Gold rush towns in California are still popular destinations for visitors of all ages. Gold panning is still a must-do activity, but most are no longer in search of the Motherlode. Today’s visitors come for the region’s rushing rivers, giant sequoias groves, and quaint historic towns.
This post highlights some of the best gold rush towns for family adventures along the Highway 49 Scenic Route. Read on for the best ways to experience outdoor family fun along one of the state’s most scenic drives.
Things are always changing! Make sure to double-check schedule changes and closures before your trip.
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Background Info and Fun Facts about the California Gold Rush
There is much to enjoy in the California gold rush towns along Highway 49 without knowing their histories. But the experience is more meaningful with some context. Gold rush history is full of legend and color, violence and tragedy. Knowing the stories of those who lived and dreamed here 150 years earlier is sure to impact your experience.
Gold! Gold from the American River!
It all started on January 24, 1848. James Marshall was building a sawmill for John Sutter along the American River in Coloma when he spotted something shiny. After a series of tests, he ran to tell Sutter the news: there was gold in the river!
The Mexican-American War had just ended, and the land was not officially a part of the US yet. This meant that Sutter couldn’t own the land and lay claim to anything found on it. He tried to keep the discovery a secret, but we know how that turned out. By summer, 4,000 gold hunters were mining the Sierra Nevadas. By December, when President Polk confirmed the rumors of gold to the nation, the number was up to 10,000. The many thousands that followed in 1849 became known as the 49ers.
You can visit the discovery site today at the Marshall Gold Discovery State Park in Coloma.
Shaping Modern California
The California gold rush drew people from all over the world. When Marshall first found gold in 1848, only about 7,000 non-indigenous people lived in California. By the mid-1850s, more than 300,000 had people poured into the new state. Conversely, the gold rush was devastating for Native Americans. In 1848, about 150,000 Native Americans lived in California. Twelve years of violence, disease, and hunger later, that number had declined to only 30,000.
Amidst the rapid changes, the boomtowns of San Francisco, Sacramento, and Stockton were born. Sacramento became the capital of the new state in 1850. Today it has the best preserved historic area of the three. Read more on visiting the historic Sacramento waterfront below.
Skill or Luck?
Weeks after finding gold in Coloma, Samuel Brannan learned about the discovery. He bought up all the picks, shovels, and axes he could find and began spreading the news far and wide. After purchasing gold pans for $0.20, he would sell them for $15. In time, he would go on to become the first millionaire of the gold rush.
Though many rushed to California with dreams of finding gold, Brannan and others succeeded with a different strategy. Some lasting businesses started during the gold rush were:
- Boudin: Sourdough was one of the miners’ favorite foods, and Boudin’s famous sourdough dates back to 1849. Legend has it that the family matriarch saved a bucket of the original starter during San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake. This allows Boudin to connect their loaves back to its founding history today.
- Ghirardelli: Domenico ‘Domingo’ Ghirardelli immigrated after working in the coffee and chocolate trades in Uruguay and Peru. He arrived in California because of the promise of gold, of course. But by 1852 he was busy importing hundreds of pounds of cocoa beans from South America. Ghiradelli chocolates are still a beloved treat hundreds of years later.
- Levi: Perhaps the most famous example of gold rush success is Levi Strauss. Strauss was a Bavarian immigrant who opened a branch of his family’s dry goods store in San Francisco in 1853. He later applied for a patent to use rivets at points of strain on pants. And thus, blue jeans were born.
So put on your favorite pair of blue jeans, grab some delicious chocolates and sourdough bread, and let’s hit the road!
Family-Friendly Books and Podcasts about the California Gold Rush
After our early visits to gold rush towns, 7-year-old J wanted to learn more about the history. I quickly learned that there isn’t a wealth of child-friendly gold rush stories. Which makes sense. The gold rush was a pivotal time in California, but it was also full of events and actions that aren’t so kid-friendly. With a little digging, we found the following books and podcasts. Each offers a kid-friendly introduction to the gold rush in California.
What Was the Gold Rush by Joan Holub
We picked up this easy read at the Columbia Museum in Columbia State Historic Park. This book shares stories about gold-seeking forty-niners in a kid-friendly way with illustrations and sixteen pages of photos.
By the Great Horned Spoon by Sid Fleishman
This one is a mainstay of many California fourth-grade classrooms. It tells the tale of a boy hoping to pay his aunt’s debts by striking it rich in the West.
Pedro’s Pan by Matthew Lasley
Based on Felix Pedro and the Alaskan gold rush, Pedro’s Pan is a fun introduction to gold panning for kids. The story’s geology and history are coated with fun, adventure, and colorful illustrations.
