8 Reasons You Need to Explore California’s Gold Country

With daily non-stops from Vancouver to Sacramento, it's never been easier to explore a new part of the Golden State

With daily non-stops from Vancouver to Sacramento, it’s never been easier to explore a new part of the Golden State

Skip the bustle of Los Angeles and the well-known Napa Valley vineyards and head for California’s Gold Country where the pace of life truly slows down, more than just a few beats.

Hop in a rental car after the two-hour flight and head north. The history-rich region has something for every kind of long weekender, from a quiet getaway at a heritage bed and breakfast in one of America’s lesser-known most charming towns, Auburn, to sampling farm-to-table beers and wines from new and old vines in Placer County (including some that lasted through prohibition).

If you’re after a little more action, head onwards to Downieville to hit some of America’s best single-track mountain bike trails and onto Sierra City to hike beautiful sections of the famed Pacific Crest Trail, or go for a soak in a natural hot spring.

Of course, if it’s the history you’re after, gold was discovered here and there’s a whole lot of museums, remnants, and ghost stories to explore and uncover—maybe even a little piece of the precious metal still to be found for yourself.

Auburn and Placer County

1. Goat House Brewing

Beer doesn’t get fresher than from this family-owned brewery—the only place you can taste their seasonal, handcrafted brew is right there at the source. They don’t bottle or can any of their liquid gold. The sprawling farm has a beautiful barn converted into a brewery and tasting room, both offering a rustic, American country vibe, with details like the original redwood siding from the barn now refinished its interior walls.

Our tip? Sit down and stay a while. Get a tasting flight (try the Wee Laddy, their signature Scotch ale, and the Dirty Redhead, their flavourful red ale) and on a sunny afternoon, sit outside at one of the picnic tables on the sprawling farm that’s jam-packed with friends, families and the occasional free-roaming chicken. The patio overlooks two acres of hop and orchard fields, herb and vegetable gardens, honeybee farms, and a paddock of 40 goats (that fertilize the fields) alongside Rory the donkey. Yes, you can pet the goats, making it the perfect place to spend a sunny afternoon with the whole family.

Owners Cathy and Michael Johnson use sustainable brewing practices, including the use of solar electricity, zero fertilizers or pesticides, and include no purees or extracts in their beer—only real ingredients in the form nature intended. They also have a rotating cast of food trucks. If Zintzuni Cocina Mexicana is there when you visit, grab a few of the Asada steak tacos, they’re delicious and wash down nicely with a pint of El Hefe—an American Hefeweizen featuring home-grown citrus.

2. Park Victorian Inn

Nestled on a hill overlooking the quaint town of Auburn, you’ll find the Park Victorian Inn—a bed and breakfast worth the trip all on its own. The love and care put into making this a retreat for guests is palpable and impossible not to appreciate. If you’re looking for a quiet stay with homemade touches and a Victorian feel, this is it. Each of the six rooms and luxurious sitting rooms are uniquely decorated and named after important figures throughout the Gold Rush, including Claude Chana, a French settler and miner who discovered gold in May 1848 while camping next to a stream known today as the Auburn Ravine. The rooms have plush robes, beautiful tiles and luxurious waterfall showers.

Every morning Laurie, chef and caretaker, uses her grandma’s recipes to bake gooey cinnamon buns and cooks up her own daily breakfast strada recipe, which has seasonal ingredients that change daily. The smell wafting into your room in the morning is surely the best wakeup call around, you might not even want to leave the place. We promise it’s worth waking up and crawling out of your cozy bed to enjoy breakfast on the outdoor terrace or in the welcoming dining room and explore the sweet town of Auburn. Head to Auburn Ale House for dinner and in-house brews—the Gold Digger beer pairs perfectly with their fried chicken.

3. Lone Buffalo Vineyards

While the wine trail in this area is fairly new by California standards, when the Gold Rush came through, many people brought their winemaking knowledge from Europe and planted vineyards throughout Placer County. During prohibition, winemakers were forced to rip all of the vines out of the ground, so what was once a flourishing wine region is just now coming back to life, with only a few of the 150-year-old vines remaining. Most have been re-planted in the last 20 years. Lone Buffalo, one of five vineyards in the area, is a family-run micro-winery, much like others in the area, it has a cozy, hometown vibe and the wines are unique. A must-try is the Crazy Horse, a blend of three separate varietals50 percent Tempranillo, 33 percent Malbec, 17 percent Syrahas well as the tasty Just Mour, featuring an amazing aroma of lavender and violet.

