Find out where the best gold rush towns in California are, plus the best things to do in each one.
Even though I’ve lived in California a long time, I never knew much about the gold rush–and wow, there’s a lot of exciting history!
Aside from the Civil War and the Louisana Purchase, the California gold rush ranks as one of the most significant events of the 19th century. The story begins one fateful January day in 1848 when James Marshall discovered flecks of gold in a mill he operated for John Sutter.
At the time, California was still a part of Mexico. Within two years, the population of Americans and other foreigners seeking fortune in the California hills grew from 700 to 300,000.
As it turns out, the California gold country was blessed (or cursed, depending on your viewpoint) with a geologic rarity called the Mother Lode. This gold deposit was a 150-mile-long seam of gold-bearing rock that produced most of the gold mined during the Gold Rush days.
Even though it lasted less than ten years, the discovery of the Mother forever changed the landscape, demographics, and economy of the United States.
Today you can explore any one of the hundreds of California gold rush towns in Gold Country. While some are now ghost towns, others thrived and are still bustling and active cities today.
Many historic gold mining towns in California celebrate the gold rush era with living history reenactments and unique gold rush festivals.
If pioneer history isn’t your jam, these California gold rush towns are still lovely spots for a road trip, with plenty of hiking for nature lovers, and museums and art galleries galore.
Below I’ve reviewed the top gold rush towns in California. Plus: I’ve found the best places for you to stay in each one.
Note: this post contains affiliate links, which help run this site at no extra cost to you so I can keep providing free travel advice and tips.
Table of Contents
Map of California Gold Rush Towns
#1 Sutter Creek
Sutter Creek calls itself “The Jewel of the Mother Lode.” According to Sunset Magazine, it has the most beautiful main street in gold country, and it’s well worth a visit.
Perhaps one of the most famous gold rush town, Sutter Creek takes its name from its founder, John Sutter, who was responsible the original “gold discovery” mining claim.
Sutter Creek dates back to 1846, just before the big gold mining boom, but it continued to profit from quartz mines into the 1950s.
Downtown Sutter Creek features many historic buildings, with a walking tour brochure available online. Unlike some gold rush towns with a reputation for lawlessness, Sutter Creek appears to have maintained a dignified air.
The quaint, well-appointed downtown historic district features buildings from the 1800s and has many boutiques, wine-tasting venues, and restaurants–the most famous of which is Gold Dust Pizza.
Of course, a visit to a California gold rush town would only be complete with a visit to a gold mine. You can check out Roaring Camp Mining Company for a glimpse of an actual 1850s gold mining operation and pan for gold yourself.
Sutter Creek’s location is a perfect stop-off on a road trip between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe, especially if you’re taking Highway 88 toward Kirkwood.
#2 Nevada City
Nevada City and Grass Valley are on the Golden Chain Highway’s northern end. Both of these California gold rush towns are halfway between Yuba City and Lake Tahoe, and each is steeped in history.
These two Northern California small towns are close together, but each offers its own distinct attractions. If you want more information on Grass Valley, keep reading! It’s the next item on this list.
Nevada City fashions itself as the “Queen of the Northern Mines,” and there are many cool things to do here.
For your first stop in in Nevada City, see the National Exchange Hotel. Built in 1856, The National Hotel is the oldest continuously operating hotel in the west.
The National Hotel just went through three years of extensive renovations, and it’s looking gorgeous. You can still book a room in this historic hotel if you’re in a splurgy mood.
While you’re visiting Nevada City, you should also see Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park. Home of the biggest hydraulic mine in the state, Malakoff Diggins is about 40 minutes outside Nevada City.
Hydraulic mining involves using high-pressure water hoses to wash away entire hillsides. This technique became popular later in the Gold Rush and was ultimately outlawed due to the environmental consequences.
And finally, check out this self-guided Nevada City Scavenger Hunt Walking Tour to round out your itinerary.
Also, be sure to consult the Nevada City Chamber of Commerce website for a complete list of events in town.