The Bedtime History Podcast: California Gold Rush for Kids
Our kiddos enjoyed this quick 10-minute introduction to the gold rush as we drove between towns.
If You Have a 4th-Grader
If you have a 4th Grader in California, they’ll likely be learning about the gold rush this year. Visiting gold rush towns is a great way to bring the history in their books to life. Don’t forget to get your free California State Park Adventure Pass before you go. The pass provides admission to many of the parks listed below. Also, pick up an Every Kids Outdoors pass so you can visit Yosemite on the southern end of the route!
Best Gold Rush Towns in California for Family Adventure
California’s Highway 49, the Golden Chain Highway, meanders through the foothills of the Sierras linking past and present. Of the 12 towns described below, 11 are along route 49. The list starts in the north and winds south. It’s a stunning drive, take it slow and enjoy the journey.
1. Nevada City, “Queen of the Northern Mines”
Nestled in a basin on the Sierras, Nevada City is surrounded by forest with Deer Creek flowing through the center of town. Settled by migrants in 1849, it has seen its shares of ups and downs, including having the Golden State Highway run right through town in the 1960s. Around that time, it was determined that its historic past could also be its future.
Today, visitors to this town are drawn to its historic charm, bohemian vibe, and endless opportunities for outdoor adventure.
Nevada City’s Historic District includes several interesting buildings with landmark status. The National Hotel is one of the oldest continuously operating hotels in the west. You can also take in a show at Nevada Theatre, California’s oldest original-use theater.
On the outskirts of town, a good 40-minute drive from the Historic District, visitors can experience the Malakoff Diggins Site. The current site helps visitors understand more about the later gold rush years. The overuse of hydraulic digging devastated the landscape, leading to the nation’s first environmental laws. Today visitors can swim, fish, and hike, while also participating in programs like historic tours, gold panning, and the annual Humbug Day.
Less than 10 miles outside the Historic District in neighboring Grass Valley, the Empire Mine State Historic Park offers docent-led or self-guided tours of one of the oldest, deepest, and richest gold mines in California. A functioning mine for over 100 years, an astonishing 5.8 million ounces of gold was extracted here before it closed in 1956.
More Things to Do
Today, Nevada City is also a great spot for outdoor lovers and plays host to fun festivals and events throughout the year. Find awesome swimming holes to cool off in at South Yuba River State Park. Some of the best are near the Hoyt Trail at the Route 49 bridge and near the historic covered bridge in Bridgeport.
California gold rush towns have seasons, and Nevada City takes full advantage of them. There’s always something different to experience here depending on when you arrive. Summer brings family-fun events like the outdoor movie festival, Movies Under the Pines. Follow a Haunted History tour in the fall, and don’t miss the annual Victorian Christmas festival each December. In springtime, tulips are in bloom at Crystal Hermitage and you can choose from several wildflower walks around town.
Where to Stay
The National Exchange Hotel offers a sense of history in a convenient downtown location. Recently renovated in 2018, you’ll get to experience a piece of the past with modern comforts.
Just a few blocks from downtown, the Outside Inn offers fun, comfort, and character. A renovated motor court that dates back to the 1940s, it offers travelers kitschy fun. Families won’t have to worry about keeping kids from climbing the walls in the Rock Climbing suite, complete with a private climbing wall, and the Paddlers’ Suite will have you wanting to get out on the water before the end of your trip. Many rooms also offer kitchens and patios, which we always appreciate when traveling with kids.
Like many of its neighboring California gold rush towns, the gold rush literally put Auburn on the map. Though there’s still plenty of evidence of it around town, you’ll also find opportunities for contemporary family fun in the great outdoors. Plus, Auburn is a great stop when you need a break on your way to Tahoe!
During the spring of 1848, a group of French miners camped in the Auburn Ravine on their way to Coloma. During their stay, one of the miners, Claude Chana, discovered gold. They decided to stay for additional prospecting, and the area soon developed into a mining camp. It was named Auburn in 1849 by miners from Auburn, New York. By 1851, Auburn was chosen to be the seat of Placer County.
Today, a 45-ton concrete statue of Chana welcomes visitors to Old Town Auburn’s collection of shops, restaurants, houses, and buildings originally built in the mid-1800s. The fire station and post office date back to the time of the gold rush. You might have glimpsed its most notable landmark, the Placer County Courthouse, on your way to Tahoe. It was dedicated in 1898.
