Driving the sleepy stretch of winding Highway 49 between Auburn and Placerville, it’s hard to believe the region was the booming heart of one of the most significant events in California history. At the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, you can step back in time to learn about one of the nation’s most impactful events. It was right here, in a stretch of the snowmelt-fed American River that slides past the don’t-blink town of Coloma, a sawmill employee named James Marshall first discovered glints of the precious metal in the river’s silt. The 1849 Gold Rush was on.
Coloma mushroomed into a town with some 10,000 people, and up went a schoolhouse, a general store, and a tin-roofed post office. These and other historic buildings are now protected by and maintained by the museum—in fact, about 70 percent of the town of Coloma is part of the park (map), and the community only has around a hundred year-round residents, making it a tranquil getaway. There’s an interesting Gold Discovery Museum, with historical artifacts and exhibits on Gold Rush–era history, such as a look at the many different cultures from around the world represented by those who flocked here seeking fortune, and background on the native peoples of the area as well. Also on site are a replica of Sutter’s Mill, a blacksmith shop, a re-creation of Marshall’s cabin, and the towering James Marshall Monument, which features a statue of Marshall pointing to the spot where he made the discovery.
Kids can give gold-panning a try on the Gold Discovery Tour, a guided experience offered twice a day that provides insights on the events that led up to the discovery and the boom that followed. After, explore leafy trails along the river to find a shady picnic spot. If you’re up for a hike, there are two excellent trails in the park. The 1.5-mile Monument Loop Hike includes a 250-foot climb that ends at the James Marshall Monument, and the Monroe Ridge Trail is a moderately demanding 2.3-mile hike with 400-foot elevation gain, linking the Marshall Monument with the North Beach picnic area.
Stick around for supper. Dinners at The Argonaut Farm to Fork Cafe, housed in a historic building a few doors down from the blacksmith shop, is partnered with local Bee Love Farms and incorporates their organic heirloom tomatoes, greens, and edible flowers into their menu.