gold country california

California Gold Country Tour: Follow in the Footsteps of the Gold Rush

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In this article, we will take you on a unique California itinerary. We will explore California’s Gold Country to retrace the steps of the Gold Rush that took place in this part of the United States in the mid-nineteenth century. Hundreds of people flocked to California to seek their fortune and built cities and businesses. Once this “fever” died down, many of the cities still remained and today they bear witness to the Gold Rush.

Getting to know a country thoroughly means not only focusing on what is striking and exceptional but also on its background and everything that has contributed to its present. For this reason, today we will concentrate on a significant era in American history and culture that took place in California.

Already in the early 1800’s there was gold mining in California, but it was a modest operation and there wasn’t the frenzy that would come later. At that time, no one would have ever imagined that there would soon be a huge, unprecedented turning point. We are talking about the Gold Rush, which exploded in 1848 and ended in 1855.

When and What Was the California Gold Rush? A Brief History

Gold Rush CaliforniaOn January 24, 1848, in Coloma, a small town in the Sierra Nevada in El Dorado County about 40 miles from Sacramento, something happened that radically influenced the history of California and consequently of the nation. On this day in 1848, a carpenter named James W. Marshall was building a sawmill for Captain John Sutter and he suddenly noticed peculiar fragments in the water of the South Fork American River that turned out to be gold.

The news, which was supposed to remain secret, spread quickly and ignited the Gold Rush, which attracted more than 80,000 immigrants to California in 1849. Myriads of people in search of a better life, fortune, and wealth came from Great Britain, Europe, China, Australia, North and South America and the effects of this phenomenon were colossal. In the midst of the excitement, the gold diggers, also called the “Forty Niners” in reference to the year 1849, attacked many Native American villages and unscrupulously drove people from their lands.

At that time, farming expanded enormously to satisfy the needs of the population of San Francisco, which grew from a small settlement of 200 inhabitants in 1846 to 36,000 in 1852. Roads, churches and schools, were built all over California. A constitution was drafted in 1849 and in September 1850, California became a state.

When the supply of gold ran out, many tired miners returned home, while others valued California’s potential and believed that its land was incredibly fertile, and it was. From that moment on, farming replaced mining as one of California’s main sources of wealth. Nevertheless, the epic Gold Rush is a very important and fascinating historical and cultural moment, and just as we did when we traveled on Route 66, we would like to discover the points of interest that were crucial for the Gold Rush.

Gold Rush California historyMany towns on this tour have retained their 19th century charm or that were in existence at the time are located along Highway 49, also known as Golden Chain Hwy or the Mother Lode, while others are further west, such as Sacramento and Stockton. All testify to a great yet very trying period. This route through wide landscapes, forests, and streams that originate in the Sierra Nevada stands out from the “classic” highways, but in our opinion, it is worth taking it. Also, one can take advantage of being in the area and travel also to other phenomenal destinations in northern California, such as San Francisco, Sausalito, Muir Woods, Sequoia National Park, Yosemite, and Lake Tahoe. This is perfect for those who love to travel around the United States and find it exciting to visit towns with history and charm.

The Golden Chain Highway is about 300 miles long and extends from Oakhurst (just north of Fresno) to Vinton (in northern California near Nevada). The most convenient airports for this tour are in San Francisco or Sacramento. As always we recommend renting a car once you arrive in California in order for you to travel with more autonomy. The mining towns on our tour are a maximum of three hours away om either San Francisco or Sacramento.

Gold Country California Map

Gold Rush Towns in California

Nevada City

Gold Rush Nevada CityThe itinerary along Highway 49 goes from north to south and begins in Nevada City. It is a 2 hour and 15-minutes drive away from San Francisco, while it is only about an hour away from Sacramento. Nevada City, which is surrounded by forests, is one of the most interesting Gold Rush cities. It has been used as a location for filming movies because of the historic buildings and the beautiful fall colors of the leaves in the fall.