Visitors can follow or take a self-guided tour of Old Town Auburn. You can also visit the city’s Gold Rush Museum which is located in the historic Auburn train depot.
More Things to Do
Today the water that drew gold miners to the area continues to be a draw for visitors looking for an escape from the Sacramento heat. Popular spots to cool off include the Auburn Confluence Swimming Hole and Lake Clementine, both within the Auburn State Recreation Area.
The Auburn Confluence Swimming Hole marks the point where the middle fork of the American River meets the north fork of the American River. The water slows as the two meet, making this area safer for swimming. The stretch goes under the Highway 49 bridge providing welcome shade on a hot day.
Open seasonally, Upper Lake Clementine is open to non-motorized boats only, making it a calm place to cool down with a swim. In some sections, the water is stunningly clear and not too cold for a dip.
Looking for an adventure on land? Rocklin’s Quarry Park Adventures is just 15 minutes south of Auburn. We took J here as part of his 6th birthday outing, and he had a blast in the Kidz Cove! From zip-lining to a via ferrata, there are plenty of adventures here we’d love to try out on a return visit.
Where to Stay
As much as I love a unique lodging option, if you’re traveling to Auburn with kids, some of the chain hotels downtown are a more comfortable fit. My pick is the Holiday Inn’s Hotel Auburn. It has a great location near Old Town Auburn, a nice outdoor pool area, and kids who are 11 and under eat free at the hotel restaurant.
Of all the gold rush towns in California, this one’s where it all began. The Marshall Gold Discovery State Park is in the tiny town of Coloma, where history takes center stage. Here you can walk in the footsteps of John Marshall and the first 49ers and cool down with a ride on the American River.
Marshall Gold Discovery State Park was the first gold rush town we visited, and it was a pleasant surprise. It’s large and spacious, with interactive exhibitions and a museum in addition to the discovery site itself. We stopped over while heading to Nevada City, and ended up staying much longer than expected.
The discovery site has a replica of the mill that was being constructed when Marshall spotted those first few fateful gold nuggets. Walking the trail along the riverfront is educational, and being there gives you a sense of how the fate of California was forever changed on that day.
Make time to take a gold panning lesson. Our class here was one of the best demonstrations we’ve experienced in Gold Country. If you visit on the second Saturday of the month, Living History Day, you’ll meet reenactors wearing period clothes and demonstrating aspects of life during the time of the gold rush.
Next to the park on Highway 49, you’ll find more historic buildings. Some of these house contemporary businesses, like the Argonaut Farm to Fork Cafe which offers bagels, coffee, and fresh lemonade.
More Things to Do
In addition to being the site of a key part of California history, Coloma is a wonderful destination for nature lovers. From hiking to biking to horseback riding, you’ll find fun options for exploration here. But it’s the American River that has the biggest pull. Its rapids attract over 100,000 rafters per year.
Though my kiddos are still on the young side for most river experiences, my introduction to rafting was a family trip on the South Fork of the American River when I was a teenager. We had an amazing time, and I’d love to go again when my boys are older. Good swimmers as young as 8 can give it a try when the water is at lower levels. American Whitewater Expeditions offers family-friendly trips and All-Outdoors California Whitewater Rafting offers a Tom Sawyer float for families with kids in the 5-7 range.
Where to Stay
There aren’t too many places to stay in Coloma itself, but if you like camping or glamping there are two interesting local resorts: Coloma Resort and the American River Resort. The American River Resort has some lovely riverfront spots, including a riverfront cabin platform tent. Coloma Resort is across the bridge from the Marshall Discovery Site, making for easy access.
4. Placerville, “Hangtown” or “Old Dry Diggins”
The word placer at the heart of Placerville’s name refers to the type of mining conducted by the first 49ers who sifted through sand and dirt to find gold in the rivers. It is a marked improvement from the town’s original titles: Hangtown and Old Dry Diggins!
When it officially became a town in 1854, Placerville was the third largest in California and a central supply and transportation area for the region. After years of raiding nearby hills and ravines, the mining era waned around 1910, after an estimated $25 million in gold had been extracted.
To get a sense of Placerville’s gold rush history head to Gold Bug Park. Join a tour to visit both onsite mines. You’ll also see a working Blacksmiths Shop, a Stamp Mill, an onsite Museum, and a chance to pan for gems. As of the time of writing, they are only open on weekends. Be sure to check their schedule before you go.
The El Dorado County Historical Museum provides insight into the lives of Placerville residents through history, from Native American tribes to the 49ers. If you’re visiting on a Sunday, you might get to ride on the El Dorado Western Railroad’s historic gang cars which were once used by railroad workers.
