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Climb aboard majestic locomotives for a cruise through the Sierra foothills

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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 still sell gold-sifting pans. Ask to be shown the special swirl technique that helps separate tiny bits of the precious metal 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. The park hosts outdoor movie nights, holiday happenings (especially for Halloween), and “Tales of the Roundhouse” story nights (check its calendar for details). 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; the Jamestown Walk of Fame further celebrates that TV and movie history, plotting out spots where scenes were shot for well over two dozen small- and big-screen productions. Saturdays and Sundays in April through September, 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 used to catered to the builders of the Sierra Railway. It continues to serve visitors today.

Featured Jamestown

An ocean shore

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