There’s gold in them hills! The discovery of gold nuggets in the Sacramento Valley in early 1848 sparked the California gold rush, arguably one of the most significant events to shape American history.
The gold rush sparked one of the U.S.’s largest mass migrations ever — with more than 300,000 pioneers heading west. The only modern-day equivalency might be San Francisco’s tech boom (with eager techies flocking to Google) or Hollywood star wannabees (hoping to make it big but likely serving lattes at Starbucks when not starring in a Verizon commercial!).
This is one of our favorite road trips in California — just a quick 2 hour drive from San Francisco or a 6-hour drive from LA. Okay, it’s a LONG drive from LA, but we feel like it’s so worth it. Once you’re there, you’ll feel completely transported to another time. And not just because you’ll likely be completely disconnected because of the lack of cell service (maybe we should consult our local barista/Verizon actor about that!).
DAY 1: Overnight in Auburn, and History of Gold Mining
Start your day off right with the breakfast after a night at the Park Victorian Hotel in Auburn, California. This tiny town is the perfect place to base yourself. We couldn’t get enough of this gorgeous boutique hotel that was recently remodeled by the friendly hosts. Plus, the beds are beyond comfortable. I don’t think I’ve ever had a better night’s sleep.
There are a lot of boutique hotel and B&B options in the area, but most sort of remind us of the backdrop from The Exorcist. During our last visit to the area, we stayed in the attic of a B&B that was filled with creepy dolls. No thanks! We also loved the views from the Park Victorian, perched high above the town of Auburn.
Before heading out of Auburn, wander the streets of the tiny town. There is a local farmer’s market right in the heart of downtown in the courthouse parking lot (open 8 AM – noon on the weekends year round). It’s compact, but clearly a favorite spot among the locals. You’ll find plenty of fruits and vegetables, but also art for sale and even a band jamming out.
Depart around 10 AM after picking up some snacks, and head directly to Canyon Creek to hike the Black Hole of Calcutta Falls in the Auburn State Recreational Area. Parking might be tough, but if you get there early enough you shouldn’t have a problem finding a spot open up.
This a fairly easy 2.2 mile hike, out and back hike just outside Auburn. It follows a relatively flat old railroad bed to the Black Hole Of Calcutta Falls waterfall. We hiked for about 1 hour, but there are multiple adjoining trails where you can extend it even more. The hike is gorgeous – and there is literally no way you’ll make it through this trail without taking a few photos along the way of the massive bridge you’ll cross at the start of the trail or the waterfalls along the way.
It’s early afternoon — leave around noon and drive 30 minutes to Coloma to visit Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park. The California Gold Rush began at this site, when gold was found by James W. Marshall at Sutter’s Mill. Today its a state park where you’ll find cafes and other preserved historic buildings where you can pretty much imagine what life must have been like for the early miners.
One of Kevin’s favorite stops was the old blacksmith. Inside, you’ll find volunteers who just love to make metal items. But what was the big draw for Kevin? All the puzzles naturally! We spent nearly an hour here while Kevin zipped his way through the puzzles (while I got bored and just asked him to show me how to solve them!).
Next door, you will not want to miss the Monroe House, which was previously owned by slaves who were freed when California became a state in 1850. The family became wealthy landowners in the area and planted orchards, which still produces pears and apples today.
It’s time to head a little further afield – to one of gold country’s most atmospheric towns: Placerville.
You’ll find so many great shops and cafes to explore here. We recommend taking a straight shot to Placerville Hardware, where you’ll find a sprawling store filled with home goods. And Kevin’s top pick – puzzles made from the blacksmith shop. Something tells me that I’m going to lose his attention very soon!
If you’re still up for exploring, there is a small but interesting museum right in the heart of Placerville run by the El Dorado County Historical Society. It’s located inside a soda water factory. Kevin found the spot and suggested it since I’m so obsessed with drinking soda water! Apparently, during the gold rush the river and creeks were polluted by mining activities and the water in them was unsafe for drinking. Two local guys saw an opportunity and started carbonating and bottling spring water and selling it. I love soda water. Maybe I was born to be a gold miner after all?
It’s early evening, so we recommend heading directly to Nevada City to grab dinner and explore the town. It’s just a little over an hour away, but you’ll find some delicious food options including the casual Three Forks Bakery and Brewing Company. And don’t forget to grab some desserts at Nevada City Chocolate Shoppe.
That night, check out the indie movies in nearby Grass Valley at Sierra Cinemas. The theater offers a wide variety of snacks and beverages including wine. We saw the documentary RGB, but the theater also offers some more mainstream flicks if that’s more your speed.
Phew, what a packed day! Head back to Auburn (30 minutes away) and get a good night’s rest.
DAY 2: Trains, Gold, and Sacramento
Get an early start this morning — with a morning workout at InstaPhysique Megaformer Pilates in Roseville (20 minutes west of Auburn). Okay, so you’ll totally be back tracking here. But we recommend going early so you can come back, eat breakfast and shower.
Feel no guilt eating the breakfast back at the hotel after this intense, 45-minute workout that burns anywhere from 500-800 calories. Maybe I will have an extra cinnamon bun?
After breakfast, hit the road back to Sacramento where you’ll arrive early afternoon. We highly recommend checking out the California State Railroad Museum, where you could easily spend hours.
The California State Railroad Museum (CSRM) in Old Sacramento is the world-class tribute to the role of the “iron horse” in connecting California to the rest of the nation. The museum features 21 restored locomotives and cars, some dating back to 1862. The railroad also had jobs for women. The shortage of qualified operators led to the hiring of women to fill a rapidly growing need for operators in the late 1840s as the telegraph spread across the country.
By far, our favorite part of the museum was checking out the inside of the cars, which even simulated what it feels like when zipping down the track — swaying back and forth and blasting wind noise. It was eerily realistic. Or did we accidentally just board a real train?
Before leaving Sacramento and heading back home (or elsewhere), we recommend walking around Old Town and then grabbing coffee at Temple Coffee Roasters in midtown. I’ll need some caffeine for the long drive ahead!
Midtown is where you’ll find some of Sacramento’s best restaurants, cafes and bars. We loved our time in gold country and hope you do, too. Here’s to many more trips to the area!