In the heart of downtown, the old Fountain & Tallman Soda Works building now hosts the El Dorado County Historical Society. They once produced carbonated spring water for the miners who couldn’t drink the river water due to pollution from mining activity. Another significant historic structure nearby is the Bell Tower. Once used to alert the local fire brigade, it now marks the heart of downtown.
For a taste of gold rush-era Placerville, head to the Buttercup Pantry for a Hangtown Fry, an omelet cooked in bacon fat and topped with fried oysters. Legend has it that one lucky miner struck gold and realized he could order anything he wanted, so he asked for the most expensive ingredients available. At the time, eggs could cost up to $3 each in 1850s dollars (about $85 per egg today!).
More Things to Do
As the mines dried up, agriculture became a major industry in Placerville. Today, one of the biggest draws in the area, especially for families in the fall, is the farms on Apple Hill.
Lured by the promise of hot apple cider donuts, we made a stop at Rainbow Orchards last fall. Besides delicious apples, we enjoyed the BBQ and the kids had fun running around. Unfortunately, the wait time for donuts and pie on that October Sunday was over an hour long. If you want to visit Apple Hill in the fall, leave early or go during the week if you can.
Larsen Apple Ranch and Barn and the High Hill Ranch are also popular Apple Hill spots. Larsen offers a museum and plenty of green space for kiddos to run around. High Hill Ranch is the largest farm in the area. It offers an onsite restaurant and activities like pony rides, pumpkin picking, and hay rides in the fall.
Where to Stay
If you’re looking for a comfortable stay outside of the chain hotels, consider this cozy cottage vacation rental. Recently renovated, it’s tucked away on a quiet hillside and yet just a few blocks from historic Main Street and a short drive to Apple Hill.
5. Historic Sacramento Waterfront
Though slightly off Highway 49, a detour to Sacramento is a worthy stop on your tour of California gold rush towns. During the gold rush, Sacramento boomed along with San Francisco and Stockton. Though the capital of California had long been Monterey under Spain and Mexico, when California became a US state in 1850, the capital moved here where it’s been ever since.
The Old Sacramento State Historic Park marks the western terminus of the Pony Express, the first transcontinental railroad, and the transcontinental telegraph. Today, the waterfront neighborhood has over 50 historic buildings, more than any area of similar size in the West. It’s a California historical landmark full of history museums, exhibitions, and interactive experiences.
We made a beeline for the California State Railroad Museum, with a riverside excursion train that takes you on a 50-minute journey into suburban Sacramento. The Sacramento History Museum also offers popular Underground Tours with family-friendly and adults-only versions. If you want a little help exploring the historic district, sign up for the History Museum’s History Quest: an app-based scavenger hunt that will lead you through historic spots in Old Town and Downtown Sacramento.
Just about a mile from the historic district, you can tour the Leland Stanford Mansion, originally built by a gold rush merchant in 1856. You can experience the home as the Stanfords would have known it in the 1870s while learning about key moments and developments in California’s history.
More Things to Do
Besides exploring the many Sacramento History Park experiences, families can explore the water via a river cruise.
If you have time, visit the Capitol building. You can learn a lot about a state by visiting its Capitol. If you want to introduce kids to California’s government, tour the Capitol Museum on weekdays. The Capitol Park that surrounds the building is open daily.
If you need a break from history, make a stop at Sacramento’s Fairytale Town if traveling with young kids or Wake Island Water Park, the largest of its kind on the west coast, for a day of fun in the sun.
Where to Stay
For a unique stay, book a night on the Delta King, a paddlewheel riverboat moored along the Old Sacramento Waterfront. The top deck Queen and Twin rooms offer views of either the river or Old Town Sacramento from their shared verandas.
If you’re looking for a stay with all the conveniences of the 21st century, the Embassy Suites River Promenade Hotel is right across the street from the historic district along the riverfront. Some rooms have views of the golden tower bridge, and all have Embassy Suites family-friendly convenience: two-room suites, a complimentary breakfast, and daily receptions.
6. Sutter Creek, “Jewel of the Motherlode”
Most of the central Sutter Creek attractions can be found along its small lovely main street. The town was named for the ill-fated John Sutter who owned the sawmill in Coloma where gold was first found. In 1848, Sutter moved to what is now Sutter Creek where he would try, but fail, to get in on the gold-mining action. The settlement became known for the name of its most prominent resident, though he moved back to Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento after a short stint here.