#3 Grass Valley
Why it’s worth visiting: You can visit Empire Mine State Historic Park–one of the oldest, deepest, and richest mines from the golden era.
Nearby accommodation: The Holbrooke Hotel (in Grass Valley), Orchard Springs Campground (10.1 mi)
The Empire Mine turned a profit for over 100 years, operating into the 1950s. Over this period, miners dug out 367 miles’ worth of tunnel! The park also protects almost 900 acres of above-ground forest and 14 miles of trails.
The neatest thing about the Empire Mine is “The Secret Room,” which contains a scale model of the entire mine. It’s a secret because the mine foreman blacked out the windows, and most employees had no idea it existed at the time.
Additionally, the extensive property of the mine owner, William Bowers Bourn Jr., is a sight to see. You can take a tour of his home and gardens.
Downtown Grass Valley preserves historic storefronts, which today house art galleries, restaurants, and antique shops.
Finally, I recommend visiting the Holbrooke Hotel near the downtown area, even if you’re not staying there. It’s a gorgeously renovated Victorian hotel dating back to 1862.
Grass Valley has tons of events and festivals, and it’s only about an hour and a half from Lake Tahoe–should you need a side road trip.
I’ve visited Sacramento many times, but I never knew it was one of the most important Gold Rush cities in California! The site of the original gold discovery in Coloma is just outside Sacramento on the American River.
Sacramento was already an established city when the Gold Rush began, and its inland ports on the American River made it easy for immigrants to access the city.
The historic district and Main Street are designated as Old Sacramento State Historic Park, where you can see the largest neighborhood of historic buildings in the western United States (53 buildings).
I recommend touring Leland Stanford Mansion State Historic Park, a national historic landmark. Leland Stanford was a wealthy businessman who provided goods for the 49ers. He later became the Governor of California and founded Stanford University.
Buy tickets to the Sacramento History Museum’s Gold Fever game for more gold mining history! This outdoor event is a mix of living history and group games–the object of which is to hold onto your fortune through Sacramento’s early tumultuous history.
You’ll walk around the historic district of Old Town with guides acting as early Sacramento community members.
Placerville is between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe on Highway 50 and is the closest “live” city to Coloma, the original location of the gold discovery.
“Placer” mining was the method used by the original 49ers, who used pans and screened boxes to sift through gravel to find their gold. “Hangtown” was the original name of Placerville, which has a much darker connotation.
Of all the things to do in this area, the Sutter’s Mill Replica in nearby Coloma (15 mins away) is the genesis of everything ‘gold country’, and a must-see stop.
After seeing the Sutter Replica, you’ve got to check out the Gold Bug Park and Mine. The Gold Bug Mine is an authentic gold mining operation from the 1850s.
After touring the mine, there’s still plenty to see, such as a mining museum, gold panning activities, blacksmith demonstrations, and a historic stamp mill. (A stamp mill, by the way, is a machine that crushes rocks.)
Last but not least, you must make a stop at Placerville Hardware on Main Street, the oldest hardware store west of the Mississippi. This big store offers much more than hardware; you can find gifts and souvenirs galore.
You won’t see Julian on short lists of the best California gold rush towns, but it’s definitely worth a visit. Julian is one of the few southern mines on my list and it’s home to the lesser-known “second gold rush.”
To orient you, Julian is halfway between San Diego and the Salton Sea, just west of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.
Everyone knows that Marshall discovered the Mother Lode in Northern California, but few people have heard of Fred Coleman, the formerly enslaved person turned rancher.
Fred Coleman hit gold in Julian a few years after the original gold rush had passed.
The must-do item in Julian is a tour of the Eagle Mining Company. In the 1860s, the Eagle Mine was the most successful gold mine of its day. It extracted around $400,000 in gold before closing in 1934.
Today you can take an hour-long tour any day of the week with one of the Eagle Mining Company’s guides.
While you’re in Julian, check out the Julian Pioneer Museum. The building dates to the 1890s and includes pioneer and Native American history. Note that volunteers run the museum, so the hours may vary.
Why it’s worth visiting: Enjoy picturesque main streets with 1849 living history reenactments.
