Alta California Guide: Gold Country

Centuries-old towns and hidden mines survive to prove it: this is where the state’s boom began.

alta california guides
Michael Schwab

For rugged wilderness and that enduring Old West spirit, it’s hard to find a more fitting place than gold country. Stretching north from Sacramento and along the foothills of the Sierra on Highway 49, this rural region maintains the fierce independent spirit that emerged when ’49ers discovered the precious metal that gives the area its name. From rehabbed gold rush–era hotels to acidic hot springs hiding in the hills, it’s a last bastion of a certain kind of California living.

1 Holbrooke Hotel
holbrooke hotel
Holbrooke Hotel

The current crown jewel of the area’s historic hotels is the stately Holbrooke, situated on Main Street in Grass Valley. The property dates to the mid-1800s, during the region’s decades-long rush for gold. Fires and closures over the years took their toll, but it gleams anew with brass fixtures, claw-foot bathtubs, and other period-appropriate details—plus a signature long wood-and-stone bar.

2 Legends Books, Antiques & Soda Fountain
legends books, antiques and soda fountain
tripadvisor

This area doesn’t lack tchotchke shops and ice cream stands. Leave it to Legends in sleepy Sonora to add a new layer to the mix: a bookstore, right downtown, that is partially built into a former gold mine shaft. Shelves of books share space with a working soda fountain and actual rubble left over from the mining operation. Don’t miss the wall safe and loads of brass details throughout the building.

3 Lassen Volcanic National Park
lassen volcanic national park
GETTY IMAGES

Those gurgling, muddy fumaroles! (Think hot springs that glow in impossible colors.) Those towering domed mounds of ancient volcanic overflow! It’s a couple of hours north of Sacramento, but Lassen is worth the drive. Ongoing seismic and geothermal activity in the area has continually reshaped the primordial lands—a protected national asset since 1907. Bagging Lassen Peak is an obvious highlight, but real adventurers will want to head for Sulphur Works or Bumpass Hell to spot the park’s mud pots, geysers, and other natural wonders.

4 Placerville Hardware
placerville hardware
Alamy

Looking for a pickax, a Yeti cooler, or maybe a pair of onion goggles? Get to the oldest continuously operating hardware store west of the Mississippi, which first opened its doors to service the state’s famed ore hunters. Remnants of the store’s early days—it dates to 1852 are everywhere, from the worn wood floors to the stone and brickwork connecting parts of the building (it’s sprawling!).

5 Shasta State Historic Park
shasta state historic park
GETTY IMAGES

Ghost towns are an enduring part of the state’s history, filled with bygone businesses and abandoned homesteads. Among the most accessible is the forgotten Shasta, which now lives on only as a roadside collection of preserved buildings west of Redding. (Columbia State Historic Park, above Sonora, offers a similar, though heavily trafficked, experience.) A short self-guided walk tells the tale of what was once one of the area’s busiest settlements, its growth spurred by the discovery of a vein of gold in 1849. Though only their shells remain, it’s easy to imagine the brewery, bakery, and hotel that once served this town.•

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