Ten Great Gold Country Family Activities

By Betty Sederquist

It’s time to explore! Cool pine forests, cozy little Gold Rush towns, rowdy whitewater rivers, ancient Native American ceremonies, mysterious caves and relaxing campgrounds are all enough to lure northern California families on easy one- or two-day trips.

With attention to pacing and planning, family-friendly adventures can be great fun for all ages. First, any outing should include plenty of food, restroom and just run-and-stretch stops. And, although there’s plenty to do in the foothills, it’s important not to over-schedule; one or two destinations are enough for the day. Finally, kids learn with all their senses, so any adventure that includes hands-on activities makes for a memorable, fun outing.

Oldtown Placerville

Located on Highway 50, Placerville dates back to the earliest days of the California Gold Rush. Then, tents and crudely built cabins sprouted lickety-split in what was called Dry Diggins. Soon a series of lynchings gave rise to another name for the rowdy gold camp, Hangtown; a noose-choked mannequin dangling above Main Street offers a macabre reminder of those days. The town now sports a more genteel name (placer refers to surface gold, relatively easy to find in the early days of the Gold Rush), solid brick structures, intriguing alleys, ornate B&Bs, and anchored by its massive white courthouse, serves as the El Dorado County seat. Cozy Main Street sports antique stores and art galleries, and restaurants abound in many flavors and themes. For example, pop into the Hangtown Grill (423 Main) for a traditional Gold Rush creation known as the Hangtown Fry, a concoction of smoked oysters, bacon, cheese and eggs. Less adventurous gastronomes might try the Italian ice cream at Gelato Café, (441 Main).

Drop by Placerville Hardware, oldest continuously operating hardware store in the West. Thump on squeaky wood floors, where drawers containing nuts, bolts and other thingamajigs edge narrow, high-ceilinged corridors. Grab a cup of tea or a sandwich at the Cozmic Café (594 Main Street), in the historic Pearson Soda Works building, and wander to the back. There, an old mine shaft, sometimes dripping with water, leads about 150 feet into the cliff behind the building. Several dimly lit underground alcoves make for an unusual dining ambiance.


On January 24, 1848, James Marshall, a carpenter supervising construction of a sawmill along the South Fork of the American River for aspiring land baron John Sutter, saw something glittering during morning inspection of the tailrace. The gold he discovered set off the greatest gold rush in history. Today kids not only gawk at the old buildings in Coloma in Marshall Gold State Historic Park, but stroll along the river or, if it’s not too hot, hike up to Marshall’s Monument (the discoverer’s ornate burial place) and then along the Monroe Ridge Trail, which offers sweeping views of the river valley far below.

            In the town, volunteers show kids how chores and crafts were done in the old days. Daily, a blacksmith pounds away on a forge. On most days, kids can find someone who, for a fee, will show them how to pan for gold. Stop by on a Thursday or Friday through October and participate in living history events. At a special annual event, Coloma Gold Rush Live!, scheduled on October 14 and 15 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., dozens of volunteers in Gold Rush costume gather in an lively tent encampment. Kids can participate in candlemaking, old-time games, rope making and more. A gift shop hidden in the park museum features kid-appropriate souvenirs and an excellent selection of California history books for readers of all ages. From El Dorado Hills, reach the park via Green Valley Road, Lotus Road and Highway 49. There is a $5 per-car fee. For more info: (530) 295-2162 or 622-3470, www.marshallgold.org or www.parks.ca.gov.

Whitewater Rafting

Thrills, chills and family bonding are all part of the whitewater rafting experience on the South Fork of the American River. Clear waters, exciting rapids and beautiful scenery are some of the ingredients that make this the most popular whitewater rafting river in the West. Several dozen commercial companies, many in business on the river for decades, stress safety mixed with a lot of fun. Kids as young as eight enjoy the adventure. Policies on swimming ability vary according to the outfitter; some require an ability to swim while others say that ability to follow instructions is the most important asset for river safety and comfort. The Lower Gorge—a four to six-hour time commitment—is well-suited to families, since the river moves relatively slowly for the first part of the adventure, allowing paddling practice before hitting bigger, Class III waters. Inexperienced, solo rafters should not attempt the more challenging water on their own.

            Rates are highest on summer weekends. Bargain mid week rates are available. Because of heavy spring rains and snows, river flows have been great this year well into September and October.

            On the Lower Gorge stretch of the river, folks start the trip in Lotus, only half an hour away from El Dorado Hills via Green Valley and Lotus roads. Older, more ambitious adventurers might want to brave the technically challenging North Fork (spring and early summer runs only) or Middle Fork of the American. For listings of companies and more info: www.theamericanriver .com, ww.co.el-dorado.ca.us/parks, and www.caloutdoors.org.

Apple Hill

Back in the 1950s, western El Dorado County was a sleepy agricultural region, sustained by pear harvests and not much else. Then pear blight hit, decimating the orchards. In 1964, several Camino-area growers with a few apple orchards on hand united to create the Apple Hill Growers Association. The group has now grown from the 16 original owners to over 55 ranches.