Nearby accommodation: The Inn on Knowles Hill Bed & Breakfast Hotel (in Sonora), Turtletown Recreation Area (9.5 mi)
North of Yosemite National Park, Sonora and Jamestown are another pair of picturesque gold rush towns in California.
In my research on gold rush towns, I usually saw them listed as two different towns. But honestly, they’re so close together that you wouldn’t even know they were separate towns if it weren’t for the road signage.
Even though these towns aren’t in Southern California, they are on the south end of the original Mother Lode. Thus, Sonora calls itself the “Queen of the Southern Mines.”
Main Street in Sonora is full of historic buildings, antique shops, art galleries, and many places to eat. Some of the most picturesque spots to visit in the downtown area are the Red Church and the Sonora Opera Hall.
Jamestown’s claim to fame is that it was the site of the first gold discovery in the county. I recommend visiting Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, where you can ride a historical steam train through gold country.
Try your luck and pan for gold in an actual gold-bearing river at Jimtown 1849 Mining Camp. This mining camp includes living history reenactments to immerse you in 1849 life.
#8 Sierra City
On a road trip to Lake Tahoe? Make a day excursion to Sierra City, the last California gold rush town on the Golden Chain. This small old town was home to the Kentucky Mine Historic Park and Museum.
You can tour the old mine and the stamp mill, although I noticed that the mine had a cave-in recently, so it’s only about 15 feet deep.
The stamp mill is in good working order even though it still has all the original parts–it’s one of only a few in the world in this condition.
Twice a day, a tour guide will demonstrate how it works. If you’re a bat lover like me, you’ll also be excited to know that the mill is now home to a maternity roost (where mom bats go to have their babies).
If you go at the right time of year, you may even see some bats up close (no, it’s not weird that I think that sounds cool).
I’ll also note that just west from Sierra City on Highway 49 is Downieville, another small California gold rush town you may find interesting.
Why it’s worth visiting: See the largest piece of gold ever mined in North America (and stay for the wine tasting and the jewelry shops).
Nearby accommodation: Courtwood Inn (in Murphys), Angels Camp RV & Camping Resort (10.3 mi)
Murphys might be one of the best old west towns in California because of how many cool things there are to do.
The Murphy brothers were the first Irish immigrants to California, and established this old gold mining town.
By age 25, the two brothers are said to have made $2 million from their gold mining exploits. This impressive haul is what landed Murphys the distinction of being one of the most successful rush towns in Gold Country.
Ironstone Vineyards in Murphys is a must-see. The vineyard is an enormous property with a highly-rated tasting room and an outdoor amphitheater (I noticed a recent event was a Hank Williams Jr. concert).
Ironstone even has a little museum and jewelry shop that features the largest piece of gold ever mined in North America. It’s so big it has a name–the Kautz specimen–and weighs 44 pounds.
The Museum, although closed from the pandemic, is also on Main Street and will hopefully reopen soon.
Finally, I recommend checking out Calaveras Big Trees State Park, just a 25-minute road trip east toward Lake Tahoe.
Calaveras Big Trees preserves giant sequoia trees, which are endangered and super impressive if you’ve never seen one.
#10 Columbia State Historic Park
Why it’s worth visiting: It’s one of California’s best-preserved gold rush towns.
Nearby accommodation: Royal Olive Manor (4.8 mi)
Just north of Sonora and Jamestown is Columbia, a state historic park in the form of a little town with hotels and restaurants.
Believe it or not, at one time, Columbia State Historic Park was the second-largest city in California. In the 1850s, the town boomed big-time and extracted millions of dollars in gold, giving it the nickname “Gem of the Southern Mines” (I’m starting to notice a trend with these nicknames).
The entire town was designated a state historic park in 1945 to preserve it as a “typical Gold Rush town.”
In addition to many historic buildings strung along the main street, you can take stagecoach rides, stay at one of two hotels or listen to period-accurate music in a historic saloon.
There is a museum open from 10 am to 4 pm almost every day, and if you have kids, they can participate in a Junior Ranger program.