Sutter Creek’s boom came more from hard rock mining than the placer mines popular in the early days of the gold rush. Like many of the gold rush towns in California, it began as a supply center for the mines that circled the town. Surrounded by some of the best-producing deep rock mines in the region, Sutter Creek lasted as a full-fledged mining town longer than many of its neighbors.
For an overview of the area’s mining history, head just south of the stores and restaurants on Main Street to Miners’ Bend Park. You’ll see some interesting equipment and sculptures, and there are a few nice shaded picnic tables. There’s plenty of parking for those looking for an introduction to the region’s mining history on your way into town.
To get a sense of life in Sutter’s Creek in the early 20th century, pop into the Monteverde General Store Museum. The store changed very little from the time that it opened in 1896, though the town itself changed greatly once the local mines closed in the 1950s. The daughters of the original owners closed the store in October 1971. They wrote a cardboard sign that read “The store will be closed for a few days.” and never came back. That sign is now on display along with many other artifacts that would have been sold here in the early 1900s.
Just south of Sutter Creek in Jackson, the Kennedy Mine was famous for being one of the deepest gold mines in the world. When it closed in 1942, the mine had produced over $34 million in gold. Guided and self-guided tours are available for those wanting an inside look at what this phase of mining looked and felt like.
More Things to Do
Sutter Creek is dotted with cute shops, restaurants, and tasting rooms. We mostly stuck to the history here, save for a dance break in the bubbles outside the Simply Bubbles Champagne Bar. We did notice families enjoying the shady tables in front of the adorable Bella Grace tasting location. Located across the street from the Music Box Company and Jumping Frog Games, Bella Grace offers wine and olive oil tasting.
Gold Dust Pizza is also a popular family spot with a large patio dotted with bright red umbrellas. Grab some dinner and head over to play in Minnie Provis Park which features a nice playground, green space, and a little league field.
Until recently, visiting Daffodil Hill Ranch in spring was a HUGE seasonal attraction in Sutter Creek. Though the site decided to close due to the downsides of being an Instagram hot spot, Sutter Creek still plants thousands of daffodils around town and is a lovely place to explore when spring flowers are in bloom.
Where to Stay
The Inn at 161 offers historic charm with modern conveniences. Though most rooms have at most an occupancy of two, they have a two-bedroom suite with all the comforts of home, even a full kitchen. All rooms include espresso, morning snacks, and a weekend reception.
7. Murphys, “Queen of the Sierra”
Legend has it that John and Daniel Murphy had the luck of the Irish. As part of the first immigrant party to successfully bring wagons over the Sierra in 1844, they were amongst the pioneers who paved the way for those who followed in the rush of westward migration. They established the trading post and gold mining operation of Murphy’s Diggins in 1848 and struck gold within the year. It is said that they mined $2 million worth of gold, making them millionaires before the age of 25.
Murphys was considered one of the richest “diggins” of the California gold rush towns. By 1852 the town had a population of 3,000. Over time, as the gold waned, residents stayed to work in sawmills, stores, farms, and ranches. Today it is a thriving part of the region’s current booming industry: wine.
The commercial and residential core of Murphys was established by the early 1850s. Walking in downtown Murphys today, you’ll find the Murphys Historic Hotel that once hosted famous visitors like Mark Twain, Ulysses S. Grant, Susan B. Anthony, and even some notorious Wild West outlaws. More recently, it was featured in an episode of Gordon Ramsey’s “Hotel Hell.”
Also worth a visit, even with the kids, is Ironstone Vineyards. Besides their tasting room, families can roam the huge property’s trails, lakes, and a large outdoor amphitheater. But the big draw for visitors of all ages is the onsite museum which displays the Kautz specimen, the largest specimen of crystalline gold in the world weighing 44 pounds. Found in 1992, it’s the largest single piece of gold mined in North America since the 1880s.
More Things to Do
Though Murphys isn’t as known for as many historic gold rush attractions as its Highway 49 neighbors, it’s a great home base for exploring the area’s many outdoor adventures.
Though just five miles south of Main Street, the Moaning Caverns Adventure Park feels a world away. Home to the largest single cave chamber in California, visitors of all ages are welcome on the park’s Spiral Tour. On this tour, you descend a ten-story spiral staircase to the base of the cavern. As long as you’re ok with steps, it’s a fun adventure for the whole family. Those looking for more of a challenge can also sign up for a three-hour Spelunking Tour.
About 15 minutes northeast of downtown Murphys is Calaveras Big Trees State Park, known for its two groves of giant sequoias. This is a great spot for a family-friendly adventure, from gazing up at the giant trees to splashing in the Stanislaus River.