The Downtown Historic District enclosed by Spring St, Bridge St, Commercial St, York St, Washington St, Coyote St and Main St has well-preserved buildings that are a testament to the Gold Rush. The Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum (5 Kidder Court), located just outside of the historic district, offers free admission and tells the history of local transportation. You can take tours and visit the railroad yard. The museum is open every day, but from November to April, it is only open on weekends.

Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park (N.Bloomfield Rd.) is a beautiful place that we highly recommend. It is an area in the Sierra Nevada that has forests and hills and is located 25 miles from Nevada City. You get a sense of the historical significance of this place by walking in the surreal mining village and along the scenic trail among the rocks cut during the excavations.

In Nevada City, the Film Festival takes place every year in September (but sometimes it has also been held in other summer months). Victorian Christmas is Nevada City’s traditional Christmas event. The city turns back the clock to the Victorian era. Artists wear period clothing and sing Christmas carols and there are street vendors and carriage rides below lights and gas lamps. It’s like being inside an old Christmas card.

In Nevada City’s downtown area, you will find the National Exchange Hotel (211 Broad St.), which dates back to 1852. The style of this hotel, which happens to have a swimming pool, takes inspiration from the Victorian era and Gold Rush. However, guest reviews are not very positive. As an alternative, we recommend the Broad Street Inn (517 W Broad St). In the same area, there is the famous Nevada Brewery (107 Sacramento St.), a brewery located in a historic building built in 1882.

Find all Nevada City hotels

Grass Valley

The second stop is Grass Valley, precisely at Empire Mine State Historic Park, (10791 E.Empire St.) which has one of the oldest, longest, deepest and richest gold mines in California. Also in the park, there are many historic buildings, including the owner’s house, the gardens, and the entrance to the mine itself. We suggest that you visit the Secret Room next to the visitor center, which houses a scale model of the interior of the mine.

Few people knew of the existence of this room at the time when the gold mine was active. The scale model of the mine had been built by the site engineers to show the development of the tunnels in the various levels and also of the other adjacent mines. Guided tours are available during the day. This is a great place to learn about the Gold Rush! On the property, there are 8 miles of forest trails for walking, mountain biking or horseback riding.

For an overnight stay and entertainment in Grass Valley, we recommend the Holbrooke Hotels (212 W.Main St.), a historic hotel with a restaurant and a saloon with live music.


california gold rush citiesAuburn (a few miles west of the Hwy 49) has been named by the San Francisco Chronicle “one of the best stops along I-80”. This city is renowned for its historical role in the Gold Rush. A giant concrete statue welcomes visitors to the city; it is the work of a local dentist, representing the man who discovered gold in the town. Visit Old Town Auburn, where the city’s historic buildings from the mid-19th century are found.

One of the buildings in Old Town is the Placer County Courthouse (101 Maple St.), the court built between 1894 and 1898. The museum houses artifacts from the Gold Rush and of Native American tribes.

You can stay overnight at the Power’s Mansion (195 Harrison Ave.), a romantic B&B in a Victorian house in the downtown area with a patio, a gazebo, and a bow window. It has 15 rooms and each one has its distinct design. UPDATE: The hotel is currently closed.

We recommend trying the dishes at Old Town Grill (160 Sacramento St.). The restaurant offers dishes made with local products at reasonable prices. Established in 1996, the restaurant is located in a cozy and rustic environment.

Meanwhile, Christmas Tree Vineyard Lodge (38400 Foresthill Rd.), located about half an hour from Auburn, in Foresthill, is a rustic lodge surrounded by woods. It is an ideal place to get away from the chaos of urban life. The lodge has free wifi.


california gold rush road tripColoma is a small town but it is of great importance because of its role as the “starting point” of the Gold Rush. It is situated on the South Fork American River, rafting enthusiasts’ favorite river in the West. This town was once the capital of El Dorado County.

