If you’re looking to squeeze in one last family vacation before school starts, one of the best places to go is California’s Gold Country. It’s one of the most underrated and inexpensive tourist destinations in California, a winning combination of Old West ambiance, affordable B&Bs, and outdoor adventures galore. My dad used to take my sisters and me up to the Gold Country when we were kids and I still remember what a great time we had panning for real gold on the banks of a creek, exploring the spooky caverns, and riding on the steam trains. Believe me, a weekend getaway to the Gold Country is one of the best adventures a kid can have.
THE WORLD’S BIGGEST TREES
Near the friendly town of Murphys—a great place to stay the night—is the Calaveras Big Trees State Park where you can see giant sequoias that are among the biggest and oldest living things on earth. Like walking across the Golden Gate Bridge, standing among these gargantuan natural monuments is just one of those things you must experience at least once in your life. The park is also a very popular destination for hiking, wildlife viewing, and fishing along the Stanislaus River, and admission is only $6 per car.
AUTHENTIC GOLD MINING TOWNS
A few miles north of Sonora is Columbia State Historic Park, the best-maintained Gold Rush town in the Mother Lode (and one of the most popular, so expect crowds in the summer). At one point, this boisterous mining town was the state’s second-largest city and only two votes shy of becoming the state capital. When gold mining no longer panned out in the late 1850s, most of the town’s 15,000 residents departed, leaving much of the mining equipment and buildings in place. In 1945 the entire town was turned into a historic park. As a result, Columbia has been preserved and functions much as it did in the 1850s, with stagecoach rides, Western-style Victorian hotels and saloons, a newspaper office, a blacksmith’s forge, a Wells Fargo express office, and numerous other relics of California’s early mining days.
GOLD PANNING LESSONS
About 4 miles southwest of Sonora on Highway 49 is Jamestown, a little 4-block-long town of old-fashioned storefronts and rustic turn-of-the-20th-century hotels. In fact, it’s so authentic looking that it’s been used as movie sets for classic western films such Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. One of my favorite things to do here is take gold panning lessons at Jamestown’s Gold Prospecting Adventures, where you can learn how to pan for gold at nearby Woods Creek. It only costs about $20 and yes, you get to keep the gold you find.
STEAM TRAIN RIDES
One of my favorite Gold Country towns is also home to one of the Gold Country’s most popular attractions: Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, a train buff’s paradise featuring three Sierra steam locomotives. These massive machines were used in many a movie and television show, including High Noon, Little House on the Prairie, Bonanza, and My Little Chickadee. One of the park’s highlights is a guided walking tour of the authentic, working railroad roundhouse—where they spin the huge locomotive engines around—as well as the repair area, where you can watch the historic locomotives and cars undergoing repairs. The trains at the roundhouse are on display daily year-round, and from April through October they offer 40-minute weekend rides.
EXPLORING SPOOKY CAVERNS
About a dozen miles east of Jackson on Highway 88 is the enchantingly dilapidated town of Volcano, home of the Black Chasm Cavern, a ginormous cavern filled with stalactites, stalagmites, flowstones, and rare helictite crystals. If fact, it’s so impressive it’s been designated a National Natural Landmark by the National Park Service. Most locals in California don’t even know these amazing crystal caverns exist, which makes the fascinating tour—which follows a series of platforms, stairs, and walkways to preserve the cave environment—all the more interesting. Above ground, kids can mine for gemstones at a mining flume (you’re guaranteed to find some real gemstones) for only $5 for a small bag.
If you have your own tips and recommendations on great getaways to the Gold Country that you’d like to share, feel free to add your own comments to our blog below. We’d love to hear from you.