California’s gold country, just east of Sacramento stretching across El Dorado, Amador, Tuolumne and Calaveras counties, is always an adventure. And I’m not just saying that because it snowed several inches this past visit (which I completely did NOT expect!).
Sure, it’s a long drive from Los Angeles (about 6 hours, eek!). Ironically, Kevin and I lived in San Francisco for over 2 years and never visited Gold Country… not once (let alone knew it existed!). But despite the long trek from LA, it makes the perfect long weekend getaway.
California’s Gold Country was founded in 1849 with the discovery of gold. And what followed was the largest human migration in history — all with the hope of striking it rich! Of course, most came up empty handed. But what was left behind is truly a wealth of history — with many buildings still standing from that era. It’s like traveling back in time.
This latest trip marked our third time to the region. Check out our top 5 picks for a weekend — with a nice mixture of relaxation, unique stops and adventures activities.
5. Enjoy a Meal in Murphys with its Concentration of High-End Restaurants
Murphys is a cute little gold country town that is worth the stop. Dotted along Main Street, you’ll find intimate wine tasting rooms and a wide-range of restaurants. The hardest part will be deciding which one to eat at! We found the dining options in Murphys to be a significant notch higher than many other towns in the region.
Whether looking for fine dining, or more casual fare, Murphys has you covered. We decided to eat at V Restaurant and Bar, which offered 2 different menus (one for the romantic, formal dining room and another for the bar). We opted for the bar since the menu appealed to us both. Let’s just say the decision was easy for Kevin after seeing the bar menu had truffle mac n’ cheese! And if you’re into fancy cocktails, you’ve also found your spot!
Other restaurants that looked equally as impressive were Grounds (a little busier and more formal), Alchemy Cafe (a casual spot) or JoMa’s Artisan Ice Cream (if you’re looking just for some dessert). We were impressed with all the food and drink options in Murphys as tiny of a place that it is!
4. Retrace Mark Twain’s Steps in Angels Camp
Angels Camp is well worth the stop. I mean, how many people do you know that have been to the home of the Frog Jumping Jubilee — the oldest continuously operating county fair in California. Last year, over 50,000 people showed up to cheer on all the competitors in the frog jump inspired by Mark Twain’s story, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras.
Samuel Clemens (who you might recognize by his pen name Mark Twain) was chased out of San Francisco and ended up moving to Angels Camp for a short period. It was here that he wrote his first successful short story based on a yarn he overheard at the Angels Hotel saloon.
We highly recommend stopping by the visitors center to learn more about the contest rules (oh and there are many!). But one of my favorite factoids — if you don’t have a frog, no problem! You simply can rent one for the competition. As you walk around town, be sure to keep an eye out for the frog ‘Hop of Fame.’ It’s just like being in Hollywood — well, except instead of celebrities, you’ll find plaques honoring each of the winners along with the name of their frog and the winning distance of their frog’s 3 jumps. I’m sure you’ll be equally as impressed. And if not, well, at least you won’t have to dodge all those weird costume characters like in Hollywood. I say, it’s a win win!
3. Step Back in Time at Columbia State Historic Park
Located in the heart of the California Mother Lode, Columbia State Historic Park is a living gold rush town featuring the largest single collection of existing gold rush-era structures in the state.
Visiting this spot is like traveling back in time to the sights, smells, and sounds of a nineteenth century mining town—merchants are dressed in 1850’s attire, you’ll get a whiff of coal smoke from the blacksmith shop, and hear the rumble of a stagecoach pulling into town (well, unless they’re having a snow storm like the day we visited).
If there is one thing that Kevin loves, it’s a blacksmith shop and the metal horseshoe puzzles they typically sell. The day we visited, the stop was closed. But if it was open, I’m sure we’d have another puzzle. That and Kevin would be focused on it the rest of the trip — clanking away at it, day and night, to solve (and of course, not annoying me at all).
There are some nice shops, including a candy store and bakery (you know what I’m focused on) as well as free museums about the history of the town. They also offer free historical tours on the weekends at 11 AM that depart from the main history museum. It sounded intriguing but Kevin and I were fine staying inside and eating oatmeal chocolate chip cookies from the bakery!
2. Go Deep Underground in Moaning Cavern
This next stop is a must-do activity (but you need to be ready to get in some climbing). Moaning Cavern is simply surreal. Discovered by miners in 1851, the vertical chamber near Angels Camp is so massive it is the largest public cavern in California—big enough to hold the entire Statue of Liberty.
When the cavern was first opened, visitors would climb into a large bucket and then be slowly lowered to the chamber’s floor. We would have died…
Nowadays, a spiral staircase provides easy access, or, if you prefer to get in touch with your inner Spiderman, you can take a 2½-hour adventure tour that goes into the cave’s deepest spots, roughly 280 feet below the floor of the main chamber, through narrow passageways with names like Meat Grinder, Pancake Squeeze and Birth Canal. And then shimmy your way down the sheer cave walls. No thanks — I think we’ll just stick to the staircase. That was tough enough!
1. Explore Gold Country’s Most Picturesque Town, Sutter Creek
We just couldn’t get enough of Sutter Creek, which we think is the quaintest town in all of California Gold Country. I was originally looking to stay here at one of their many cute B&B’s, but clearly I wasn’t the only person with this idea. The town was booked up. However, we spent several hours checking out the town and stopping in its many antique shops and enjoying a pastry (or three!) at the cozy cafe called Chocolatte.
The town has a lot of energy and a main street full of some must-visit stops such as the Sutter Creek Cheese Shoppe, Water Street Antiques and Feist Winery that stays open late and has live music many nights.
Another unique spot in town is the Knight Foundry, which can only be visited on one of their guided tours. Check their website for the most up-to-date information but generally tours are only offered the second Saturday of each month. The museum gives a rare look at the history of manufacturing and the actual equipment and processes from the 1880’s that still actually run.
And there you have it! Enjoy all the adventures in Gold Country — and while it doesn’t snow very often, make sure you check the snow conditions BEFORE you head there. Our Hyundai Elantra made it fine but you’ll definitely want to come prepared with some heavy jackets, gloves and possibly even a snow scraper for your windshield. Otherwise, get ready to use your hands. I’m still freezing just thinking about it!