Along historic Highway 49 in Northern California, you’ll be delighted to find a chain of quaint towns that continue to maintain the 1800’s vibe to this day. Historically, many of these mining towns arose instantaneously in a matter of weeks to accommodate the droves of miners in seek of the fortunes from the gold rush.
Many of these towns are still living, breathing towns that have evolved to serve local communities and tourists alike. Who doesn’t like gold panning activities, horse-drawn carriages, old-fashioned ice cream and candy shops, and historical buildings brimming with history?
Come and get your fill of California Gold Country history at these 11 must-visit gold rush towns.
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CALIFORNIA GOLD RUSH FUN FACTS
- The California Gold Rush (1848 – 1855) was a period in American history marked by the discovery of gold in the Sierra Nevada mountains of Central California and Northern California.
- Over hundreds of millions of years, volcanoes, tectonic shifts, and erosion all combined to generate billions of dollars’ worth of gold in the mountains of California.
- The California gold rush officially started on January 24, 1848, when gold was found by James W. Marshall at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, California.
- The news of gold brought approximately 300,000 people to California from the rest of the United States and abroad. This was a lot of people back then! In fact, this was one of the largest migrations in American history.
- California actually did not have the first gold rush in the US. That honor actually belongs to North Carolina. Fifty years before gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill, the first gold rush in American history started after a 17-pound gold nugget was found in Cabarrus County, North Carolina.
- Not all ’49ers came to California by covered wagon. Lots were arriving by ship! Because of people (ship passengers and crew alike) coming in droves with one-way tickets, early sections of San Francisco were built out of ships abandoned by prospectors.
- Back then if you had struck gold, you ordered a Hangtown Fry, an omelet cooked in bacon fat and topped with fried oysters. Supposedly, one lucky miner ordered this when he entered a restaurant and realized he could order absolutely anything he wanted on the menu. You can actually still find this dish at restaurants in San Francisco, CA!
MAP OF OLD WEST AND GOLD RUSH TOWNS IN CALIFORNIA
OLD WEST AND GOLD RUSH TOWNS IN CALIFORNIA
Sonora, one of the oldest cities in California, was incorporated on May 1, 1851. Like so many Gold Rush towns, Sonora was considered the wild, wild west where many carried a gun wherever they went. The beautiful historic buildings and homes in this town are evidence of how prosperous Sonora was in its prime.
Today, Sonora is the largest and liveliest of the California gold-rush town trio on California State Route 49 (Sonora, Columbia, Jamestown). Its main street is lively and entertaining, lined with gift shops, saloons, and many restaurants. The variety of storefronts is an eclectic mix, ranging from bakeries and coffee shops to old-timey bars, antique shops, and emporiums selling various goods. If you like old-fashioned candies, don’t miss The Candy Vault!
If you want to take a stroll through nature, consider spending an hour or two on Dragoon Gulch Trail, which gives visitors a unique opportunity to stroll through the Mother Lode’s oak woodlands. There’s also an awesome farmer’s market that takes place here on Saturday mornings.
Local Tip: Sonora and Columbia are both wild west towns that are situated relatively close to Yosemite National Park. Why not add these towns to your next Yosemite trip?
During the Gold Rush in the 1850s, Columbia grew to become the second-largest city in California behind San Francisco. Lucky for us, unlike most mining towns that flourished in the era and then evolved into ghost towns, this one is still a fully functional town.
Columbia State Historic Park is the main landmark to visit here. Not only is admission to the park free, but there are also free guided tours led by docents dressed up in period costumes. There are also free booklets for you to lead your own self-guided tour of the town.
This town and state park is brimming with history, as it hosts a collection of mid-19th-century buildings that now house restaurants, saloons, various shops (leather goods, candles, books), an ice cream parlor, and even a theater. Of course, what would a historic western town be without a gold-panning shack and stagecoach rides? Yes, you can enjoy these activities at Columbia State Historic Park!
Columbia is located four miles north of Sonora, so it’s a no-brainer to stop by after visiting Sonora. Read more about all the things you can do at Columbia State Historic Park.