Columbia State Historic Park is especially well-suited to kids, making it a fantastic stop on a family road trip. There are ice cream and candy shops around town.
You can also take those old-timey photos, go gold panning, and make candles (I did this once as a kid–SO fun).
Check the complete list of restaurants and specialty shops in Columbia to help plan your trip.
The next historic town on my list is Jackson, located at the intersection of Highway 49 and 88.
Jackson stands out among gold mining sites in California because of the Kennedy Mine, one of the world’s deepest gold mines.
This old mining camp was responsible for almost 50% of the gold extracted from California gold country! That’s saying something.
The historic Kennedy gold mine became operational around 1860 and was a working mine for 82 years until 1942. Over this period, miners extracted $34 million in gold (1942 value).
You can take several different tours of the Kennedy Mine. You can do the surface tour if you want to avoid going underground. You’ll see where they melted gold dust into bricks, which they shipped to San Francisco.
I also recommend visiting the Amador County Museum. Built in 1859, this old history center was originally the home of the Brown family.
Today, the Amador County Museum features exhibits throughout the 15-room building, including a “fashions of the past” exhibit, a quilt exhibit, Native history, a Chinese American exhibit, and of course, a gold mining history section.
Finally, take a stroll down the main street to enjoy the art galleries and wine-tasting rooms. There is also an old cemetery and a sign showing where the “Hanging Tree” used to be (Ugh).
Yosemite National Park and the surrounding towns are the southern ends of the California gold country. In fact, Oakhurst, a small village outside the park’s southern border, is the first town on the Golden Chain Highway.
The next closest town on the historic highway is Mariposa. Mariposa is the Spanish word for “butterfly,” and the town got its name because of the large number of butterflies in the area.
Even the top gold rush towns were susceptible to fire back in the day, and Mariposa was no different. The first time Mariposa burned, the citizens rebuilt it with stone masonry, which has allowed those buildings to stand, un-refurbished, to this day.
If you get a chance to visit Mariposa, stop at the historic courthouse off the main street. This courthouse dates back to 1854 and is the oldest continuously used courthouse in the west.
Incidentally, this is also where Carrie Stayner, the Yosemite serial killer, was tried.
I suggest a visit to the California State Mining and Mineral Museum. Here you can see California’s official collection of gems and minerals, including the Fricot Nugget–a 13.8-pound specimen mined from the American River.
Next, I suggest a visit to the Mariposa Museum and History Center, which details the stories of Mariposa’s founders.
If you’re looking for something tasty and healthy to eat on the go, I recommend High Country Foods.
Finally, take a ride on the Mariposa Stage Line, which offers stagecoach rides to a reenacted gold rush exhibit.
Why it’s worth visiting: You can walk the vast historic district and learn about the famous Folsom State Prison.
Nearby accommodation: Fairfield Inn & Suites (in Folsom), Beal’s Point Campground (3.4 mi)
Folsom is one of the best gold rush towns near Sacramento. It has tons of gold history and other historical oddities I find interesting.
When researching Folsom, I kept thinking, “Where have I heard that name?” And then I realized Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” was playing in the back of my mind.
As it turns out, there is a massive prison in Folsom with a museum (albeit closed as of January 2023), and a long, bloody history.
Construction began in 1858 at the end of the gold rush, and the prison opened in 1880. Artifacts preserved in the museum include rope used to hang prisoners (not sure I want to see that, TBH).
If a hanging rope is too gruesome for you, too, check out the Folsom Historic District. You can easily spend a few hours meandering the main street and the 80-odd businesses that thrive here.
In addition to the gold rush history, the Folsom Historic District has farmer’s markets, parades, concerts, and festivals– so it’s a pretty happenin’ place!
Lastly, you can also check out a self-guided audio tour of Folsom.
Immigrants from Auburn, NY settled in this area and named the town Auburn, CA. It was the first place in Placer County where 49ers found gold.
Today the gold rush era is alive in Old Town Auburn, a highly charming revitalized town center.
