Taking a road trip on Highway 49, also known as the Golden Chain highway, to visit California gold rush towns will transport you back to the 19th century. Admire the architecture and harken back to horse drawn carriages traversing the streets. The Northern California road trip itinerary outlined below includes the best places to see, eat and stay in seven California gold country towns. The California gold rush town map below will help you plan. If you are up for a small detour and epic hiking, I highly recommend overnighting in South Lake Tahoe after visiting Placerville to experience the Mt Tallac hike.
California Gold Rush Towns: #1 Placerville
Placerville, in El Dorado County, is a short 2.5 to 3 hour drive (130 miles) northeast of San Francisco. Leaving mid-morning allows you to arrive in time for lunch and explore Main Street’s historic hotel, hardware store and specialty artisan shops.
Places to See: Placerville
1. Bowtie Barbershop
Peek into the Bowtie Barbershop – the coolest, most colorful barbershop I have EVER seen! The creative design is as an ode to historic barbershops. The lovingly restored antique Koken barber chairs from 1945, a 1908 towel steamer and lithographs covering the walls are just a few of the enticing elements.
2. Cary House Hotel
Step back into the gold rush era at the Cary House Hotel. Antiques from 1857, including an old safe, furniture, piano, bellman’s outfit and phone dot the lobby. If you love historic black and white imagery, be sure to check out the photos on the walls, which show you what the street and store fronts looked like in the 1800s.
FUN FACT: Many locals believe this hotel is haunted.
3. Dedrick’s Cheese
Ogle the 300 cheese brands Dedrick’s Cheese offers. Pair them with quince spread or the freshly baked bread they sell. Dedrick’s unique and flavorful products, including San Francisco Molinari salame and Humboldt fog cheese, are perfect for a picnic or road trip snack.
TOP TIP: Don’t miss their popular goat and sheep’s milk cheese imported from Australia’s Meredith Dairy. My Australian friends confirmed this cheese is a crowd pleaser!
Dedrick’s also has an impressive chocolate selection, including Chuao, Tcho and Vosges brands.
TOP TIP: Vosges’ Pink Salt Caramel chocolate bar is one I’ve gifted often.
4. Winterhill Olive Oil
If you are craving hand pressed, award-winning olive oils Winterhill Olive Oil is your place. The maker imparts bold flavors by soaking fruit rinds in the olive oils. Browse the numerous balsamic vinegars, spices, artisanal jams and pasta sauces to create your own culinary delights at home. Use Ronnie’s Red pasta sauce, a 100-year old Italian family recipe, for cioppino, chicken or pasta.
TOP TIP: Use Winterhill’s orange infused olive oil to make brownies. Or, bake these olive oil chocolate chunk cookies from Foodie in New York. Be warned, they are highly addictive!
FUN FACT: Did you know the lower the acidity in olive oil, the more anti-oxidants it has? Winterhill olive oils are all certified so you can rest assured the products you buy are high quality.
5. Placerville Hardware Store
Placerville Hardware store, established in 1852, is the oldest hardware store west of the Mississippi and the second oldest business in California! If you want to try your hand at panning for gold in the American River, you can buy sieves in all colors of the rainbow from here.
FUN FACT: A local told us gold panning after storms is ideal as raging rivers can wash gold downstream. Look closely in tree roots at forks in the river as gold sometimes gets lodged amongst them.
Places to Eat: Placerville
1. Sweetie Pies
Grab an umbrella shaded table on Sweetie Pies’ outdoor patio, and nosh on made from scratch cinnamon rolls, baked goods, pies and sandwiches. Come early as most products sell out by early afternoon.
TOP TIP: Do yourself a favor and buy a slice or an entire oallieberry pie, which tastes like a blackberry + raspberry hybrid. You’ll thank me later. Finding oallieberry products is rare! I’ve only ever had an oallieberry pie in Pescadero, CA at Duarte’s Tavern.
2. Larsen Apple Barn
In addition to being known for its gold-rush era history, El Dorado California is known for apple growing and offers a huge variety.
