Not very many travelers ever find their way to Grass Valley, so let me start by congratulating you for finding this post! When I first discovered Grass Valley, CA on my SF to Lake Tahoe road trip, let me tell you, this charming little town completely blew me away!
As I was researching towns to visit along the way to Lake Tahoe, I had found a ton of info on Nevada City, CA as being the mining town to visit. Grass Valley was always mentioned as an afterthought.
But that needs to be corrected for today. Grass Valley is SO much more than an afterthought! Within Grass Valley, you will find a vibrant downtown that has served the community since the Gold Rush days. It’s an old-timey town brimming with history, charm, and style. In this post, we’re going to help you discover some of the best things to do in Grass Valley, California.
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WHERE IS GRASS VALLEY, CALIFORNIA?
Nestled in the heart of the Sierra Nevada Foothills in Northern California lies the little town of Grass Valley, CA. Grass Valley is about a 1-hour drive from Sacramento, CA and only an 8-minute drive from Nevada City, CA.
This is a living, breathing California Gold Rush-era town with a lot of very interesting history. Because of where Grass Valley is located, this Gold Rush town has plenty of history and nearby outdoor adventure to enjoy. Not to mention, there’s plenty of wine to enjoy in this part of wine country!
THE HISTORY OF GRASS VALLEY, CALIFORNIA
Let’s take it a step back for a quick history lesson. 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!
Sadly in 1855, a devastating fire destroyed virtually all of the business district. Near the same time, easily accessible gold became harder to find. It wasn’t looking good for Grass Valley.
Shortly after during the 1850s when gold mining techniques improved, hard rock and underground mines were established here, including the Empire and North Star Mines. This was a huge win for the town and surrounding areas for a while.
Fast forward about a century later–closure of the mines during WWII, the fixed price of gold at $35 an ounce, and labor disputes all contributed to the end of mining during the 1950s.
HOW TO GET TO GRASS VALLEY, CALIFORNIA
Grass Valley, CA is about 1 hour from Sacramento, CA and 2.5 hours from San Francisco, CA. These two cities conveniently have international airports you could fly into. From either SFO or SMF, simply rent a car and make your way over to Grass Valley, California.
We like to rent from Hertz. Why? Well with their Hertz Gold Plus Rewards program (completely free to join), you’ll get counter-free pickup at select locations, and even mobile alerts with your exact rental car and its location before you arrive. Book your rental car with them here!
Looking for stops to make along the way? Check out Sacramento, CA and Auburn, CA (another old mining town).
15 BEST THINGS TO DO IN GRASS VALLEY, CALIFORNIA
VISIT THE EMPIRE MINE
The Empire Mine State Historic Park is one of the oldest and richest hard rock gold mines in California. Operating from 1850 to 1956, it produced billions of dollars in gold by today’s standards. This historic site is seriously beautiful and should be seen with your own eyes!
Today, 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 cool special events throughout the year like the Holiday Open House, Springtime at the Mine, or the Miners Picnic (which has been held for over 125 years)!
While you’re there, get a taste of what the miners ate back in the day by enjoying a Cornish Pasty–many of the Empire’s miners were Cornishmen from Cornwall, England.
The mine is located 5 minutes from downtown Grass Valley off Highway 174 and is open daily.
VISIT THE BOURN COTTAGE
Once you’ve made it to Empire Mine, you need to allocate some time to check out Bourn Cottage and its beautiful grounds.
“The Cottage” was the summer residence of William & Agnes Bourn, the owners of the Empire Mine from 1877-1929. The Bourns enjoyed a rich life as evidenced by the lovely gardens, residences, tennis court and clubhouse.
A 45-minute tour of the cottage and grounds will teach you all about the history of the cottage and its owners.
TAKE A STROLL DOWN MAIN STREET
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.
If you’re looking for gifts to bring home, Make Local Habit is a fun store for all things local and artisanal. They have a large variety of products from natural body care to women’s accessories to home décor.
While you’re here, don’t miss Lazy Dog Chololateria, an adorable old-fashioned candy shop. Whenever we stop by historic Gold Rush towns, we always have this need to buy sour belts at old-fashioned candy shops, so we were happy to have discovered this place!
You can easily occupy yourself with all the independently owned cafes, restaurants, hobby shops, fashion boutiques, and vintage stores located in the historic downtown area.
DO SOME VINTAGE SHOPPING
Grass Valley has one of the best thrift/vintage scenes I’ve experienced in Northern California. For affordable hidden treasures you’re going to have to hunt for, check out Hospice Gift Thrift Store and Cancer Aid Thrift Store. For carefully curated vintage threads try Sunchild’s Parlor or Cosmic Shark Clothing.
LEARN ABOUT THE GOLD RUSH HISTORY
As you walk around the downtown area, you’ll soon begin to notice the many historic landmarks dotted throughout the town. These artifacts date back to the Gold Rush heyday. You’ll find gold rush artifacts, old mining supplies, and other equipment that was used to crush tons of gold in its prime. You can even find some of this on residential streets!