Local Tip: Not many people know that you can also stay the night at one of the few historic hotels here.
A few miles southwest of Sonora lies Jamestown, another historic California gold rush town. Jamestown features a few blocks of historic buildings strung along their main street, which is now home to various shops, restaurants, and attractions. While you’re here, try your hand at gold panning at California Gold Company and Jamestown Gold Panning.
And by far the best attraction here is Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, which is the perfect place to spend a part of your day if you love trains and locomotives. At Railtown, you absolutely cannot miss Sierra No. 3, a circa 1891 steam locomotive that’s made appearances in big-time movies such as Back to the Future Part III, Little House on the Prairie, and High Noon.
You can also Stroll along the local Walk of Fame, a walkway stretching between Rocca Park, downtown, and Railtown 1897, dotted with medallions featuring artists of many of the movies and TV shows filmed in the area. When you need a pick-me-up coffee or ice cream, make sure to stop by the half-coffeeshop, half-antique shop on the main street!
Murphys is another California Gold Rush town located between Lake Tahoe and Yosemite National Park, in Calaveras County, California. Yet another town beaming with ample gold rush history, Murphys today stands as a vibrant, thriving community, alive with art galleries and live theater, eclectic shops, fine restaurants, charming B&B’s, and a multitude of outdoor activities you can enjoy.
This town is within close proximity to Calaveras Big Trees State Park, which is a plus for those who want to explore nature. Some notable museums include Ironstone Heritage Museum and Murphys Old Time Museum. If you’re still not sick of history-rich establishments, there is also Angels Camp Museum nearby.
Are you a wine lover? Well, you could spend a whole day visiting local tasting rooms and vineyards around the area and still not be able to cross them all off your list. A few quality breweries also exist, including The Watering Hole and Murphys Pourhouse. Check out the list of offerings here.
Murphys is also home to a variety of annual events throughout the year, including Presidents Wine Weekend (February), Murphys Irish Day Parade and Street Fair (March), Taste of Calaveras (April), Jumping Frog Jubilee (May), and Grape Stomp (October).
SUTTER CREEK, CA
Less than an hour away from Murphys sits Sutter Creek, another town ideally situated in the heart of the Sierra Foothill Wine Country. Sutter Creek is pure enjoyment to walk around, with its many picturesque B&Bs, restaurants, and shops all along the main street.
For history buffs, you can take a fascinating tour of one of the most famous mines of the Mother Lode, the historic Kennedy Gold Mine. For a tour around town, this walking map will guide you around the town streets to make sure you hit all the main historical attractions.
You can also catch some live music at the Sutter Creek Theater. Sutter Creek is the perfect hub to explore the Sierra Foothill Wine regions (Amador Valley’s Shenandoah Valley, El Dorado County’s Fairplay region and Calaveras County’s wine region). Seriously, if you love wine just as much as Gold Rush towns, or aren’t interested in Gold Rush towns at all, you can distract yourself with a whole day of wine tasting.
NEVADA CITY, CA
Nevada City was a mining camp that became not only one of the largest and most profitable cities in the region, but was also able to transition to modern times and become this livable city that we witness today.
Founded in 1849, Nevada City quickly became a successful mining camp. Men commonly pulled a pound of gold a day from Deer Creek. The camp quickly grew and miners had plenty of dough to spend.
Saloons and gambling houses began to line the streets, but over time, families began to arrive and neighborhoods were established. After several names, the town eventually chose to call itself Nevada (and “City” was added after the state chose (or stole) “Nevada”.
Today, Nevada City is one of the most attractive and interesting of the existing Gold Country towns, with awesome shopping in the historic district along Main Street and Commercial Street. The town contains many charming structures and buildings that were constructed after a fire in 1863 destroyed the business district.
For those who love to learn history, this town is for you. Don’t miss the Old Jail Museum, a 19th-century jailhouse used to hold prisoners around the city for almost 90 years from 1875 to 1964. There’s also the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum, where you can take a docent-led tour of the railroad and aviation museum, railyard, and restoration shop.