            Today, folks of all ages enjoy the home-baked goodies, fruit such as super-sweet apple varieties, pears or berries, antique car and tractor shows, pony rides, pumpkin patches in late September through October, cut your own Christmas trees in November and December, and more. Many of the ranches feature picnic areas, weekend craft booths and homegrown music. On busy Apple Hill weekends, a free shuttle bus transports folks every 15 minutes to half an hour from Schnell School (take the Schnell School exit from Highway 50 just past downtown Placerville, and head uphill under the freeway, taking the first right turn to the shuttle stop) to the various ranches. To discover special fall events, call the Apple Hill Hotline at (530) 644-7692; www.applehill.com.

Sly Park

Bring on the marshmallows, your water wings and favorite campfire songs. Sly Park, which surrounds Jenkinson Lake, is a great family setting for camping, swimming, hiking, fishing and picnicking. Tall, fragrant pines frame 159 campsites, available by reservation. Amenities are rustic, consisting of vault toilets and water faucets; no hookups are available, although a dump station is available at the park entrance. In addition, several group campgrounds, including an equestrian campground, are available. Reservations for family campsites must be made at least a week in advance until the end of the season on September 30; after that, campsites are available but reservations are not taken. Camping during the peak season is $20 per night (two-night minimum), plus a reservation fee of $8.

            Day users can enjoy the lake from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.; facilities are located throughout the park.

            A main trail, 8.5 miles long, surrounds the lake; hikers share the path with mountain bikers. Families with toddlers might enjoy the half-mile Miwok Trail. The adjacent Eldorado National Forest contains many more miles of trails.

            Folks can rent pedal boats, canoes, kayaks, dinghies and small, motorized fishing boats on a first-come, first-served basis at the Stonebraker Boat Ramp, about 2.5 miles from the park entrance. Access the park via Highway 50. The Sly Park Road turnoff is in Pollock Pines, 17 miles east of Placerville. Follow the road several miles to 4771 Sly Park Road. Contact info: (530) 644-2545 (general info); 644-2792 (camping); reservations: (866) SLYPARK (759-7275); www.eid.org/recreation/sly_park.

Chaw’se (Indian Grinding Rock State Park)

A massive limestone slab, called Chaw’se, pockmarked with over 1,100 acorn grinding holes, attests to the presence of the first Californians, the northern Miwok, who came here for thousands of years to prepare the core food staple that kept these Native American groups thriving. Today, ancient oak trees shade a campground, picnic area, a reconstruction of a large native roundhouse and a regional Indian museum that traces the history of these peoples and offers hands-on activities for families. 

            Stop by on a September weekend for the Chaw’se Big Time Indian Celebration, when dancers in traditional regalia perform sacred dances in the roundhouse and vendors demonstrate traditional crafts and serve up Indian tacos.

            To get here, head from Highway 49 up state highway 88 from Jackson, head north about a mile on the Pioneer-Volcano Road near Pine Grove. (If you wish to bypass Jackson, take the Ridge Road/Highway 104 short cut from Highway 49 a few miles south of Sutter Creek.) Admission is $6 per car. More info: (209) 296-7488; www.parks.ca.gov.

Black Chasm

Only a few minutes north of Chaw’Se at 15701 Pioneer-Volcano Road is the closest publicly accessible cave to El Dorado Hills. Black Chasm offers spectacular underground formations of stalactites, stalagmites and rare helictite crystals. Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1976 because of these crystals that sometimes resemble a wall of sparkling spun glass, the cave is the most recent in the U.S. open to the public (2000). Up to 20 visitors at a time go on the sometimes-damp 50-minute tour. The owners hope to double the scope of the tour in the next few years.

            Descend 160 steep steps down a vertical shaft into a couple of magical rooms. At one stop, gaze far below to an azure pool. The Landmark Room contains not only the crystals but beautiful flutes of stalactites. A tour guide flips one light switch after another, revealing layers of grottos and yet more eerie formations above and below. After the tour, families can sift pre-packaged bags of gem-containing dirt in a search for treasure. Crack-your-own geodes and mineral displays in the gift shop also inspire budding geologists.

            Two of the three movies in the recent Matrix film trilogy contained scenes—in the fictional Zion Cavern—inspired by Black Chasm. Filmmakers photographed, measured, and color-sampled the cave, building a movie “cave” of Styrofoam in a hangar in Alameda in the Bay Area. (A real cave could not be used in the film because of the danger of damaging fragile formations that can take thousands of years to form.) Today a couple of Styrofoam relics from the movies are on display at the gift shop.

            Current admission rates are $12 for adults 14 and up, $6 for children 3 to13, and kids 2 and under are free. More info:1 (866) 762-2837; www.caverntours.com.

