Towns in the Sierra Nevada foothills, or “the Gold Rush towns,” were among my favorite getaways in the state. Many of them conjure the feeling of having been transported back in time. What they may lack in cultural variety, they more than make up for in their almost complete serenity, opportunities to connect with nature, and close proximity to breathtaking hikes.
In Sonora, drink wine at a woodsy bar–restaurant surrounded by colorful and whimsical portraits of cows while a bluegrass band strums their banjoes. In Nevada City, step back into the 1900s, window-shopping quaint antique shops and bookstores. In Oakhurst, learn firsthand about rustic remote life from a camper headed on a solo backpacking trip.
These towns are a haven for outdoor enthusiasts and anyone interested in California’s roots, particularly Gold Rush history. Come along with me this week and let this entry be your Delorean!
Nevada City, CA
“There’s safety in moving for me,” passenger Reva* says. “You get less attached that way.” Connection is wonderful, but attachment’s not. And I find that when I don’t have to be somewhere, when I can always remind myself that it’s a choice and I can leave when I want– that’s when the connection feels most fulfilling. That’s when it feels the most real.”
The girl in the forest-green overalls, whose strawberry blond hair flows down past her shoulders from beneath a sand-colored fedora, is referring to her new lifestyle in Nevada City (a community in California’s Nevada County with a population of 3,100)–which allows her to work remotely while also having time to explore and immerse herself in her art.
Reva finds the town to be a charming, relaxed place that enables her to enter a flow with her work. She also appreciates its counter-culture, which Sunset Magazine journalist Christine Ryan wrote dates back to the 1960s, “when young back to the landers drifted away from the Bay Area to colonize a half-empty logging town. Today, those hippies have become the establishment.”
For most of my life I remembered Nevada City as being the town closest to Camp Augusta, the summer camp I attended for six years as a child and young adolescent. Passing by it on the bus signified to restless campers, wearied from nearly three hours of sitting still, that we were almost there–which then prompted us to start singing the Camp Augusta theme song.
I vaguely remember glimpses of the antique facades of businesses, as well as a counselor pointing out Nevada City’s only post office.
Years later as an adult, I revisit the quaint town after dropping Reva off. The Nevada City of today proves nothing short of enchanting. Sweet, thoughtful details pepper the shops of downtown’s charming streets (many of which are diagonal, as the town layout veers from a grid-like plan). They include the Tin Man greeting customers at the entrance to one bookstore; a chair-swing suspended from the ceiling inside another business, made from white wicker basket material with a quirky frog pillow nestled inside it; and an entire little store dedicated to rocks (“The Rock Shop” reads the wooden sign above it), among others.
Cafes like Mecca, with its carpets adorning the walls and beads hanging from the ceiling, and the Curly Fox with its 1920s decor, are the kinds of places I can spend hours in– filled as they are with character and pizazz, but also cozy and homey.
Just outside of downtown, green grass and magenta flowers bloom from the front yards of quaint houses. Twenty minutes away, the turquoise waters of the Yuba River flow gently but determinedly (yes I just personified water, deal with it) over smooth white rocks, forming small waterfalls overlooked and perimetered by hiking trails.
More than worth the 2.5 hour drive from Oakland.
Most people associate the Eastern end of California with Yosemite or Tahoe, as these are the attractions that tend to draw the most tourists. Sonora and Columbia lie about halfway between these destinations. Ample opportunities for hiking, camping, and bucolic escape await in this pair of towns at the heart of the Gold Country, with populations of 2,000 and 4,800 respectively.
Lumber, tourism, and folk music originally shaped most of the area’s economy. One Yelper wrote, “It’s pretty quiet and caters to an older and more family friendly crowd than a diverse cosmopolitan young one.”
Back in elementary school, a friend who owned a cabin in Sonora once invited me and a few other girls on a weekend retreat here. I remember playing board games in her serene living room with an expansive view of rolling green, gold, and crimson hills visible through the wide window.
Visiting again fifteen years later, I find the vibe to be more or less the same. A single black train car perches at the edge of downtown, parked next to a rushing creek and a rustic wooden sign welcoming visitors in cursive letters.
The main commercial strip, which is slightly curved rather than a straight line, swoops and swivels like an animal’s tail (**I was about to write snake, then realized it sounded too sinister for quaint little Sonora, a town that is anything but). Like a manatee’s tail maybe? The point is, similar to Capitola’s downtown ( https://bit.ly/3DSF5Xo ), Sonora’s strays from the homogenous into the architecturally quirky and interesting.
