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, the 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 first hand abound. Try gold panning in the same river where gold was first discovered in 1848. Tour some of the state’s richest mines and elegant homes built with boomtown fortunes. Ride historic steam locomotives and mysterious caverns. It’s history, California style.
With throwback charm and a treaure trove of historic artifacts, this park presents the Gold Rush in living, breathing color. Costumed docents do more than lead tours of this carefully preserved Mother Lode town—the state’s second largest city at the peak of the Gold Rush; 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.
Free historical tours of the park depart from the museum weekends at 11 a.m. (weekdays too, mid-June until Labor Day). Gold Rush Days take place on 2nd Saturday afternoons; costumed docents lead hands-on crafts and special tours, and kids can try gold-panning.
Insider's Tip: Summer can get hot and weekends become crowded, so aim for early mornings during the week if you can.
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. While its rich riparian ecosystem long supported Native American tribes, the next wave of humans—the legendary ‘49ers—saw the waterway as means to their fortune, panning for gold in the river silt and blasting banks with hydraulic spouts, hoping to reveal veins of the precious metal. While remnants of old mining equipment still poke up in or near the river and towns like Coloma still welcome visitors in search of river experiences, the rush for gold has mostly been replaced by the rush for adrenaline. 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.
"There is nothing quite like spending the night alongside the river, trout rising on the surface of the silvery water as evening falls and a frieze of stars paints the night sky."
While day trips are always a blast—especially on hot summer days when good-natured water fights between rafters break out with inviting frequency—there is nothing quite like spending the night alongside the river, trout rising on the surface of the silvery water as evening falls and a frieze of stars paints the night sky. Some outfitters go all out to create unique getaways; O.A.R.S. offers craft beer-tastings on some of its overnight trips, and American Whitewater Expeditions has a Wine & Whitewater trip.
Useful info: Before getting out on the water, check river conditions to see what you can expect. While in the area, drop by the American River Conservancy headquarters in Coloma, where you can book a docent-led hike or a private tour of Wakamatsu Farm, an historic landmark in Placerville, 10 miles away.
Gold is not the only treasure hidden underground in this part of the world. Natural caves are another remarkable find in the region. Children love scrambling down into an unseen world of strange formations and, when you switch off the torches, total darkness. Naturally cool caves can also be an inviting escape from the region’s hot summer days.
This National Natural Landmark, a little more than an hour’s drive east of Sacramento, offers a children friendly 50 minute Walk Tour, letting you see varied rock formations, including stalactites, stalagmites, flowstones, and rare delicate helictite crystals. Do your children have energy to burn? Children ages 8 and up can join you in a 3 hour, above ground Labyrinth Tour. Children must wear hard hats and safety goggles, then 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.
When glittering nuggets and veins of gold were discovered in the Sierra Foothills in 1849, a massive tide of humankind, hell-bent on finding their fortune, raced as fast as they could to the Gold Country. Sailing as far as they could up from San Francisco Bay east on the Sacramento River, the gold-hungry pioneers pulled up at the confluence of the American and Sacramento Rivers, the furthest point they could go in their sailing ships. A town sprang up almost overnight, with many buildings constructed out of leftover ships timbers and sails. Sacramento was born. Today, on the sycamore-shaded banks of Sacramento River, get a sense of those raucous early years in renovated Old Sacramento, now a 28-acre/11-hectare National Historic Landmark. While there are the requisite trinket and t-shirt shops and ice cream parlors in restored buildings, there are also excellent museums, including the California Railway 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.
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. 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 as part of Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park. There’s an interesting Gold Discovery Museum, and kids can give gold-panning a try. Follow leafy trails along the river to find a shady picnic spot. Stick around for supper; dinners at Café Mahjaic, housed in an 1855 brick building in the even tinier nearby town of Lotus, are a wonder, with local ingredients shining in dishes such as free-range chicken roasted with shallots, bacon, and crimini mushrooms.
It’s unbelievable but true: you can still wade into the shallows of the South Fork of the American River, and find flecks of gold, just like the fortune-seeking pioneers first did over a century and a half ago. One of the best places to do it is in Jamestown, one of California’s original Gold Rush towns.