There are tons of high-end eateries in Old Town Auburn, plus historical elements like the Historic Firehouse, and the Auburn Post Office, the oldest continuously operating post office in the west.
While in Auburn, check out the Joss House Museum, which honors Chinese history and its role in the Gold Rush.
And don’t forget the Placer County Courthouse Museum, located on the first floor of the old Placer County courthouse, which is filled with historical artifacts from local Indian tribes.
I’m also very jazzed about the Gold Country Medical History Museum, which stands on the location of the first Placer Country Hospital and recounts the history of medical care during the Gold Rush.
There are *lots* of weird and lurid things, like old-timey medical tools, a glass eyeball, and a real wooden leg.
If you’re in Auburn and have plans to drive Highway 49, check out this self-guided audio tour of the historic highway.
#15 Bodie Ghost Town
Why it’s worth visiting: You can walk through a real ghost town!
Nearby accommodation: Double Eagle Resort and Spa (43.7 mi), June Lake Campground (43.5 mi). Both accommodations are about an hour and a half from Bodie.
Bodie Ghost Town is a California historical landmark east of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Bodie would be a perfect stop on a road trip between Death Valley and Lake Tahoe, as it’s just off Highway 395.
Bodie boomed just after the main gold rush on the western side of the mountains and is famous now as one of the best-preserved abandoned gold rush towns in California.
The park preserves Bodie in a state of “arrested decay.” It looks like the residents just up and left, leaving their belongings in place. You can walk down the old main street and imagine life in this rough-and-tumble town.
You can’t do gold panning at Bodie since it’s a protected historical site, but you can explore the visitor center and museum and take a tour from a park ranger.
Note that Bodie Ghost Town is *out there.* Some of the road is unpaved and can be inaccessible in winter.
Also, the best places to stay are about an hour and a half away at June Lake or Mammoth Lakes.
If you’re interested in learning more about Bodie State Park or other California ghost towns, see my article on the best ghost towns in California.
California’s Gold Rush History
Pre-1769: The first Native Americans colonized the land known today as California. There were as many as 135 different dialects spoken pre-Spanish arrival.
1769-1848: Spanish and Mexican settlers established loose control over the territory of California. During this time, disease and conflict cut the Native American population in half.
January 24, 1848: James Marshall discovered flecks of gold in a mill he ran for Swedish immigrant John Sutter. Sutter’s Mill is in Coloma, CA, halfway between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe.
February 2, 1848: The Mexican War ended with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, thus ceding California to the United States.
Summer 1848: The discovery at Sutter Creek spread like wildfire in California. Business owners turned gold rush miners abandoned the stores in San Francisco and Los Angeles to join the mad dash for gold rush country.
Fall 1848: As more men struck gold, word of the most significant, most profitable mining opportunity in North American history spread to Oregon, Mexico, Hawaii, South America, and China. The cultural landscape of California became diverse very quickly.
December 5, 1848: President Polk read a report about California’s booming gold country in the State of the Union address. The biggest migration event on the continent began as easterners catapulted to California’s gold rush towns.
1849: Non-native population in California hit 100,000. Almost every single one of these was involved with the gold rush in some form.
1849-1852: Mining towns sprouted like weeds in the area known as the Mother Lode. In these years, the net worth of gold extracted increased annually, peaking at $81 million in 1852. After 1852, the yearly profits decreased, dropping off precipitously around 1857.
Mid-1850s: By this time, miners had collected most surface gold. Most miners could not survive on personally-funded stakes and had to join more prominent companies with the technology (i.e., hydraulic mining) to extract gold deeper into the ground.
1884: A court order ended the environmentally destructive hydraulic mining techniques and agriculture, once again, became California’s dominant industry.
Fun Facts about the California Gold Rush
- John Sutter died broke, and his son deeded his land to the state of California to form the city of Sacramento.
- California was not a part of the United States when miners first discovered gold on January 24, 1848. It was ceded to the United States a few days later, on February 2, when the war with Mexico ended.
- Domingo Ghirardelli immigrated to the United States for gold, but most of his business experience was in South American coffee and chocolate. Rather than mine for gold, he created a now world-famous chocolate company in San Francisco.