For more formal Gold Rush history, check out the Grass Valley Museum. Originally built in 1865 as an orphanage for children who lost their parents in mining accidents, the Grass Valley Museum today contains furniture, clothing, photographs and other artifacts from the Gold Rush days through 1930.
GO WINE TASTING
While strolling through town, why not sample some of the local wines at a few tasting rooms? For wine lovers, the Lucchesi Vineyards tasting room is a must. This tasting room, located one block away from Main Street, is a great place to try some of California’s best wines. If you find something you like, buy a bottle or two to bring home. They also have very unique gifts for sale as well.
If you’d like the real deal, check out the vineyard, which sits upon a hillside boasting scenic views of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Looking for more wineries with picturesque grounds to explore? Check out Sierra Starr Winery, Smith Vineyard, and Naggiar Vineyards and Winery.
TAKE THE KIDS TO 49ER FUN PARK
Whether you are 1 or 100, you’re sure to have a great time at the 49er Fun Park. Not only do they have an arcade with over 40 games, but they also have outdoor attractions including an 18-hole miniature golf course, go-kart track, and batting cages.
VISIT CONDON PARK
If you had to choose just one park to visit in Grass Valley, make it this one. Just outside the entrance is a wonderful playground designed to really entertain young children. Once inside, a variety of outdoor activities and sports can be played at the large sprawling fields. In addition to baseball fields, they have a disc golf course, skate park, dog park and various trails and picnic areas.
ENJOY A SHOW AT THE CENTER FOR THE ARTS
Throughout the year, The Center for the Arts will host more than 150 performances. Some will make you laugh to tears, some will have you tapping to the rhythm of the music, and some will have you on your feet giving a standing ovation.
If you’re planning to be in town, be sure to check their website for the latest information on show/performance dates.
GRAB A DRINK AT THE HOLBROOKE HOTEL SALOON
The Holbrooke Hotel was founded in 1851 and its bar has been in operation since 1852. This is actually California’s oldest hotel in continuous operation. How cool is that! This historic hotel has seen various high-profile guests over the years including Mark Twain, outlaw Black Bart, and US presidents such as Ulysses Grant, William Harrison, and Grover Cleveland.
Grab a drink where history went down and say you did it! This is a popular hangout where locals gather to sip on cocktails while listening to live music.
NORTH STAR POWERHOUSE MINING MUSEUM
The North Star Powerhouse Mining Museum is part of the Nevada County Historical Society. Its mission is to help preserve, educate, and spread awareness about mining history and the mining process. The museum also honors the people who built and worked in these mines.
At the museum, you can see a 30-foot Pelton wheel, a dynamite stacker, a stamp mill, a Cornish water pump, and more.
REFUEL AT CAKE BAKERY
Stop by Cake Bakery for some iced drinks before hopping back into your car for Nevada City or one of the nearby landmarks by Grass Valley. If you have the appetite for it, grab a cake or pastry–they looked absolutely delightful.
MALAKOFF DIGGINS STATE HISTORIC PARK
Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park is located close to the Empire Mine State Park. So what’s so special about this spot? Well, Malakoff Diggins preserves the controversial story of hydraulic gold mining during the California Gold Rush.
Back in the day, hydraulic miners at Malakoff Diggins blew away entire hillsides with highly pressurized water in their search for gold, leading to erosion and silt runoff in Northern California rivers. This ultimately led to the state’s first environmental law.
The park is California’s largest hydraulic mining site. Visitors can see huge cliffs carved by the forces of water, the result of washing away entire mountains in exchange for the chance to find precious metals.
VISIT NEVADA CITY, CA
Founded in 1849, Nevada City quickly became a successful mining camp. Men commonly pulled a pound of gold a day from Deer Creek (a whole pound, can you believe it??). The camp quickly grew and miners had plenty of moolah 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, the town contains many charming structures and buildings that were constructed after a fire in 1863 destroyed the business district.
Some notable things to do in Nevada City include checking out the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum and strolling through some of the art galleries in town.
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.
One of our favorite things to do in Nevada City? Simply walking around downtown! 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 also flourishing with vintage treasures!
After all that exploration, cool down with ice cold beers and a pizza at Three Forks Bakery & Brewing Co.
ENJOY A DAY BY THE SOUTH YUBA RIVER
Head to the South Yuba River State Park at Bridgeport for a wonderful day outdoors. Bridgeport offers interpretive history programs, docent tours, gold panning demonstrations, and much more.
Whether you’re looking for a relaxing day by the river or an exciting day panning for gold, there’s something to do here for every member of the family! You can even explore hidden swimming holes or hike amongst the trees and wildflowers. With its gushing waters, deep emerald swimming holes, and forested natural beauty, South Yuba River State Park is definitely worth a visit if you’re looking to get out in nature.
Pro Tip: Summers can get pretty busy at South Yuba River SP, so if you want to avoid the crowds, visit during weekdays or early evenings.
WHERE TO STAY IN GRASS VALLEY, CALIFORNIA
Looking to call it a night around Grass Valley, CA?
The Holbrooke Hotel is a little gem of a place to stay.
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Broad Street Inn is one of the best options in Nevada City, CA, which is only 7-8 minutes away from Grass Valley by car.