California’s Gold Country has something for everyone. The small towns of the region are perfect for those interested in shopping and finding a quiet place to sit and people-watch. Outdoor enthusiasts find an abundance of activities in the surrounding foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, including hiking, horseback riding, biking and swimming. Kids love the cave tours and kid-friendly museums.
History is everywhere. The discovery of gold in 1849 placed this area on the map and began the great California Gold Rush. Half a million people from around the world poured into the area, in search of their fortunes. Few found it, but they left the area forever changed.
Today, the small communities here revel in this history. Many have kept their “Gold Rush era” downtowns, revamping the buildings to house quaint shops and restaurants. Museums are everywhere; most have realized the importance of attracting kids with hands-on demonstrations and special programs throughout the year.
The easiest way to experience the Gold Country is to drive State Highway 49, the backbone of the region connecting one small town to another. In the winter, it's usually easy to book an inexpensive room.
Sutter Creek is the perfect place to stop and stay a while. Explore downtown on your own, or pick up a copy of the town’s self-guided walking tour from the Sutter Creek Visitors Center, located on Main Street.
For an interesting romp through the history of gold mining, take the one-hour long Sutter Gold Mine Tour (13660 Highway 49, Sutter Creek; 209-736-2708).
There are a variety of hotels, motels and inns available in Sutter Creek. Families looking to save a few dollars might be most successful at the Days Inn.
Jackson is home to the Amador County Museum (225 Church St., Jackson; 209-223-0350), whose collection revolves around two of the area’s deepest and richest gold mines, the Argonaut and Kennedy Mines.
Though the mines closed decades ago, some of their equipment remains at Kennedy Tailing Wheels Park, including the large tailing wheels used to lift mining wastes up and over the hill to a nearby waste pile. Visitors can take a surface tour of Kennedy Gold Mine in Jackson (209-223-9542) to see how miners lived and worked.
If caves interest you, drive east on State Highway 88 to Black Chasm Cavern National Landmark (15701 Volcano Pioneer Road, Volcano; 209-736-2708). The 50-minute tour of the cavern ends in the Landmark Room, with a dazzling display of helictites, crystal formations that grow only in limestone caves.
Families can participate in the 49er Treasure Trail, a treasure hunt through Amador County on March 28 and 29 that takes participants through historic downtowns, a castle, a goldmine and more. For more information and registration, call 877-868-7272.
Best known for its “Jumping Frog Jubilee” every May, visitors will find the frog motif all over town. The Angels Camp Museum (753 S. Main St., Angels Camp; 209-736-2963) provides a look back at the life and times of the area, with three acres of mining equipment, a drugstore from the 1800s and an authentic blacksmith shop. The museum’s garden is a fine place for a picnic.
While in Angels Camp, stop by the Calaveras County Visitors Bureau (1192 South Main St., Angels Camp; 209-736-0049) for suggestions on what to see, where to eat and accommodations. Make sure to pick up a copy of the self-guided walking tour of town.
Inexpensive accommodations can be found in Angels Camp, including a Best Western, Angels Inn Motel and Gold Country Inn.
Just south of town on Highway 49 is the New Melones Lake Recreation Area, where visitors and locals can swim, fish, boat and hike. The Visitor Center & Museum (6850 Studhorse Flat Road, Sonora; 209-536-9543) provides information on the historical significance of the area, along with plenty of recommendations on how to best enjoy the recreation area. Camping is available; ask at the visitors’ center for more information.
A short drive up Highway 4 from Angels Camp is the small mining town of Murphys. Founded as a tent town in the mid-1800s to supply miners, Murphys now attracts tourists from all over. Main Street has a number of shops and restaurants to explore, including the Old Timers Museum, which hosts a guided tour of the town every Saturday morning at 10 a.m.; space is limited so arrive early.
Just up the road from Murphys is Mercer Caves (1665 Sheep Ranch Road, Murphys; 209-728-2101), where visitors can take a 45-minute guided tour into the depths of the earth. The stairs into the cavern are steep and narrow, so great caution should be taken with small children.
A few miles further along Highway 4 is Calaveras Big Trees State Park, where visitors can gawk at famous groves of Sequoias. If you plan to visit next fall, the Calaveras Grape Stomp in Murphys Community Park is always popular (calaveraswines.org).
Columbia State Historical Park
Once the second largest city in the state, the small town of Columbia is now a state park, preserved as it was in the 1850s. Throughout the town, historical displays are interspersed with shops, restaurants and hotels. Visitors can take a free, guided tour of town every morning at 11 a.m., starting at the Columbia Museum, located on Main Street.
Columbia is very kid-friendly, with a “car-free” Main Street, hands-on demonstrations and special programs held throughout the summer months. The biggest attraction on weekends is the 15-minute long stagecoach ride that takes visitors through the surrounding countryside.
While in Columbia, visitors can take a guided tour of a nearby gold mine still in operation. Tickets for the Hidden Treasure Gold Mine Tour are available at the Matelot Gulch Mine Supply Store, located on Main Street. The Supply Store provides gold panning lessons for a nominal fee.
A mile from Columbia State Park is the Springfield Trout Farm (21980 Springfield Road, Sonora; 209-532-4623), where visitors can fish for their dinner. This is a great place to picnic on a beautiful autumn day.
The largest town in the area, Sonora is a mix of Victorian homes and Gold Rush-era buildings. The Tuolumne County Museum (158 West Bradford Ave., Sonora; 209-532-1317), located in the town’s old jail, has an extensive display about the area’s history. The museum also offers a free, self-guided walking tour of town.
Sonora is home to a wide range of accommodations, including two chain hotels, Days Inn and Best Western.
Jamestown may look familiar to you. Many movies have been filmed in this town, including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and High Noon.
Its biggest attraction is Railtown 1897 State Historical Park (5th Avenue and Reservoir, Jamestown; 209-984-3953). Visitors should plan to spend at least half a day at this park, especially if anyone in their family is fascinated with trains. The 26-acre park offers tours of the roundhouse and workshops, along with rides on authentic steam trains. There are special programs throughout the year; check with a park ranger for the day’s schedule.
Families will find inexpensive accommodations in Jamestown, including the American Best Value Inn and Jamestown Railtown Motel.
Anita Keller is a freelance writer based in Sunnyvale.
Gold Country is located 50 miles east of Stockton. From Stockton, take State Highway 4 east to the junction of Highway 49 in Angels Camp. There is no public transportation in the area; driving is the only way to enter this region.
- Calaveras County Visitors Bureau - 1192 South Main St., P.O. Box 637, Angels Camp, CA, 95222; 800-225-3764; gocalaveras.com.
- Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau - 542 W. Stockton Road, P.O. Box 4020, Sonora, CA, 95370; 800-446-1333; thegreatunfenced.com.
- Amador Council of Tourism (ACT) - P.O. Box 40, Sutter Creek, CA, 95685; 877-868-7262; touramador.com.