If you are in the Placerville area between September and November, take a ten-minute detour to the Apple Hill Growers Area. Wander the Larsen Apple Barn, the oldest family-owned farm, operating since 1860 and peruse their 20 apple varieties and fresh juices.
TOP TIP: Savor indulgences at the Larsen Bake Shop. Their hot apple cider, apple crisp, and apple cake drizzled with caramel sauce are next level delicious.
California Gold Rush Towns: #2 Sutter Creek
Heading only 45 minutes south of Placerville, you can continue your gold rush journey in Amador County’s Sutter Creek. Main Street is lined with charming balconied buildings where it’s easy to imagine stagecoaches click clacking past you. With all the boutiques, restaurants, antique shops and olive oil tasting lining the street, you can easily spend an afternoon exploring.
Places to See: Sutter Creek
1. Free Library
Entering town, you are greeted by an adorable free library housed in a tiny green and white phone booth building.
Pop into the boutiques lining the street, with myriad gifts, clothing and candles offered. Don’t miss Sutter Creek Plaza, which has a few shops tucked in a peaceful courtyard.
3. Bella Grace
Bella Grace offers organically grown olive oil, vinegar and wine tasting in its 1860s era tasting room. Purchase a charcuterie tray to accompany your tasting.
4. Sera Fina
If you are interested in cider tasting, Sera Fina offers that along with wine.
Places to Eat: Sutter Creek
Grab lunch on the balcony overlooking Main Street at Hotel Sutter, which dates from 1858, or on their back patio. If you are craving a sweet treat, pop into Choc-O-Latte and indulge in a lemon bar or hot apple cider.
Where to Stay: Sutter Creek
If you opt to overnight in Sutter Creek, the Sutter Creek Inn is a charming bed and breakfast to consider. Or, you might want to stay in one of Hotel Sutter’s 21 rooms, providing the opportunity to immerse in a gold-rush era hotel.
California Gold Rush Towns: #3 Jackson
10 minutes south from Sutter Creek in Amador County, you’ll find Jackson. Although much of the city was destroyed by a fire in 1862, it was rebuilt with brick buildings, many of which you can still appreciate.
Wander the National Hotel lobby and admire this hotel from 1852. Grab some sweet treats or ice cream at Train Town candies. Be sure to venture up the side streets and see some of the old Victorian homes and the stained glass in the St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, which was founded in 1868.
FUN FACT: Did you know the Argonaut and Kennedy mines in Jackson were two of the most productive gold mines in California? $34 million worth of gold was extracted from the Kennedy mine!
California Gold Rush Towns: #4 Murphys
Murphys, an hour south of Jackson, is my favorite of the gold rush mining towns. Despite being only two and a half hours east of San Francisco, I’d never heard of this Sierra Nevada foothills town. Since Murphys can easily entertain you for a weekend, check out my Best Things to Do in Murphys California post to plan an extended getaway.
Places to See: Murphys
1. Angels Camp City Museum and Carriage House
Angels Camp Carriage House is one of the largest carriage houses in the United States, with a huge variety of carriages on display, including one that transported Mark Twain!
See the room that Ulysses S. Grant stayed in with all the antique décor.
3. Moon Alley Candles
Moon Alley Candle’s hand poured and crafted candles are a work of art and make great gifts.
4. The Spice Tin
The Spice Tin is a treat for the eyes and nose with unique spices, rubs and syrups.
TOP TIP: Ask about the Queirolo Girl’s locally made pesto they sell.
Places to Eat/Drink: Murphys
1. Newsome Harlow
With 24 tasting rooms lining Main Street, this is the perfect couples or gals weekend getaway. I highly recommend trying Newsome Harlow, well known for their small batch Zinfandels.
2. Ironstone Vineyards
Only five minutes from downtown, Ironstone Vineyards is another family-owned operation to check out. With a cool museum, artifacts, and gardens to wander, you can easily spend a few hours here.