I highly recommend that you stop at the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park (310 Back St.) which houses the statue of James Marshall, the aforementioned carpenter who found the first gold nuggets. For the modest cost of $3, you can take the tour of the place where Marshall made his discovery and may even have the opportunity to find gold fragments by sieving in the river!

The Enchanted April Inn (5950 Salmon Falls Rd.) is a verdant property with rustic country rooms in Pilot Hill in El Dorado County, among the rolling hills on the slopes of the Sierra Nevada.


when was the california gold rushPlacerville is the current capital of El Dorado County. Its name comes from the deposits (placers) found in the river bed. It was also nicknamed Hangtown for its frequent hangings, but it later became an important supply center for the surrounding mining fields. Historic buildings dating back to the Gold Rush era can still be found along Main Street, and we like to imagine the Pony Express riding along this street carrying mail from California to Missouri. Not far from downtown, there is The El Dorado County Museum (104 Placerville Dr.), a museum where you can learn about the history of this county.

In Placerville, a great place to shop, eat and take a ride on a historic train is the Burke Junction Shopping Center (3300 Coach Ln. – Cameron Park) which recreates the atmosphere of a Far West town. At certain times of the year, themed events take place, featuring gold panning competitions, concerts, and various forms of entertainment.

Since the Gold Rush was the catalyst of a great wave of migration, it is not surprising to find ethnic restaurants in addition to the local ones. Cascada (384 Main St.) creates a harmonious fusion of Mexican and Californian cuisine. In the refined yet affordable restaurant, that blends urban chic and old-world architecture to create something unique. This is the ideal place to enjoy fine wines, a margarita or tequila, but also healthy juices.

The Historic Cary House Hotel (300 Main St.) is nicknamed the jewel of Placerville. This historic charming hotel is located in the downtown area. 5 miles east of Placerville you will find The Davies Family Inn at Shadow Ridge Ranch (3700 Fort Jim Rd.), an elegant rustic wooden structure from the mid-19th century where you will be pleasantly transported back in time and still enjoy the most modern comforts. This location is very popular for weddings.

Sutter Creek

what was the california gold rushSutter Creek maintains the appearance of a Gold Rush town with a pleasant balance of old and new adapted to the needs and demands of visitors from all over the world. At the visitor center (71A Main St.), the staff is professional and happy to give detailed information related to the history of this small city that owes its name to the creek that in turn was named after Mr. Sutter, owner of the land from which the whole story began.

In Sutter Creek, we recommend relaxing at a table under an umbrella in the garden of Gold Dust Pizza (20 Eureka St.). The pizza is good and well stuffed. It may not be authentic Italian pizza, but its medium-high dough is very tasty.


gold rush california mapIn Jackson, along Main Street, it is pleasant to walk among the historic buildings on which there are plaques commemorating the city’s history. Nearby you can take part in one of the tours that are organized at the Kennedy Gold Mine to get a sense of the harsh reality of the “Gold Rush”. The mine is open from March to October, on Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays and admission is free.

The guided tours, which cost $10, show how gold was melted down and turned into bars that would be transported by Wells Fargo to San Francisco. You’ll also visit places where the miners changed their clothes before descending almost 5250 ft underground. In the Jackson area, the gold supply was remarkable and for this reason the city was of great importance, but now the main activities are tourism, timber and wine production.

In Jackson, Stanley’s Steakhouse (2 Water St.) is famous for its meat dishes, along with classic dishes and specialties. This restaurant is located at the National Hotel, a hotel that was an icon of the Gold Rush, which has been restored to its original splendor.


gold rush towns in californiaThe entire city of Columbia is a living museum where people dressed in period costumes are happy to explain the local history to visitors. Main Street, the primary artery of the city, has 19th-century buildings dating back to the time when it was a bustling mining town.

