Get a taste of frontier life as you retrace the history of California’s boom-and-bust Gold Rush, a defining event of the 1800s. Pan for the glittering metal and see merchants in period dress recreate life as it was in the 1850s at Columbia State Historic Park. Climb aboard an inflatable raft for a bump-and-splash whitewater raft trip down the American River. Sample the Gold Country’s latest riches—big and flavorful wines—at tucked-away wineries.
Begin your trip in the center of the state, home to the capital city of Sacramento. Like many cities, California’s state capital is undergoing an energetic renaissance. Young adults looking for an urban vibe are moving into this low-key city, with microbreweries, gastropubs, and trendy boutiques popping up to serve them. Award-winning chefs are gaining attention for their focus on hyper-local ingredients, and relationships between restaurants and surrounding farms and ranches have become not a novelty, but the norm. Hot summer days create some of the nicest evenings anywhere in the state, where locals sit on porches in elegant Victorian-era homes, and kids scamper in leafy parks until the sun goes down.
As the state capital, there’s plenty going on, and gatherings of various colorful groups around the cupola-topped Capitol are common. Museums are centered largely around the Capitol Mall area and in historic Old Sacramento, the renovated area along the Sacramento River that was a core hub during the Gold Rush. Getting around to all these different locations is easy, and traffic jams are fleeting. Granted the gold award for bike-friendliness by the League of American Bicyclists, Sacramento is also a great place to explore by bike, with wide designated lanes, and paved trails along the American and Sacramento Rivers. There’s also a convenient light rail system to linking popular sites around town.
Your road trip now heads north on Highway 49 to begin a fascinating and fun trip to some of the Gold Rush’s most historic towns—also great destinations for innovative restaurants, award-winning wines, and charming boutiques and inns.
This forest-wrapped hamlet of handsome Victorian-era homes and tree-lined streets 60 miles/98 kilometers northeast of Sacramento is one of the Gold Country’s prettiest towns. Originally settled in 1849 as a mining camp, Nevada City features a well-preserved core of historic buildings, including California’s oldest operating structure originally built for performances, the 1865 Nevada Theatre, with past performers ranging from Mark Twain to Mötley Crüe. Just around the corner, on Main Street, a bell-towered firehouse with a Victorian gingerbread front is the site of a compact history museum where the intricate cooking baskets made by native Nisenan Indians are exhibited alongside the artifacts of early residents and Chinese pioneers. Impeccable 19th-century buildings with wooden balconies are now the home of restaurants, gift shops (look for nature-lover treasures at The Earth Store), wine-tasting rooms, and antiques shops. Download a self-guided walking tour from the Nevada City Chamber of Commerce.
Now backtrack roughly 6 miles/9 kilometers on State 20 to Grass Valley to visit one of California’s richest gold mines.
Get a one-two punch of experiences with a visit to remarkable Empire Mine State Historic Park in Grass Valley. 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 Mineyard 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.
Next stop is Auburn, where history mixes with great wine and outdoor sports such as hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, and trail running.
While Auburn has long been an easy stop for travelers heading to and from Lake Tahoe’s north shore, the town has plenty of reasons on its own for sticking around for a spell—especially if you enjoy a) Gold Rush history, b) great food and wine, and c) being active. Auburn claims to be home to the most challenging and historic endurance sports events in the world, like the prestigious 100-mile/161-km Western States trail running race. The area is also a mecca for mountain bikers, hikers, and horseback riders, who all take advantage of trails lacing the Auburn State Recreation Area, which protects the confluence of the North and Middle Forks of the American River (Both forks are popular whitewater rafting destinations.)
"As more vintners join the “Gold Crush”—a local reference to Placer County’s growing number of wineries—so does the chance to relax at nearby tasting rooms, where the guy pouring the wine is often the winemaker too."
As more vintners join the “Gold Crush”—a local reference to Placer County’s growing number of wineries—so does the chance to relax at nearby tasting rooms, where the guy pouring the wine is often the winemaker too. Good wines attract good restaurants, and Auburn has a bumper crop lining the streets in the handsome Old Town district. Art galleries and shops selling antiques and collectibles abound. Wine grapes aren’t the only crop that grows in the area; citrus varieties thrive here too, and you can get your fix at the annual Mountain Mandarin Festival, held in late fall at Auburn’s Gold Country Fairgrounds.