4. Rafting on the American River

During the Gold Rush, miners used dynamite to blow up part of the American River, diverting it to be able to mine one section at a time. Now, you can raft right through the old mining claim. Depending on the time of year and height of the river, this scenic ride can be more of a leisurely than white-water. Spend the afternoon taking in the surrounding mountainous landscape, and learning some Gold Rush history with Rise Up River Trips during which you’ll surely hear some ghost stories and experience life along the riverside. After your boat ride, be sure to stop by Coloma and check out the original Gold Rush town, then stop by for a beer in one of the region’s coolest dive bars, The Coloma Club, that was originally built over 150 years ago, and has since burnt down and been rebuilt multiple times, but still holds the essence of its original era with rustic charm, old wooden walls, bills plastered all over the roof, and flickering neon beer signs.

Downieville and Sierra County

5. Hike the Pacific Crest Trail

The 4,265km Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) is a true test of endurance that attracts thousands of hikers each year, few of which have successfully completed the entire trail. For avid long-distance hikers, it’s a journey of a lifetime and no easy undertaking—as author Cheryl Strayed shared with us in her famed autobiographical novel, Wild. Running from San Diego through Sierra County, onto the highest portion of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges, all the way over the Canadian border to British Columbia, the PCT runs through 25 national forests.

If disappearing into the wild a la Reese Witherspoon for months on end isn’t your thing, don’t shy away from it. The trail is still the perfect outdoor playground for beginners and experts alike, with many day and weekend hikes. A beautiful part of the trail that runs east of Sierra City is Loves Fall. The easy hike through the forest runs along the North Yuba River with huge boulders and cascading falls that have made a gorge, which you can stand over and view from the large suspension bridge.

6. Downieville Mountain Bike Tracks

If grinding gears downhill in a place lesser known is more your scene, you’ve come to the right place. You’ll find some of America’s best single-track mountain bike trails in these parts, and one of the quirkiest bike shops around. 23 years ago, Greg Williams took a risk and quit his job selling agricultural equipment in the Midwest to open the area’s first commercial bike shop, Downieville Outfitters. One of the pioneers of the sport in the area, he’s stuck around and raised his son in the tiny county with 3000 inhabitants, and built a thriving business while many others have come and gone.

What makes the trails super unique is the fact that the multi-use trail system—part of the Tahoe National Forest—wasn’t created by mountain bikers, they’re old gold mine trails that were used to access mine claims. The trail system existed, and that’s what made it such a natural progression into mountain biking.

If you’re feeling brave, tackle Butcher Ranch Trail—the region’s main downhill route—a single-track trail, just wide enough for a bike, which drops in on the Pacific Crest Trail ridgeline and through the Sierra Buttes, surrounded by the wilderness, mountains, creeks and streams that flow year-round. Keep your eyes peeled for bears and mountain lions. “They drop the bikes off at the top at 7,200 feet, and it quickly drops down to 2,900 feet,” says Williams. “It’s not for everyone. It’s been discovered, but you can still come out here and not see anybody if you don’t want to.”

After a day on the trails, stop by Sorraco’s Saloon in the rustic, historical Zerloff Hotel building for a nightcap with owners Ron and Cheryl, who have many stories to share from the gold rush days, and this sleepy Gold Rush town.

7. Turn in for the night at the Buttes Resort

At the base of the Sierra Buttes in Sierra City, you’ll find charming, rustic cabins nestled above the Yuba River. The six individual cabins have full kitchens, gas fireplaces, and rustic furniture perfectly fitting for the location. If you leave your window open at night you’ll be lulled to sleep by the sound of the rushing water and in the morning brew a cup of coffee you can enjoy on the large patio overlooking the Yuba barreling by.

For breakfast, you have two options. In July and Augustwhen hiking season is in full swing, owners Jenny and Steve of Red Moose Café have a line-up out the door. On any given summer day, they serve over 100 breakfasts per day, plus packed lunches for those on the go. Get the giant breakfast wrap if you’re fueling for a day of hiking. If you’re after a truly unique experience, give Larry at the Sierra Country Store a call and he’ll set up a table for you in his general store and serve you a good old American fry-up right there among the fully stocked shelves of his shop—some true hometown hospitality right there.

8. Soak in the (au) natural Sierra Hot Springs

Not your typical hot springs, the Sierra Hot Springs are an experience not for the faint of heart, or body shy. Clothing is optional here. In the main area, there’s a naturally-heated pool and large sun terrace where you can go and even-out those tan lines while overlooking the valley. There’s also a silent meditation area called the Temple Dome, a hexagon-shaped geodesic structure with hot and cold plunge pools. If you wander around the property nearby the main area you’ll find vintage clawfoot bathtubs scattered about in the woods that are filled by hoses with water directly from the springs. If you make the trek to the camping area, you’ll find a more rustic rock pool spring to soak in.

For more information or to plan your trip now, check out Visit Placer and Sierra County.