Where to Stay
For a combination of historic charm and comfortable family-friendly convenience, check out The Victoria Inn & Vacation Rentals. You’ll find a wide range of centrally located and comfortable accommodations that make a perfect home base for exploring the area.
8. Columbia State Historic Park, “Gem of the Southern Mines”
At Columbia State Historic Park, the gold rush era comes alive in the best-preserved of the California gold rush towns. The downtown area with shops and restaurants is a pedestrian (or horse) only zone, making visitors aware of the nineteenth-century at every turn.
Between the 1850s and the 1870s, over one billion dollars in gold (in today’s value) was mined here. For a while, it was the second largest city in California. Unlike many of its neighbors, Columbia was never completely deserted and it was named a State Historic Park in 1945 to preserve an example of a typical gold rush town.
Today’s visitors will likely pay more to pan for gold than they’ll ever find in the Mining Company troughs at the end of town. You can also spend the day wandering and browsing, taking a stagecoach ride, spying on the local blacksmith, or cooling down at a historic saloon or ice cream fountain.
Try to plan your trip for the second Saturday of the month. From 1 to 4 pm, the town perks up for Gold Rush Days, offering special exhibits and hands-on activities led by volunteers dressed in period clothes. Friends of Columbia State Historic Park also offer special events like Back to School Day in the historic schoolhouse, lamplight tours, and the Miners’ Christmas festival.
More Things to Do
In Columbia, most of the things to do are tied directly to experiencing the town’s history. One area the boys enjoyed exploring once the shops, restaurants, and exhibits were closed, was the huge labyrinth of boulders near the Mining Company with a miner’s cabin hidden among them. These rocks used to be underground, but the area was completely dug out by miners searching for placer gold.
If you’re ready for a break from the nineteenth century, see what’s on at the Fallon House Theater. The ambiance is a fully renovated theater built in 1857. Sierra Rep puts on a wide range of performances here for contemporary audiences, many of them family-friendly like this past summer’s Little Mermaid.
Where to Stay
Visitors can choose lodging options in the park itself: the Fallon Hotel, City Hotel, and the Columbia Cottages. We stayed in one of the historic cottages. The state park service is no hotelier, and there were plenty of missed opportunities in the patchwork of visible cottage updates. But, the cottage was clean and the kids enjoyed playing around in the yard after dinner. There’s a lively pizza restaurant (saloon) and general store across the street, and we enjoyed walking around town at dusk. Columbia opens late and closes early, forcing us to slow down a bit. At the end of the day, it was a fun option for our quick stay.
9. Sonora, “Queen of the Southern Mines”
Sonora was founded in 1850 by miners from Mexico, who named the city after the Mexican state of the same name. It was once the largest and most important of the California gold rush towns with just under 15,000 miners by 1849. Today, with a population of just under 5,000, Sonora is one of the closest little cities to Yosemite.
Sonora’s Washington Street, part of Highway 49, is both its historic core and the main downtown. Start at the Visitor Center at the southern end of the street to pick up some brochures and get a lay of the land.
A quick walk from the Visitor Center is the historic Opera Hall. Built with funds from the local Bonanza Gold Mine, the Opera Hall was originally built to be a flour mill in 1879. It burned down a few years later under suspicious circumstances and was immediately brought back to life as the Opera Hall. It would mark the center of Sonora’s life for the next 11 years hosting dances, meetings, political rallies, and plays. After changing hands a few times in the early 20th century, the city bought the property and restored it to what you’ll find today. The Hall serves as a venue for both public and private events.
A short walk from the Visitor Center is the Tuolumne County Museum and History Center which features stories about past residents of the town, from local Native American tribes to the gold rush miners, railroad workers, and folks that settled nearby in the early 20th century. The museum was the county jail from 1866 until 1960 and has made exhibitions out of some of the cells that once housed inmates.
At the other end of town is the historic Red Church and the Sonora Fire Museum and Senior Lounge. Originally built in 1859, the church was the first Episcopal Church established in California. It’s a curious landmark in a town rumored to be as lawless as Sonora was at the time. As one might expect, the Fire Museum across the street from the church displays the ever-evolving equipment used to fight fires, something of consistent concern to Californians.
More Things to Do
Sonora today is a small Sierra city with an artistic vibe. Every second Saturday of the month is the town’s Art Night when stores stay open late and are joined by local musicians and artists. In the summer and early fall, Art Night is followed by free Concerts in Coffill Park.
In addition to Columbia’s Fallon Theatre, Sierra Rep also provides a range of quality performances in the recently renovated East Sonora Theater, one of the town’s top attractions.