- Hundreds of ships were abandoned in San Francisco Bay when their captains and crews went landward to find gold. Town authorities used the lumber to build businesses in the city, but they buried many ships in landfills. Today there are dozens of entire ships beneath the town!
- At the time, The Gold Rush era was the largest migration in American history, with over 300,000 people landing in California in just a few years.
- The Hangtown Fry was the supposed celebratory dish ordered by miners after a big strike. This dish is an omelet cooked in bacon fat and covered in fried oysters. You can still order this dish at some restaurants in San Francisco.
- Levi Strauss opened a dry goods store in San Francisco in 1853. He later developed the design for blue jeans; the rest is history.
FAQs About the Gold Rush in California
When was the California Gold Rush?
The California Gold Rush era began on January 24, 1848, and ran through 1855.
What California towns began as gold rush towns?
Hundreds of towns sprung up due to the gold rush–some lasted less than a year, while others are still prosperous 170 years later.
Many of the towns in the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada began in the California Gold Rush. Here is a list of some of the most significant California gold rush towns:
|Sutter Creek, CA||Folsom, CA||Eureka, CA|
|Grass Valley, CA||Bodie, CA||La Grange, CA|
|Nevada City, CA||Placerville, CA||Yreka, CA|
|Jamestown, CA||Sacramento, CA||Skidoo, CA|
|Sonora, CA||Calico Ghost Town||Lewiston, CA|
|Columbia, CA||Agua Fria, CA||Keeler, CA|
|Murphys, CA||Amador City, CA||Shasta, CA|
|Truckee, CA||Angels Camp, CA||Sierra City, CA|
|Julian, CA||Ballarat, CA||French Gulch, CA|
|Jackson, CA||Canon City, CA||North Bloomfield, CA|
|Mariposa, CA||Coarsegold, CA||North San Juan, CA|
|Auburn, CA||Copperopolis, CA||Panamint City, CA|
What towns were popular during the California gold rush?
While all the towns listed above were populous gold mining towns, other towns grew due to the gold rush. San Francisco, Sacramento, and Stockton, in particular, grew tremendously as hopeful immigrants rushed into their ports.
Some towns that you may not have heard of were booming during the gold rush. Columbia, outside Sonora, was the second-largest city in California during the gold rush.
Other towns like Grass Valley and Placerville (then called Hangtown) were also bustling.
What was the biggest mining town in California?
The biggest gold rush town in California was Sutter’s Mill, where John Sutter first discovered gold in California.
Can you still pan for gold in California?
Yes! There are many places to pan for gold in California. Most gold panning operations cater to tourists; some even guarantee you will find gold.
While most mining towns have dried up, you can still pan for gold in the original California gold country. You’re permitted to go gold panning and dredging in Eldorado National Forest, near Sutter Creek on the American River. Check out the rules and regulations here.
Other locations to go gold panning include:
- Auburn State Recreation Area
- Butte Creek Recreation Area
- Matelot Gulch Mining Co.
- Keysville National Recreation Area
- Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park
What is considered Gold Country in California?
Gold Country in California is a series of eight counties on the western side of the Sierra Nevada foothills.
The eight counties include:
- Tuolumne County
- Sierra County
- Sacramento County
- Placer County
- Nevada County
- El Dorado County
- Calaveras County
- Amador County
- Some also include Mariposa County
These counties were situated over the Mother Lode, a giant deposit of gold 150 miles long and a few miles wide.
The best way to explore California’s most famous gold rush locations is via Highway 49, the Golden Chain Highway.
You can drive through the old mining towns, explore the historic buildings, peruse a local visitor center, and soak in an ambiance laden with historic charm.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Meredith is a biologist and writer based in California’s Sierra Nevada. She has lived in 6 states as a biologist, so her intel on hiking and camping is *chef’s kiss* next level. One of her earliest camping memories was being too scared to find a bathroom at night on a family camping trip. Thankfully, she’s come a long way since then and she can help you get there too!
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