Nature lovers will be happy to know that Nevada City is close to Tahoe National Forest. Aside from the rich gold mining history this city offers, there are also a number of state parks for you to enjoy including Malakoff Diggins State Park, South Yuba River State Park, and Donner Memorial State Park.
Other nearby points of interest include the Pioneer Cemetery, Empire Mine State Historic Park (this mine yard and park was once one of the largest, deepest, and richest gold mines in California), a replica of the Pine Street Suspension Bridge and The Old Brewery. Read more about the points of interest here.
Our favorite thing to do in Nevada City? Simply strolling around the downtown area! There’s something to see or experience at every turn, from various shops to wineries, and museums to art galleries. We particularly enjoyed all the lifestyle shops, tea shops, and vintage shops. Yes, this area is flourishing with vintage treasures!
If the downtown area wasn’t enough and you want to get more of a feel for life in the 1870s, take a driving tour to view some of the best-preserved homes in the Gold Country! You will see tons of towering Victorians built for mine owners and lumber barons. A good place to start is around East Broad and Broad (past downtown). Then head to Nevada and Boulder Streets. Don’t forget the side streets!
Film buffs need to check out the summer Nevada City Film Festival or the winter Wild & Scenic Film Festival. There’s also the Sunday night film series at the Nevada Theatre and Movies Under The Pines at Pioneer Park.
Local Tip: To truly feel as if you’ve stepped back in time, plan a visit during the holidays. Nevada City merchants go all out to transform the main street into a Victorian backdrop, making your trip here that much more immersive.
GRASS VALLEY, CA
Grass Valley used to be a thriving gold mining town. Mining for free gold in creeks and gravel was the norm here, until 1850 when gold was discovered in quartz. In a matter of a few months, the town’s growth exploded from just 20 cabins to 150 buildings!
Start your day off at the Empire Mine State Historic Park, one of the oldest and richest hardrock gold mines in California. Operating from 1850 to 1956, it produced billions of dollars in gold by today’s standards. Here, visitors will find restored buildings, lushly landscaped areas, a Cotswold-style cottage, exhibits, an illuminated mine shaft, and a blacksmith shop. They also have some really fun special events like the Holiday Open House, Springtime at the Mine, or the Miners Picnic (which has been held for over 125 years)!
The downtown that you see today isn’t all just historical and mining-related. A stroll down Main Street is a grand old time! You’ll find so many vintage shops and antique shops, as well as modern fashion boutiques and home decor stores. Don’t miss The Shops at the Nevada County Bank.
While you’re here, don’t miss Lazy Dog Chololateria, an adorable old-fashioned candy shop. From there, stop in all the cafes, hobby shops, fashion boutiques, thrift stores (Hospice Gift Thrift Store and Cancer Aid Thrift Store are great) and vintage shops (Sunchild’s Parlor).
Looking to spend a night around here? The Holbrooke Hotel is a little gem of a place to stay.
Truckee, named after the nearby river, is the gateway to the Sierra Nevada. The town is known for its lumber and ice harvesting past. In the 1890s, an ice palace with a toboggan run and ice rink were built, and thus Truckee’s tourist industry was born.
Truckee makes a great base for year-round outdoor activities. With the Truckee River flowing in the warmer season and the snowcapped mountains in view in the colder season, this historic town is worth visiting at least once in your life.
Donner Lake is a great place to ski and snowshoe in the wintertime. It’s also a great place to camp, picnic, fish, and hike in the spring and summertime!
Just a five-minute drive from Truckee sits Donner Memorial State Park, a National Historic Landmark (where the members of the tragic Donner Party set up camp in the winter of 1846-1847). Wander through the exhibit on the Donner Party and check out the informative video. Nearby are two of the cabin sites and an interpretive trail.
After you get your fill of nature and history, it’s time to head to Old Town. This place is super cool to wander around. While exploring the unique shops, you’ll get to experience the gritty past and vibrant present of this historic railroad town. While enjoying the one-of-a-kind shops and art galleries, you might even hear a few trains whistling in the background.