If animal encounters are more your style, meet the Llamas of Circle Home. This experience is about engaging with llamas for wellness and educational purposes. The owners allow visitors to interact with their trained llamas as they share Andean spirituality and cultural heritage. If you want to take a llama experience one step further, Potato Ranch Llamas specializes in self-guided pack services. This option is perfect for multi-generational groups who wish to enjoy backcountry treks without having to haul equipment.
Where to Stay
Hotel Lumberjack is a budget-friendly recently renovated motel located within easy walking distance of the shops and restaurants downtown.
If your plans include a performance at the East Sonora Theater, the Best Western Plus Sonora Oaks Hotel and Conference Center is an easy walk to the theater.
10. Jamestown, “American Camp”
Jamestown is the site of the first gold discovery in Tuolumne County. In time it would become even better known as one of the California gold rush towns’ favored Hollywood sets. Over 200 movies and tv shows have been filmed here. It’s sandwiched between New Melones Lake and Lake Don Pedro, meaning plenty of opportunities for family fun and recreation as well.
Railtown 1897 State Historic Park is Jamestown’s biggest attraction. Another of our California park favorites, it invites visitors to experience California’s railroad history. In addition to 45-minute excursion trains that run every weekend, the big star of the park is the “movie star locomotive” known as Sierra No. 3. This iconic engine has been featured in at least 80 films and tv shows since its debut in 1919. Eighties kids like John and I best recognized it as the train used by Doc Brown and Marty McFly in Back to the Future 3.
Besides the regular excursion trains, Railtown offers special events like “Robbery on the Rails” and the always popular “Polar Express” journey each winter. Volunteer docents lead tours through the areas where the trains are maintained and there are plenty of picnic tables and fun photo ops to be found around the grounds.
If you’re curious to learn more about the movies and shows filmed here, stroll back downtown via the Jamestown Walk of Fame, which stretches from Railtown 1897 to Rocca Park. You’ll follow medallions that commemorate the region’s Hollywood history, and you may just notice locations from “Petticoat Junction,” “Little House on the Prairie,” and “Bonanza” along the way.
For more on the gold rush history in Jamestown, head to Gold Prospecting Adventures for a unique living history experience where families can pan for gold on a shady, gold-bearing creek.
More Things to Do
Jamestown’s location means plenty of opportunities for family fun. Take a hike in the Red Hills Recreation Management Area or along Table Mountain Trail. Table Mountain provides gorgeous views of the New Melones Reservoir in one direction and Jamestown in the other. Come during springtime if you can, and witness the stunning beauty of the wildflowers in bloom.
For fun on the lake, head to the nearby Moccasin Point Marina which is located on a tributary of Lake Don Pedro. You can hop on a boat, wave runner, kayak, or SUP from here and spend the day relaxing in the sun and exploring Don Pedro’s many coves. Check conditions before you go, as the drought has reduced water levels around here. Another option is the Fleming Meadows Marina in La Grange, about a 15-minute drive further around the lake.
Where to Stay
For some old west vibes, stay at the Jamestown Hotel. The hotel, restaurant, and saloon encourage guests to slow down and remember the by-gone gold rush era when it was first constructed (it’s had many iterations since it was first built in 1858). That being said, it’s also been updated so you can enjoy today’s comfort and convenience, including two-room suites for families.
11. Groveland, “Savage’s Diggins” or “Garrote”
A gateway to Yosemite, Groveland has become one of our favorite California gold rush towns, especially for summer getaways. Sometimes we stay here as a convenient home base to one of our favorite national parks, and sometimes we go just to relax around Pine Mountain Lake. History isn’t ever-present like neighboring Jamestown, but it’s certainly there when you want to experience it.
Like several nearby gold rush towns, much of Groveland’s history can be explored by strolling Main Street. The most well-known historic spot is the Iron Door Saloon. Founded in 1852, it’s known to be the longest continually operating saloon in the state. Today, it’s family-friendly and serves a big menu. If you can, stop to have a drink at the bar which has been there since it opened.
For a sense of Groveland’s history before and after the gold rush, check out the Groveland Yosemite Gateway Museum. Museum-goers are welcomed by a 565-pound (taxidermied) California Black Bear at the entrance. If you make it inside, you’ll learn about the people who lived here before it was overtaken by miners and those who have arrived since. After the gold rush waned, the town was populated by those who built the O’Shaughnessy Dam to form the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, a controversial decision that provides San Francisco with a source of stable drinking water to this day.
