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Grass Valley

Once known as the “Gold Capital of America,” this Sierra foothills town is now a destination for wine and the arts

  • Summary
  • Things to do
  • Gallery
  • Places to Eat & Drink

The Sierra foothills community of Grass Valley blends Gold Rush history with the sophistication of a modern wine country town. Just off Highway 49 in Nevada County, about 60 miles northeast of Sacramento, it’s a place to escape both into California’s past and to explore the surrounding pine forests and rolling hills.

Just outside of town, 856-acre Empire Mine State Historic Park preserves California’s most productive mining site, where, in today’s dollars, an estimated $8 billion worth of gold was extracted between 1850 and 1956. You can explore sections of the vast 367-mile network of mine shafts and wander through a number of buildings that survived the mining era—most notably the 1897 Empire Cottage, a stone English-style manor designed by renowned San Francisco architect Willis Polk. The park’s hiking, mountain biking, and equestrian trails lead into areas little changed from the days when the indigenous Nisenan peoples lived here.

For more history, the North Star Mining Museum along Wolf Creek displays an assortment of artifacts, including an enormous 30-foot-diameter Pelton Wheel, a type of water turbine. A number of creeks and streams flow through the region and the Grass Valley–based Drift on the Fly leads fly-fishing trips and offers classes. And if you love the outdoors, the annual Wild & Scenic Film Festival aims to inspire environmental awareness with screenings of adventure and nature films and talks by filmmakers and activists.

Grass Valley’s historic downtown is centered on Mill Street, a pedestrian promenade where many beautifully preserved buildings date to the 1850s. In combination with nearby Nevada City, Grass Valley earned the prestigious designation as one of California’s 14 official cultural districts. Some downtown landmarks are of more recent vintage, such as the 1942 Del Oro Theatre, which shows current movies and has a glowing, beacon-like art deco tower that rises 70 feet. Two blocks away in a renovated auto dealership built in the 1940s, the Center for the Arts hosts concerts by such nationally known musicians as the Allman Betts Band and California’s own Tower of Power. Steps away, the 28-room Holbrooke Hotel opened in 1853 and although the original building burned down, the current structure dates to 1862. A recent renovation preserved the character of the stone-walled lobby and the hotel’s Golden Gate Saloon, notable for its mahogany and marble bar.

With nearby wineries in the Sierra Foothills and a growing restaurant scene, Grass Valley has also evolved into a culinary destination. Tess’ Kitchen & Culinary is the place to shop for a huge array of gourmet foods and kitchen items, and Alan Tangren, its in-house chef, hosts special demonstration dinners and teaches cooking classes.

Discover regional wines at such destinations as Sierra Starr Vineyard and Winery, which pours its acclaimed small-lot Zinfandels and Cabernet Francs in a stylish brick-walled tasting room. At Lucchesi Vineyards & Winery, you’ll find award-winning wines made from grapes grown on a steep 20-acre foothill parcel known as the “View Forever Vineyard,” while the ultra-boutique Avanguardia specializes in blends of rare and uncommon varietals.

Craft beer lovers will also find plenty of choices, including the selection of 12 brews on tap at Grass Valley Brewing Company, and the big range of California IPAs at the Thirsty Barrel Taphouse & Grille. For lunch or dinner, Watershed at the Owl, a restaurant in a beautifully restored 1862 building, takes a slow food approach with its changing farm-to-table menu. And since 1983, Cirino’s at Main Street has been the go-to spot for old-school Italian classics.

Featured Grass Valley

An ocean shore

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