About 60 miles northeast of Sacramento, Nevada City and Grass Valley are far and away the top tourist destinations of the northern Gold Country.
These two historic towns were at the center of the hard-rock mining fields of Northern California. Grass Valley was California's richest mining town, producing more than a billion dollars' worth of gold. Both are attractive, although smaller Nevada City's wealth of Victorian homes and storefronts makes it one of the most appealing small towns in California, particularly in the fall, when the maple trees are ablaze with color. (Its entire downtown has been designated a National Historic Landmark.)
From San Francisco, take I-80 to the Hwy. 49 turnoff in Auburn and follow the signs heading north. For information about the area, contact the Grass Valley & Nevada County Chamber of Commerce, 248 Mill St., Grass Valley (tel. 800/655-4667 in California, or 530/273-4667; www.grassvalleychamber.com), or the Nevada City Chamber of Commerce, 132 Main St., Nevada City (tel. 800/655-6569 or 530/265-2692; www.nevadacitychamber.com).
Rumors of miners pulling a pound of gold a day out of Deer Creek brought thousands of fortune seekers to the area in 1849. Within a year, Nevada City was a boisterous town of 10,000, the third-largest city in California. In its heyday, everyone visited this rollicking Western outpost with its busy red-light district: Mark Twain lectured here in 1866, and former president Herbert Hoover lived and worked here as a gold miner.
Pick up a walking-tour map at the Chamber of Commerce, 132 Main St., and stroll the streets lined with impressive Victorian buildings; the National Hotel (built 1854-56) is here (the Gold Rush-era bar serves a spicy Bloody Mary), as is the Nevada Theatre (1865), one of the oldest theaters in the nation still operating as such. Today it's home to the Foothill Theatre Company.
If you want to see the source of much of the city's wealth, visit Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park, 23579 N. Bloomfield Rd. (tel. 530/265-2740; www.parks.ca.gov), 28 miles northeast of Nevada City. Once the world's largest hydraulic gold mine, it's an awesome (some say environmentally disturbing) spectacle of hydraulic mining: Nearly half a mountain has been washed away by powerful jets of water, leaving behind a 600-foot-deep canyon of exposed rock. In the 1870s, North Bloomfield, then located in the middle of this park, had a population of 1,500. Some of the buildings have been reconstructed and refurnished to show what life was like then. The 3,000-acre park also offers several hiking trails, swimming at Blair Lake, and 30 campsites that can be reserved through ReserveAmerica (tel. 800/444-7275; www.reserveamerica.com). The museum is open daily in summer from 11am to 4pm; on winter weekends the museum opens at 11:30am. To reach the park, take Hwy. 49 toward Downieville for 11 miles. Turn right onto Tyler-Foote Crossing Road for 17 miles. Turn right onto Derbec Road and then right on North Bloomfield Road, which takes you to the park entrance. The fee is $8 per car, $6 for seniors.
Another 6 miles up Hwy. 49 from the Malakoff Diggins turnoff brings you to Pleasant Valley Road, the exit that will take you (in about 7 miles) to one of the nation's most impressive covered bridges. Built in 1862, it's 225 feet long and was crossed by many a stagecoach (in fall, it makes for a spectacular photo opportunity).
In contrast to Nevada City's "tourist town" image, nearby Grass Valley is the commercial and retail center of the region. Although it's lacking in high-quality restaurants and B&Bs, its wealth of historical attractions makes it a worthwhile day trip. The Empire Mine State Historic Park, 10791 E. Empire St., Grass Valley (tel. 530/273-8522; www.empiremine.org), the oldest, largest, and richest gold mine in California, is just outside of town. The mine once had 367 miles of shafts and produced an estimated 5.8 million ounces of gold between 1850 and 1956. You can look down the shaft of the mine, walk around the mine yard, and stroll through the owner's gardens. Tours are conducted and a mining-technique movie is shown year-round, but check the schedules at www.empiremine.org or call in advance. You can also enjoy picnicking, cycling, mountain biking, or hiking in the 854-acre park. It's open year-round except for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day. Admission to the park and museum costs $5 for adults over 16 and $3 for children 6 and over (children 5 and under are free). Guided tours of the mine yard and grounds are $1.50 per person.
Visitors can pick up a walking-tour map at the Chamber of Commerce, 248 Mill St. (tel. 530/273-4667; www.grassvalleychamber.com), and explore the historic area along Mill and Main streets. Two museums will appeal to California-history and gold-mining buffs: the Grass Valley Museum, 410 S. Church St., adjacent to St. Joseph's Cultural Center (tel. 530/273-5509), and the North Star Mining Museum, at the south end of Mill Street at Allison Ranch Road (tel. 530/273-4255; May-Oct).
Grass Valley was, for a time, the home of Lola Montez, singer, dancer, and paramour of the rich and famous. A fully restored home that she bought and occupied in 1853 can be viewed at 248 Mill St., now the site of Grass Valley's chamber of commerce. Lotta Crabtree, Montez's famous protégée, lived down the street at 238 Mill St., now an apartment house. Also pop into the Holbrooke Hotel, 212 Main St., to see the signature of Mark Twain, who stayed here, as did four U.S. presidents. The saloon has been in continuous use since 1852, and locals still come for tall cold ones.
The surrounding region offers many recreational opportunities on its rivers and lakes and in the Tahoe National Forest. You can enjoy fishing, swimming, and boating at Scotts Flat Lake near Nevada City (east on Hwy. 20) and at Rollins Lake on Hwy. 174, between Grass Valley and Colfax. Tributary Whitewater Tours, 20480 Woodbury Dr., Grass Valley, CA 95949 (tel. 800/672-3846 or 530/346-6812; www.whitewatertours.com), offers half- to 3-day white-water rafting trips March through October. The chambers of commerce publish a trail guide for mountain biking, but you must bring your own wheels. For regional hiking information, contact Tahoe National Forest Headquarters, at Coyote Street and Hwy. 49 in Nevada City (tel. 530/265-4531).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.