California Gold Rush Towns: #5 Columbia
Traveling 20 minutes south of Murphys, you’ll arrive in Columbia State Historic Park, the first of three towns in Tuolumne County. This town is a living museum with the largest collection of original gold rush buildings in California! The fact that everyone who works in the shops is dressed in period costumes makes it even more fun for visitors.
After initially discovering gold in the area in 1850, the town grew to 150 stores and businesses by 1852 to support the miners, covering 13 city blocks. With 25,000 residents, it was one of the largest California mining towns. $150 million worth of gold was extracted from mining in the Columbia area.
Places to See: Columbia, California
1. Ride a 100-year old stagecoach
A fun way to experience the primary transport from the 19th century.
Personalize a horseshoe with your name or buy dinner bells and fireplace tools here.
You’ll be welcomed by the handmade soaps and candles’ delightful scents and colors as soon as you enter. A great place to pick up gifts and treats for yourself.
Places to Eat: Columbia
If you want to try Sarsaparilla, which is related to root beer, they offer a Gold Rush Sarsaparilla.
This welcoming shop offers local meats, artisan crackers, cheeses and plenty of vegetarian options to make your own picnic. It’s modeled after an 1855 provisions store.
Chocolate caramel turtles, sour candies, fresh fruit jellies, and chocolate covered gingers are just a few of the options. You can’t go wrong with any of the scrumptious treats in this store, which opened in 1926. This is my favorite place to stop in Columbia gold rush town.
Craving afternoon tea? Stop by Columbia Kate’s Teahouse for one of the myriad teas offered, including green, white, oolong, or mate. If you are looking for something truly unique, opt for the Meyer Lemon Scone Cream tea created exclusively for the teahouse by Art of Tea. Personally, I can’t wait to indulge in an apricot scone or praline pecan pear pie.
Where to Stay: Columbia
You can stay at the City Hotel or Fallon Hotel in Columbia State Park. Sleep amongst Victorian antiques and relax with your book and tea in their parlors. While each room has a toilet and sink, showers are shared.
California Gold Rush Towns: #6 Sonora
10 minutes south of Columbia, you’ll arrive in Sonora. Main Street is easily walkable, allowing you to pop into the boutiques and shops flanking the street.
Places to See: Sonora
1. Amala Detox
The first place in the world I have ever experienced an ionic detox foot soak is Amala Detox. You’ll start by selecting from the wide range of Art of Tea offerings to sip on during your treatment. Then, you’ll undergo a relaxing salt foot scrub with essential oil before immersing your feet in the footbath.
While you are relaxing with the foot soak, coils placed in the water aid with detoxification and lymphatic drainage. When the soak is complete, Amala’s staff “reads” the water to tell you what’s been purged from your system.
Laina, the owner, supports other female entrepreneurs by offering a wide range of unique products including candles, scrubs, blankets, tea accessories, and lotions. I am truly impressed by Amala’s sustainability focus – most products are offered in glass rather than plastic.
TOP TIP: Buy the Fifty-Five Cocoa Cashmere candle. This handcrafted lotion candle not only smells divine, but you can also scoop out a small amount of wax to moisturize your hands after burning the candle as the wax remains at room temperature!
If you’ve been spending a lot of time in the car driving from one California gold rush town to another, this 2.2 mile loop trail is a nice way to mix it up. This leisurely, shaded trail offers a vista point overlooking the city.
Are you sensing a theme? I have a sweet tooth and have a mild obsession with old time candy stores. Personally, I seek out sour watermelons, anything blueberry flavored and chocolate covered fruits as they are ideal road trip snacks.
Places to Eat: Sonora
Craving Mexican? You won’t be disappointed at El Arroyo Cantina. Dining at outdoor tables along the creek with fairy lights strung above adds to the atmosphere. I judge all Mexican restaurants by their chips and salsa and theirs deliver.
TOP TIP: Get a side of guacamole to accompany your chips. They gladly accommodated my request for no onions.