The State Historic Park (11255 Jackson St.) is a faithful reconstruction of a town during the “Gold Rush” with shops, restaurants, and two hotels. Visitors are transported back to the time of the mines. The people participate in the activities and customs of the time and you can ride a carriage that is one hundred years old.

Columbia’s Harvest Festival takes place in October at the State Historic Park (11255 Jackson St.) where fall is celebrated with decorations and handicrafts, music, and dancing.


Sonora gold country californiaSonora dates back to when miners arrived in the area and camped in streams and gorges. In fact, one of the largest camps, Camp Sonora, became the city of Sonora in 1848. Visitors who take the tour of Sonora will be immersed in history as they walk through the 19th-century brick and stone buildings, some with balconies.

In Sonora, we suggest that you enjoy a meal at the Diamondback Grill, an excellent restaurant in a building dating back to the “Gold Rush” with walls made of exposed stone. We suggest that you stay overnight at The Inn on Knowles Hill B&B (253 Knowles Hill Dr.), a building with historic decor, located on a hill overlooking Sonora.

In nearby Calaveras County, Angels Camp hosts the Calaveras Frog Jump Jubilee (2465 Gunclub Rd.) every May, a prize-winning event based on Mark Twain’s work of the same name, in which the frog jumping competitions are the main attraction. Locals say you should see it at least once.

In Vallecito, I recommend that you go zip lining in Angels Camp’s Moaning Cavern (5350 Moaning Cave Rd.).The space in the cavern is so large that it can hold the Statue of Liberty. In addition to zip-lining, there are mysterious caves to visit.


Jamestown gold rush californiaThe town of Jamestown is also a museum of living history. Here you can visit Railtown 1897 State Historic Park (18115 5th Ave.) where, on weekends from April to October, you can take a tour on a vintage train, walk around and take a look at the locomotives up close and take a tour to visit an old railway depot. When you walk down Main Street, you feel like you are seeing the city as it was more than 150 years ago.

There are buildings with different styles of architecture. There are wooden buildings that are typical of the Gold Rush, but also others built of stone with iron shutters to withstand fires, which were of the time. Scenes of films have been shot in and around the town including Wild, Wild West with Will Smith and Back to the Future III with Michael J. Fox.


Stockton gold rush californiaNow you will veer off of Highway 49, but not from the goal. We are south of Sacramento, in Stockton, capital of San Joaquin County, that can be accessed by taking either I-5 or SR 99. The discovery of gold along the American River turned Stockton from a small town into a booming trading center used as a base for sending supplies to miners in the Sierra Nevada hills. A German immigrant, named Mr. Weber, apparently was responsible for the development of the town. This gentleman tried to start the gold mining business, but realized that in that area the business of supplying the miners was much more profitable and he focused on that instead.

The harbor is still important and many agricultural products from northern California travel by water. Today, the area known as Weber Point & Waterfront (221 N.Center St.) is a significant part of the city center with festivals, concerts, and celebrations are held, but it still remains a testament to the past. To better understand the importance that the river has had and still has in the city, we recommend you go on an educational tour offered by Opportunity Cruises (445 W. Weber Ave. – Riverfront) to sail along the canal. You can also go on a cruise at sunset and organize special events. A relaxing walk along the Joan Darrah Promenade in the Marina (333 Tuleburg Levee) allows you to explore the waterways. Stockton was the first community in California to have an English name.

Off of Highway 49, while you are still reminiscing about the times of the Gold Rush in Stockton, we recommend a stop at the Lumberjacks Restaurant (3113 W. Benjamin Dr.) with its generous portions of strictly homemade American cuisine at affordable prices. The property also has other locations in Grass Valley, Nevada City and Sacramento University Plaza Waterfront Hotel (110 W. Freemont St.) is a hotel that has the advantage of being, as the name suggests, near the waterfront. The hotel has wi-fi. The rooms and suites have a modern design and you can request a room overlooking the waterfront.