Truckee is a great place to spend the night, especially if you plan on exploring Lake Tahoe and Reno. These stylish hotels in Truckee, CA are well worth considering:
Jackson, named after Colonel Alden Jackson, was founded in 1848. Most of Jackson, like many other gold rush towns, was destroyed by fire in 1862 and rebuilt, and many of the historic buildings you see today are from that era. Don’t miss Jackson’s Historic Main Street, truly one of the most charming historical main streets out there! You’ll find antiques galore, art galleries, clothing boutiques, jewelry shops, and various gift stores.
Town highlights include the Amador County Museum, a vintage home with 15 exhibit rooms showcasing Mother Lode memorabilia, and the Kennedy Mine, once one of the richest mines in the Mother Lode! Mine tours and gold panning are offered from March to October.
While you’re here, don’t miss the self-guided historic walking tour, where you’ll get to visit 25 historic buildings and sites. Pick up a map at the Sutter Creek or Jackson Chamber of Commerce.
Annual events include the Lions Club Dandelion Days Flea Market (mid-March), the Gold Country Cruise Car Show (mid-May), Amador County Heritage Days (October), and Christmas Delights Open House (Thanksgiving weekend).
Fun Fact: From early 1850 until WWII Amador County’s three main mines, the Eureka, Kennedy and Argonaut mines produced over 4 million ounces of gold, more than half the county’s entire gold production. Jackson itself produced more than half the gold mined in the Mother Lode!
CALICO GHOST TOWN, YERMO, CA
Located a bit farther away from Highway 49 lies another attraction worth visiting and worth mentioning here. Along the desert drive to Las Vegas sits the famous silver mining ghost town known as Calico Ghost Town. Calico is an Old West mining town that has been around since 1881 during the most significant silver strike in California. It had well over 500 mines and produced over $20 million in silver ore over a 12-year time span. In the mid-1890s, silver lost its value, and so Calico also lost its population.
Today, the park is open for mine tours, gunfight shows, and gold panning. Other highlights include the Calico & Odessa Railroad, an old mining building you can actually go into, and various shops. Calico is a great place to spend a few hours of your day road-tripping to Death Valley National Park or Las Vegas. It is open daily and requires an entrance fee.
VIRGINIA CITY, NV
While Virginia City may not actually be located in California, it’s so awesome (and close to the California state line) that it deserved an honorable mention on this list.
Virginia City is a town of under 1,000 people, known for its Victorian buildings that were built during the 19th-century mining boom. Home of the Comstock Lode, Virginia City is located just 40 minutes from Reno and apparently also filled with haunted spots that ghost hunters and paranormal enthusiasts will love.
The minute you step out of your car, you will immediately be transported back to the 1800s. There is probably nothing more iconic about Virginia City than its wood-planked sidewalks on C Street, the main road through town. C Street is where most of the historic buildings are located, today housing numerous businesses that offer drinks, food, kitschy shopping, and entertainment of all sorts.
During a stroll down C Street (and it’s a long street), you’ll find restaurants, saloons, casinos, antique shops, jewelry stores, mercantile shops, museums, and even an outdoor theater that hosts gunfight shows. If you plan on visiting Virginia City, definitely allocate at least a few hours exploring everything the town has to offer.
There’s a lot of stuff to do here, such as taking a ride on the V&T Railroad steam train, enjoying the Way It Was Museum, exploring the Mackay Mansion, taking a mine tour or two, and even taking a ghost tour.
If you wanted to partake in more than one of these activities, you can actually save money by picking up a Comstock Adventure Pass at the Visitor Center. They have a few different passes to choose from, and each pass gives you a combo of mine tours, mansions tours, train rides, museums, and more.
Be sure to check out the Bucket Of Blood Saloon, in existence since 1876! They have awesome live music events and make a mean guava daiquiri.
Fun Fact: No other type of business dominates the landscape of Virginia City as the saloons, where during the town’s heyday there once were as many as 115 bars and saloons! Many saloons have maintained their 19th-century appearance, and stepping through their doors is like stepping through a time machine.
There are obviously a bunch of other ghost towns and gold rush mining towns brimming with history dotted all throughout California. This is what makes California so unqiue. What are some of your favorite gold rush mining towns?