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 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. Come get your fill of California Gold Country history at these top 7 must-visit gold rush towns.
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 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? You can enjoy these activities at Columbia. 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. 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. 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.
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.
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.
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