Sacramento CaliforniaSacramento, the capital of California, is located west of Highway 49, in the area called Central Valley, at the confluence of the Sacramento and American rivers. This is the sixth most populated city in the state. Its distinctive landmark is the Tower Bridge that connects Sacramento to West Sacramento. During the Gold Rush, it was an agricultural and commercial center, a major distribution hub and a terminal for trains, coaches, Pony Express and telegraphic communications.

Old Sacramento, with its Victorian buildings that have Spanish and Mexican influences, takes you back in time. In the 1960s, it was restored to maintain its important historical memory and as a result, now it attracts many visitors. In Old Sacramento there is the California State Railroad Museum (111 I St.) which attempts to tell the story of the decisive role of the railway in California and the rest of the country. It has a display of restored locomotives and wagons. The Sacramento History Museum (101 I St.) tells the story of the first inhabitants, the pioneers during the Gold Rush, and life on the farms.

Then we must leave Old Sacramento and head to Sutter’s Fort (between K and L St.), a replica of what was originally built around 1890 based on a map published in Germany in 1847. Inside there is a collection of objects that belonged to the first inhabitants of California and the pioneers. We would also like to mention the Sterling Transportation Company’s Trolley Tour.

This company offers city tours in vintage streetcars (from which you can get on and off at will), and the fact that they are painted white makes them easily recognizable. The vehicle is equipped with a sort of rear “balcony” and wooden benches inside. The route runs through downtown, midtown and Old Sacramento. The streetcars also follow routes that allow you to reach buildings where local sporting events take place. This company also provides cars, limousines, buses, and jets for either simple city travel or private events in grand style.

Discover all activities in Sacramento

Gold Rush Days is an event that takes place in Old Sacramento, the historic district of Sacramento, in September. The whole thing goes right back to the 1800s. Costumed characters from that time wander the streets while musicians play music that was popular during the Gold Rush. It is possible to make rides in a carriage and on horseback. The atmosphere of the time is perfectly recreated. Delta King (on the Sacramento River) was once a fully operational ship and has now been transformed into a charming hotel and entertainment venue.

Inside there are two exceptional restaurants, one casual and one refined, a school of enology and three theaters, and one of them has a Mystery Dinner. We point out a shopping mall because of its unique architecture, even if it deviates from the theme of our itinerary; it is called Downtown Commons (660J St.) commonly referred to as DOCO. Its creators have included plenty of art, wide spaces, and brightness of the mall. If there’s time and if you want to take a break after or while shopping, you can go bowling or go have something to eat.

Find a hotel in Sacramento

Every town has made its contribution to the Gold Rush epic, so stop along the way where your curiosity is piqued, even in towns that have not been described in the itinerary, such as Georgetown (if you are passing by and are looking for a place to stay, consider a stop at The American River Inn at 6600 Orleans St.).

Past, present, and future merge on the Golden Chain Highway, allowing us to live an unforgettable adventure in the middle of fields, forests, waterways, historic districts dating back to the time of the pioneers, wineries with excellent wines, restaurants with fresh produce, shops and charming B&Bs. Walk and explore the area as the first pioneers and gold diggers did.

You may not find gold and you may not become rich, but every corner will surely reserve a nice surprise that will teach you something new about this fantastic land.

Our Tip:
Looking for accommodations for your trip from California to other parts of the Southwest? Read our guide that contains reviews of hotels and strategic tips for finding accommodations near major attractions: Where to Stay: Our Tips for the SouthWest Area

Warning: Operating hours can change and closures for extraordinary events can occur, so we strongly suggest to check the venues official websites.

Marianna Licia e Paolo

There are two passions that we share: photography and traveling, especially in the United States.

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2 thoughts on “California Gold Country Tour: Follow in the Footsteps of the Gold Rush”

    • So should Marysville cuz it’s the states first city and original state capitol the oldest little city in the state was founded by Don and Mary Covillaud back around 1835 to 1845 somewhere in between that time


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