Gold Rush Country, CA
History Repeats Itself
Gold isn't the only attraction at Columbia State Historic Park, 15 miles northeast of Jamestown. Once called the "Gem of the Southern Mines," this town is now preserved as a California State Historic Park. Authentic shops of the 1850s, operated by proprietors in period costumes, line downtown streets.
Hop a stagecoach and tour the town like a local. A.N. Fisher & Co. Stage Line & Livery Stables operates an authentic 20-passenger Abbot-Downing western coach or the smaller 8-passenger, open-sided mud wagon. In summer, the 10-minute ride winds through limestone formations exposed by hydraulic gold mining. Keep your eyes open for deer, squirrels, birds and, if you're lucky, bobcats. Both wagons are pulled by standardbred horses, the same breed used by the 49ers.
Train lovers of all ages will have a blast at Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, located 53 miles north of Mariposa. The museum, built on the original grounds of the Sierra Railway, operates rides on five steam engines. Three of the engines are the originals that transported prospectors to the mines. Rides are 45 minutes -- short enough to keep the little ones engaged and long enough for interpretive guides to fill you in on the region's mining history.
You'll ride the same tracks as the miners, through rolling hills and along Woods Creek, where much of this region's gold was discovered. If the area looks familiar, it's because you've probably already seen it in the movies. More than 200 films have been shot on these trains and tracks. The three-hour Fourth of July train trip and BBQ is a must.
Tour the sleepy town of Coloma, where gold was discovered in 1848. James Marshall plucked a gold nugget from the American River at Sutter's Mill here, launching the legendary gold rush. Nearby Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park features a nearly full-size replica of Sutter's Mill, along with original buildings, churches, and cemeteries from the gold rush era.
Keep an eye out for the stone wall at river's edge, marking the Sutter's Mill site and path leading to the exact spot where Marshall found his nugget. Feeling lucky? Bring a gold pan and see if Marshall's luck rubs off on you.
For a change of pace, check out Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park, just north of Nevada City. The park was once a hydraulic mining site, in which water cannons blasted hillsides to expose ore. In a precedent-setting ruling, a federal judge ordered the North Bloomfield Mining Co. to stop this type of environmentally devastating mining in 1884.
Today the eroded cliffs and area surrounding Malakoff's giant mining pit are -- believe it or not -- a great place to stretch your legs. Time and nature have turned what was once an ugly, scarred pit into unusually beautiful cliffs revealing layers of colorful gravel and rock. There's the three-mile "Diggins Trail," which loops around the mine pit, and the two-mile Hardrock Trail, as well as a small fishing pond.
Spend a few moments in historic Bloomfield, a one-block ghost town. The visitor center offers exhibits on life in this gold rush-era town. Costumed docents lead guided tours on weekends.