After Auburn, continue southeast on State 49 to Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, the site where gold was first discovered in California.
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.
You’ll drive to your next stop, but to really have fun, you’ll be getting wet out and getting wet, too, on a guided, family-friendly whitewater trip down the American River.
The most popular whitewater-rafting river in the West, the American River tumbles through the 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, 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.
Which fork works for you? The most popular is the South Fork, with Class II-III rapids that are perfect for families 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.
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.
After the river, continue south through Placerville to rolling foothills best known for quiet apple orchards and u-pick farms.
Autumn in the Gold Country means clear blue skies, fiery red grapevines, and an invigorating snap in the air. It’s apple season too, with more than 30 orchards and farms dotting the area east of Placerville, about a 2-hour drive east of San Francisco. Visit u-pick farms and roadside stands centered around the tiny hamlet of Camino to sample tart Granny Smiths, thin-skinned Galas, and other varieties, many grown by a new generation of farmers. Other local finds include Jack Russell Farm Brewery (try the Farmhouse Ale), a handful of wineries such as Fenton and Lava Cap, and Time Out Spa, where (by advance reservation) you can get a bliss-out treatment. Or simply spread out a picnic blanket at High Hill Ranch, and nibble on oven-warm apple fritters or spread fresh apple butter on crackers.
Load up on apple, cider, and maybe a pie, then continue south to visit with innovative winemakers producing award-winning vintages in unpretentious wine country.
The roots of old Zinfandel grapevines run deep in this northeastern region of California, with winemaking here dating back to the Gold Rush days of the 1850s. Now, an explosion of wineries, wine tours, tasting rooms, and restaurants specializing in wine country cuisine has added a jolt of grape-fueled energy to the Sierra foothills, where more than 100 wineries now produce a wide range of varietals, most notably Zinfandel, but also an intriguing variety of other varietals.
To sample the new boom, head to tiny Plymouth for surprisingly trendy tasting rooms and sleek restaurants like Taste, a magnet for savvy foodies.
The region’s Shenandoah Valley, which straddles Amador and El Dorado counties, is another great place to experience the influx of new mixed with the old. Follow oak-shaded country roads past weathered barns and fences, then drive around a corner to come face to face with urban-edge chic at Andis Winery. Still, there remains a down-home sensibility in this neck of California, with most Gold Country wineries being family-owned, with the winemaker also being the one who pours you wine in the tasting room.
Continue on to Murphys and visit classy tasting rooms, boutiques, and restaurants, and maybe stay the night in an elegant historic inn.
Like San Francisco in the mid-1800s, Murphys was one of California’s richest boom towns, but this appealing town in Calaveras County still feels closer to Mark Twain’s famous jumping frogs (celebrated yearly in neighboring Angels Camp) than Michelin stars and über-prestigious, wine tasting excursions. Located roughly halfway between Yosemite and Lake Tahoe, this Mother Lode town still has a richly historic look, with handsome stone-walled buildings dating back to the mid-19th century, and white picket fences surrounding colorful flower gardens. Guided walking tours are conducted every Saturday at 10 a.m., starting in front of the Old Timers Museum on Main Street.
Yet with all these nods to history, it’s not hard to see that times have definitely changed since John and Daniel Murphy established a trading post and gold mining operation here. Stroll down Main Street to visit tasting rooms and restaurants featuring vintages from the more than two-dozen family-owned and -operated wineries in the region. Sip an espresso and backed-that-morning croissants at Aria Bakery, and look for artisan crafts at the farmers’ market (Thursdays in summer). Visit the sprawling Ironstone Vineyards to sip wines, catch an outdoor concert with big-name stars like Sheryl Crow, check out gold-mining paraphernalia and period photographs at the winery’s surprising museum, then relax at sophisticated V Restaurant, Bar & Bistro.
Finish your tour with a visit to California’s entertaining state park devoted to recreating the Gold Rush era in rich detail.
With throwback charm and a treasure trove of historic artifacts, 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—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 their hand at gold-panning. Summer can get hot and weekends become crowded, so aim for early mornings during the week if you can.
For a faster trip back to Sacramento (about a 2-hour drive), head west past Camanche Reservoir to Interstate 5 and drive 29 miles/46 kilometers north.