Green hills poke up in the distance as I walk past art galleries, restaurants, and charming storefronts. The trees in the small park at the end of the road look like they’re curtsying in deference to something, perhaps offering their leaves (which are scattered across the ground nearby them) as gifts for the good citizens to crunch their feet into.
Intrigued by the name and enchanted by the decor (visible through the window), I step foot into the Cheesy Winer, an eclectic art gallery-esque wine bar with whimsical portraits of multi-colored cows hanging from the wooden walls.
Wood panels, each one painted a different color (teal, brown, yellow, red, orange), comprise the walls. In one painting, two exotic birds perch atop a tree with vibrantly teal branches, which coil off the painting and onto the walls, culminating in leaves that resemble the birds’ feathers (it’s hard to tell one from the other, actually). To the left of the painting, a bluegrass band strums their banjos.
A man dressed in a blue and white checkered shirt, his sandy blond hair parted to one side of his face, loudly proclaims from his tall yellow chair next to the bar that Corona is one of the worst beers he’s ever had, as his (likely not Corona) beer makes rings on the lacquered wood beneath it.
Just a few miles up the road in Columbia, I read from a large smooth rock in utmost peace while horses with wagons clomp by and kids pan for gold a few feet away.
Angels Camp, CA
The physical layout of the town of Angels Camp, where miners used to live (as was the case in many Gold Rush towns), resembles a half-pipe–with the main street at the center, sandwiched between two hills colonized by quaint houses with long wraparound porches and cute plants out front. A horse walks around in the backyard of one of them. Speckling the main street are a saloon, an art gallery, and an antiques store selling a handmade pinball game from the 1930s, among other businesses.
At Moaning Caverns, after descending a flight of winding stairs (made from recycled material plucked from a World War I battle ship) to the bottom of the cave, we learn what causes the moaning noise: water dripping from the rock folds and landing in bottle-shaped holes in the rocky ground. Or, you can go with the indigenous people’s explanation (which I personally prefer) of the sound as originating from the stone giant who lived down here. This also explained why some people disappeared when they got too close to the cave.
Before installation of the staircase (which was more famous than the cave itself for a number of years, since as it turns out spiral staircases inside of caverns are not that common) in 1921 people paid a nickel to be lowered down to the bottom by a bucket–which at that time was the only way to get down here.
“Stephen Cole Bear” greets me in my blue checkered pajamma bottoms at the entrance to the lodge, which overlooks a main road speckled with antique shops at the foot of endlessly green hills.
After passing the sign that says “Good Morning” in five different languages, I bump hands with a curly-haired, glasses-wearing Italian guest at the waffle machine. (It’s not the beginning of a meet cute story; more like the clunkiest, least charged and most un-erotic hand bump in the history of accidental hand bumps).
I sit down to eat, close to a covered fire that flickers in the center of the room. Around it, families spooning from plates at marble tables speak English, German, Italian, and Chinese. I overhear the English speakers discuss engagement rings and the plural of moose (is it meese? they wonder). Another tables tries to decide between excursioning to Bass Lake or the Fresno Historical Park that day.
I am at a Best Western in Oakhurst, a town of 2,829 located just south of Yosemite in Madera County, famous for its granite production (much of which was used to help rebuild San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake). Once referred to as Fresno Flats, the population has been declining since the early 2000s.
I accept a request here from a crew who ends up having a small boat, only to be sent back on my way when the almost passengers realize they can’t fit the boat into my car.
Passenger Tom* brings with him into the car a large brown suitcase and the baggage of his last relationship (which he unpacks during our 30-minute drive. Read his full story in an upcoming “relationships edition” of passenger batches).
As my friend and I skip rocks down at the little river beach that runs through downtown Downieville, population 212 (shrunken down from 5,000 in 1851), squatted next to us with their gold pans touching the river are the ghosts of William Downie and his twelve men. All of them (when still in their flesh form) found gold here nearly 200 years ago.
Once a site for gold miners, in 1853 Downieville contended alongside fifteen other cities to replace Vallejo as the state capital. It ultimately lost to Benicia, who boasted the title for a year before the capital officially became Sacramento in 1854.
At one point in Downieville’s history “there were 15 hotels and gambling halls, four butchers, four bakers, and business and tradesmen everywhere” (Wikipedia). Most now are inert though, as my friend and I discover as we stroll through downtown, literally the only two people on the road (granted, it is a Monday). An abandoned market and an old saloon with a pool table are among the shuttered businesses. One thing the town is still known for though is holding world famous mountain biking races every year.
As we drive away I could imagine how quaint this little place looks during the winter-time–almost like a scene from a snow globe.