Try your hand at prospecting—shops around town sell gold pans. Ask to be shown the special swirl technique that helps separate tiny bits of gold from river silt. Admittedly, it is hard to know what’s what in the bottom of your pan, especially with plenty of 'fool’s gold' (technically worthless iron pyrite glittering in the bottom of your pan). For better luck, plus geological and historical trivia while you search and swirl, try panning with a guide.
Afterward, you can experience Jamestown history in another way at Railtown 1897 State Historic Park. Combining industrial heritage and railroad history, “the movie-star railroad” (as it’s long been known) has been a popular filming location for nearly its entire existence; credits range from an early talkie to Back to the Future Part III. Walking tours of the still-working railroad roundhouse, which includes a look at props from past films, are a big hit with kids and devoted train fans. And every weekend April through October, park visitors can hop aboard a vintage passenger coach pulled by an authentic locomotive—for a six-mile, 45-minute cruise through the scenic Sierra foothills.
While you’re there, be sure to take some time to stroll around this picturesque California Historical Landmark town; many of the buildings date back to the tail end of the gold rush or earlier. The National Hotel and Restaurant dates to 1859, and the Willow Steak House, established in 1864, used to be a bar that catered to the builders of the Sierra Railway. Both continue to serve visitors today.
Discovered by miners in 1851, this vertical chamber near Angels Camp is so massive it is the largest public cavern in California—big enough to hold the entire Statue of Liberty. Early visitors would climb into a large bucket and then be slowly lowered to the chamber’s floor. Nowadays, a spiral staircase provides easy access, or, if you prefer to get in touch with your inner Spiderman, consider rappelling the 165 feet/50 meters from the top of the chamber to the bottom. For intrepid explorers (prepare to belly crawl), a 2½-hour adventure tour delves into the cave’s deepest burrows, roughly 280 feet/85 meters below the floor of the main chamber, through narrow passageways with names like Meat Grinder, Pancake Squeeze, and Birth Canal.
If that hasn’t boosted your adrenaline enough, strap yourself in for a thrilling ride on a 1,500-foot/457-meter-long zip line. Check the website for a schedule of Concerts in the Cave, when the natural acoustics and sound of water dripping into the cave system (the so-called moaning that gives this site its name) is accompanied by live music and a light show or a singing choir.
Get a one-two punch of experiences with a visit to this remarkable site in Grass Valley, roughly 60 miles/92 kilometers northeast of Sacramento. First, spend time in the Visitor Center to learn about one of California’s oldest, largest, deepest, longest, and richest gold mines, where, in the course of a century, 5.6 million ounces/159 million grams of gold were mined—enough to fill a box 7 feet/3 meters long, 7 feet/3 meters high, and 7 feet/3 meters deep by the time the mine shut down in 1956. To get a sense of the size of the mine, see the scale model representing the mine’s 5-square-mile/13-square-km network, then walk outside to visit the entrance of the actual shaft—a tiny peak into a staggering underground maze of 367 miles/591 kilometers.
Now shift gears—mentally and physically—with a walk 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.
Guided tours are offered May through September. The Mine Yard Tour sheds light on the rough lives of the miners who worked here. Get the flip side on the Cottage Grounds Tour, which includes a visit to the sumptuous Bourn Cottage.
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—authentic china and silverware in dining cars, velvet and finery in the Pullman sleeping cars, a charmingly stubby wooden caboose—give you a sense of what it was like to travel by train before cars became king.
Numerous exhibits detail the ways that railroads shaped the lives, economy, culture, and history of the Golden State. Kids will enjoy being able to step aboard Pullman-style sleeping cars, a dining car filled with railroad china, and a replica of a railway post office. There’s even a high-speed train simulator that allow visitors to feel what it’s like to pilot a modern high-speed train. Guided tours of the museum are offered daily and special events include the “Spookomotive Train Ride“ on weekends in October and a winter holiday train ride, complete with a visit from a gift-bearing Santa, in November and December.
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).