual shaft—a tiny peak into a staggering underground maze of 367 miles.
Now shift gears—mentally and physically—with a guided tour through the grounds of William Bowers Bourn Jr., who took over management of the mine in 1879. Bourn Cottage—a humble name for this magnificent country estate, where no expense was spared to create a two-story stone citadel patterned after the noble estates of 19th-century England, complete with redwood interiors, and leaded-glass windows. (More: Empire Mine State Historic Park).
8. California State Railroad Museum, Sacramento
Consistently ranked as one of the best railroad museums in the country, the expansive California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento presents 21 meticulously restored “iron horse” locomotives, plus period-perfect railway cars, many open for one-of-a-kind walk-throughs. Incredible attention to detail gives you a sense of what it was like to travel by train before cars became king, and visitors can climb inside a high-speed train simulator to feel what it’s like to pilot a modern high-speed train.
On spring and summer weekends (April–September), the museum offers excursion rides every hour on the popular Sacramento Southern Railroad, which chugs along the banks of the Sacramento River right through Old Sacramento. Take in the view from a first-class observation car, a closed coach, or an open-air gondola (guess which one kids like best). (More: California State Railroad Museum)