More Things to Do
As a gateway town to Yosemite, the most obvious things to do here involve the park. The Hetch Hetchy entrance is technically in Groveland, though it’ll take you about 45 minutes to drive there from the center of downtown. Once there, a popular hike is to Wapama Falls. Go in the late spring to see the falls at full force and get splashed a bit before making the return trip back.
It’ll take you a little over an hour to get to Yosemite Valley, but despite the drive, it’s hard to resist the pull of the area’s stunning natural beauty. Don’t forget to check to see if day passes are required to enter the main area of the park. Stop, stretch your legs, and gape at the magnificent sequoias in Tuolumne Grove on your way.
Outside of Yosemite, our favorite thing to do when visiting Groveland is to laze around the beaches at Pine Mountain Lake. Pine Mountain Lake is a gated community that was developed in the 1970s. It’s a small lake that’s a good spot for old-school summertime family fun. After paying for a day pass or booking a vacation rental, you can lounge on one of the community’s three beaches, get on the water with a kayak or boat rental, or try your hand at fishing while the kids play in a nearby playground. This is a place to go when you want to slow down by the lake with a small-town community vibe.
Where to Stay
Our lodging of choice in Groveland is usually a lakeside vacation rental in the Pine Mountain Lake community. We once rented the Little House on the Lake which has a private beach. Though the water levels were low making the beach a little mucky, we had a great time spending every day and night outdoors.
If you want something a little different, check out the Yosemite Pines RV Resort and Family Lodging. To get into that gold rush mindset, you can sleep in a Conestoga Wagon. Other options include retro trailers, cabins, yurts, or traditional camping in your tent or RV. The resort offers gold panning, a petting farm, a pool, playground, lawn games, hayrides, evening storytelling, and outdoor movies.
The Yosemite gateway town of Mariposa is at the southern end of scenic Highway 49. The town was founded on land that was part of a Mexican land grant to General John C. Fremont. It was named Las Mariposas because of the large number of butterflies in the area.
Mariposa’s streets still follow the original grid layout designed by Fremont in 1850. Unlike other California gold rush towns, regular fire disasters convinced early settlers to rebuild buildings using stone, brick, and adobe. The result is that the historic downtown area still uses the original buildings constructed in the late 1800s without the need to restore or recreate the town’s sense of history. Mariposa still has the feel of a bygone era, with no strip malls, chain stores, or even stop lights.
You can feel the legacy of the Old West just by strolling along the historic main street. The town’s courthouse was built in 1854 and is the oldest courthouse in continuous operation west of the Rockies. You can take a peek inside during normal business hours for free, but remember it’s a working courthouse, so security checks and rules of appropriate behavior are in effect.
For a more formal introduction to the area’s history, visit the Mariposa Museum and History Center, a small but award-winning museum that shares the stories of the people who built Mariposa in the late 19th century. Exhibits recreate old dwellings and stores, and there are even live blacksmithing demonstrations.
The Mariposa Stage Line is located across the street from the History Center. It offers a theatrical stagecoach ride to an 1840s gold rush scene, where you may or may not be held up by outlaws and robbers.
Another popular stop for those wanting to learn more about Mariposa’s gold rush days is the California State Mining and Mineral Museum. Housing the State’s official collection, exhibits display some of the 13,000 gems, minerals, and artifacts stored here. A highlight is the “Fricot Nugget,” a rare 13.8-pound piece of crystalline gold found in the American River in 1864.
More Things to Do
Like in Groveland, Yosemite looms large in Mariposa’s backyard. If you’re not sure where to begin when visiting the stunning park, consider a private tour with Yosemite Close Up Tours. They offer options like the Sunset Dinner Tour which would be a challenge to navigate for those who aren’t familiar with the park.
If you’re in town around Labor Day weekend, be sure to check out the Mariposa County Fair. The fair is a big annual event for Mariposa residents, and a great way to get a sense of the town’s community and culture. The fairgrounds are located just outside the downtown area.
Where to Stay
For a unique stay, check out Autocamp Yosemite, about 10 minutes outside of Mariposa’s downtown. Autocamp is known for its collection of classic Airstream suites, but they also offer luxury canvas tents and mini-suites with a cozy custom kids tent. Onsite amenities include community fire pits and lounge areas, complimentary mountain bikes, hammock groves, and access to the YARTS shuttle for easy transportation to Yosemite.
Map of Gold Rush Towns in California along the Highway 49 Scenic Route
The chain of California gold rush towns that dot scenic Highway 49 offer a wide range of fun! Pick one or two as a home base and then enjoy the journey through the region. Here’s a map to see how they’re all connected:
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