Indulge in a burrito, fajita or bowl. Since my tasty bowl was so sizable, I was too stuffed for dessert. Their mango margaritas are the perfect combination of sweetness, without being too strong.
2. Diamondback Grill
In the mood for a burger or sandwich? Diamondback Grill is your place. Heat lamps on the patio make it comfortable to take advantage of outdoor seating on cooler nights.
I highly recommended opting for one of my favorite burger combos – Ortega chiles and jack cheese. Turkey burgers, veggie burgers and portabella mushroom sandwiches are also available. Diamondback Grill also serves myriad wines from nearby Calaveras County, including Hatcher and Newsome Harlow wines.
Where to Stay: Sonora
Royal Olive Manor
You MUST stay at Royal Olive Manor, Sonora’s newest bed & breakfast. Cindy and Parkrye’s hospitality, only the fifth owners of the home, will pamper you during your stay in this historic Victorian built in 1880 by George Hale. Perusing the beautiful antiques throughout the home, including books and dresses from the 1800s, a couch and phone from the 1920s and an original Benjamin Sears painting will delight you.
During your stay, you’ll marvel in the homemade hollandaise sauce for your breakfast tarts, a sparkling wine and cheese platter to end the day, and baked goods from Schnoogs Bakery – the pumpkin bar we had is divine!
The B&B sleeps up to 12 people in three single bedrooms and one two bedroom. Each room is named after one of the beautiful women who resided in the home. By using colors, décor and antique elements from the era in which they lived, Cindy pays homage to the former residents.
With future offerings including yoga on the lawn, wine and watercolors, traditional etiquette, charcuterie board classes and wine and cheese pairing, this is an ideal destination for a gals getaway weekend.
California Gold Rush Towns: #7 Jamestown
Places to See: Jamestown
1. Railtown 1897
Railtown 1897 is perfect for both kids and adults. The trains at this rail yard have appeared in many films. And, you can opt for a 45-minute train ride in one of the open-air carriages on weekends from April to October.
FUN FACT: The train used in Back to the Future 3 is here on display.
2. The Emporium
If you want to peruse antiques, teacups, or posters, stop into the Emporium, dating from 1897. If it’s a warm day, be sure to get some Tillamook ice cream. You can’t go wrong with any of their flavors.
This shop offers baby gifts and indulgent treats for new moms. Swaddles, onesies, bibs, bath salts, and candles are just a few of the products available.
Places to Eat: Jamestown
1. The National Hotel & Restaurant
Mediterranean cuisine is offered in the dining room and on the patio at the National Hotel. I can attest that the cheese tortellini and pesto cream sauce are both delicious. Since they also offer homemade bread and desserts flambéed tableside, try and save room in your dessert pocket.
TOP TIP: When passing through the saloon to get to the dining room or patio, make sure to admire the beautifully detailed tin ceiling dating from 1859.
Both indoor and outdoor dining are offered at this unique establishment that pays tribute to old service stations. The warm farro salad and pasta du jour don’t disappoint.
Fun Facts about the California Gold Rush
- Why is California called the Golden State? On January 8, 1848, James Marshall struck gold, resulting in a massive influx of 300,000 people traveling to California in 1849 hoping to strike it rich.
- Newcomers from the United States, Asia, Europe and Australia were known as “49ers,” which is also the name of the Bay Area football team.
- As a result of the population increase, California state created its constitution and government in 1949.
- While the Gold Rush is well known by many, it only lasted for 7 years, until 1855.
- Highway 49, which connects all the old gold mining towns in California, was originally a wagon train road.
I hope you enjoy visiting these California gold rush towns and learning about the history as much as I did! If you are craving more outdoor adventures during your California road trip, I highly recommend indulging in the Mt Tallac hike for expansive South Lake Tahoe and Desolation Wilderness views. Please leave a comment below about any of the tips you found helpful for planning your California gold country towns itinerary.
This post is sponsored by Visit California – all opinions and reviews are my own.