Few experiences make gold mining history come alive for kids like stepping into the darkness of a 19th-century mineshaft or dipping a pan into the Sacramento River, watching carefully for a glint of gold amid the silt and gravel. These activities, along with a host of others, can be had on a family trip to the gold mining towns across the western U.S. For a Gold Rush-inspired trip to remember, grab the kids, hit the road and head to these glimmering spots, found everywhere from Coloma to Shasta, California.
Begin at the epicenter of the California Gold Rush, where James Marshall first glimpsed gold in the South Fork of the American River, starting the California Gold Rush of 1849. Today, Coloma preserves their history at the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, where visitors can visit the on-site museum, learn how to pan for gold and see enactments from the mid-19th century. The park's Gold Discovery Tour tells the story and visits the sites of the Coloma Valley before and after James Marshall's gold discovery, and is offered multiple times each day. While in the Coloma area, families can also raft the American River, hike the California foothills and fish.
Where to stay: Coloma Resort offers camping area and cabins for families in the heart of the region.
Old Sacramento, California
After seeing the site of Sutter's Mill in Coloma, kids have the context for a visit to Sutter's Fort in Sacramento. Here, families can learn more about the impact the California Gold Rush had on John Sutter and James Marshall, and can learn about the additional historical events the fort saw in its lifetime, such as the arrival of what remained of the Donner Party. And after touring the fort, families can enjoy dining, shopping and exploring additional historical sites, like the award-winning California State Railroad Museum in Old Sacramento's pedestrian-friendly district.
Where to stay: Embassy Suites Sacramento-Riverfront Promenade hotel is within walking distance of Old Sacramento and is an easy drive from Sutter's Fort.
Virginia City, Nevada
A boomtown of incredible wealth during the Gold Rush-era, Virginia City is located a 45-minute drive from Reno, Nevada. High in the hills, this rough-edged Western town is wonderfully preserved, with saloons (complete with card tables and bar stools), mine shafts and historic houses. Start at the visitor's center to grab a Comstock Adventure Pass to save on individual attractions if you plan to visit numerous sights. Take the trolley tour to get an overview of town, and be sure to step inside the eerie Mackay Mansion, once the home of William Randolph Hearst. Older kids will love taking a tour of the Ponderosa Mine, the opening of which is located inside a period saloon. And everyone will get a kick out of The Way It Was Museum, which includes hands-on exhibits and eclectic collections from the 19th century.
Where to stay: Save money by staying in budget-friendly accommodations in Reno and driving to Virginia City.
Nevada City, California
Located in the Northern California foothills, and a gateway to the forests and recreation of Lake Tahoe, Nevada, Nevada City was once a major player in the California Gold Rush. The entire downtown district is a national historic landmark, filled with restaurants, shops, boutiques, galleries and museums, all offering small town hospitality. Gold panning is still a local pastime here, as is mountain biking and hiking. Plus, the South Yuba River State Park features superb swimming holes and picnic spots, as well as fishing opportunities for families itching to embrace the great outdoors. To learn about the local history of Nevada City, start at the North Star Mining Museum in adjacent Grass Valley, California, then head back to Nevada City to check out the Firehouse No. 1 Museum and Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum.
Where to stay: Retreat to one of Nevada City's historic and affordable bed-and-breakfasts.
Whiskeytown and Shasta, California
Situated just outside of Redding, California, on Highway 299, the mining town of Shasta (not to be confused with Mount Shasta or Lake Shasta) is a tiny ghost town with plenty to explore. First, head to Shasta State Historic Park, where you and the kids can enjoy a self-guided tour that can be completed within a few hours. While most buildings are now in ruins, the county courthouse has been restored and features historical exhibits and artwork. Just a bit further up the road, Whiskeytown National Recreation Area offers relief from Northern California's hot summer temperatures with opportunities for lake and creek swimming, picnicking and boating. At the far end of the lake, the Tower House Historic District preserves the homestead and mining fame of friends Charles Camden and Levi Tower, along with their gold mine, stamp mill and hotel. Kids can learn about ways people would strive to acquire riches during the California Gold Rush, such as providing lodging and supplies to miners. And during your visit, keep eyes open while crossing the many streams and creeks in the area; locals still pan for gold here.
Where to stay: Camp at one of the lakeside tent sites at Whiskeytown ($25 a night), or stay in downtown Redding.
With a close proximity to the California-Nevada border near Death Valley National Park, Rhyolite is a well-preserved ghost town, ready-made for exploration. Tours are self-guided; in fact, on some days, you won't see another living soul at Rhyolite. The town includes the ruins of a train depot, a jail cell, storefronts and saloons and even a brothel. As you explore the town, keep your eyes peeled for rattlesnakes, as this region in the California desert is their home territory.
Where to stay: Combine a day trip to Rhyolite with a vacation in Death Valley National Park, and stay at Furnace Creek Resort, which is conveniently located just 120 miles northwest of Las Vegas and offers an ideal home base for exploring the park.
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