Gold Mines

Tales of toils of early-day gold miners become more vivid when presented not in a boring classroom, but 550 feet underground in a network of mine tunnels. At Sutter Gold Mine, accessible just south of Amador City on Highway 49, visitors don hard hats, board the “Boss Buggy Shuttle,” zip 1,495 feet into the mine and listen as a guide shares what early-day miners endured as three-man teams hammered and drilled into rock for ten hours a day, their work illuminated only by a feeble candle. For a few seconds, the guide extinguishes all the lights as the group sits in a “safe” room equipped with emergency supplies. On a short walk, visitors see displays of “improved” drills that nevertheless broke miners’ bodies or dissolved their lungs with silica dust. The hour-long tour includes close-up looks at quartz veins, bits of gold and fools’ gold.

            This sturdy, modern mine was drilled and blasted over a period of seven months in 1991. The price of gold then dropped, the mine closed and lay dormant until 1999, then it opened to tours for a few months before closing again. The current operator has been conducting tours here since 2002; about 50,000 people a year visit the mine, one of the few in the Gold Country that is publicly accessible. Like Black Chasm, families can try their hand at gemstone sifting or geode-cracking. Admission (subject to change): $14.95 adults, $9.95 ages 4 to13, group rates available. More info: 1 (866) 762-2837; www.caverntours.com.

            Another publicly accessible but smaller mine is only minutes from El Dorado Hills. Hangtown Gold Bug Park is at the northern edge of Placerville (go east on Highway 50, turning left/north at the third traffic light in the town, and follow the signs). The 61-acre park features shaded picnic areas, hiking trails and the eight-stamp Joshua Handy Stamp Mill, once used to crush gold ore. Wander into the small museum/gift shop, pay a fee, don a hard hat, and explore 352 feet of the Gold-Rush-era mine, open for tours daily from April to October from 10 to 4 p.m., and weekends in the off-season. Admission to the mine and stamp mill is $4.00 for adults, $2.00 for kids 7 to16 years.  More info: (530) 642-5207; www.goldbugpark.org.

The Confluence

Swimming, hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking, fast-flowing water (stay away from fast, sometimes fatal stretches of river in spring and early summer), rugged terrain and the ninth-highest bridge in the world are all here at the junction of the North and Middle forks of the American River. Accessible from Auburn via Highway 49 with its hairpin turns down into a steep river canyon, the Confluence is at the heart of the 42,000-acre Auburn State Recreation Area, with over 100 miles of trails. The Quarry Road Trail, an easy walk suitable for families with young children, leads from the south side of the Highway 49 bridge along the Middle Fork about a mile along an old railroad bed to some ruins. Scramble up the hill here about a quarter of a mile for a gander at spectacular cliffs that mark an old limestone quarry. Upriver from the quarry, the riverside trail becomes more rugged. Gold Rush mining camps with names such as Murderer’s Bar crowded the river banks more than 150 years ago but were long ago washed away by flood waters.

            This trail along the Middle Fork includes part of the route of two remarkable events: the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run and the Tevis Cup. Both events, with tens of thousands of elevation gains and descents, start near Squaw Valley and end in Auburn. The Western States 100 is a grueling 24-hour foot race. The Tevis Cub trail ride includes up to 250 horses and riders.

            The Foresthill Bridge, which looms over the Confluence, was built to soar over what was to have been Auburn Lake. The reservoir may or may not be built, but meanwhile the bridge is much higher than it needs to be. Opening scenes in the 2002 Vin Diesel action movie, XXX, featured a red Corvette plunging off the bridge and the hero parachuting out as the car went down. Of course, Vin Diesel was nowhere near the bridge; instead, a stuntman bailed out of a lightweight Fiberglass replica.

            Day-use admission is free. More info: (530) 885-4527; www.parks.ca.gov.

Ironstone Vineyards and Calaveras Big Trees

The theme here is big. South of Amador County, Calaveras County offers some superlatives that most kids will love. To get to two of the best, take Highway 49, turning east at Angels Camp on Highway 4 to Murphys (or take the Murphys Grade short cut to the east just after the westward junction of Highway 4 feeds into 49). Head on into the historic town of Murphys and make your way via Six Mile Road to Ironstone Vineyards on the outskirts of the community. The family-oriented winery features 10,000 square feet of limestone caverns for aging the wine at a constant 60 degrees F., a 44-pound crystalline gold leaf specimen—the largest of its kind in the world, and the massive Alhambra Pipe Organ, which once provided music and sound effects for silent movies in a Sacramento theatre. The organ, housed in a 3800-square-foot room, is played on tours and other occasions, including special Silent Movie Nights (suitable for older children). On weekends, weather permitting, learn how to gold pan. Ironstone also features top-name musical talent. The facility is open daily from 10 to 5 for free tours. More info: (209) 728-1251; www.ironstonevineyards.com.

            Few trees on earth get bigger than giant sequoias, which can live 4,000 years. At Calaveras Big Trees State Park, on Highway 4 three miles east of Arnold, two groves of these trees tower over the heart of a 6,000-acre mostly pine forest near the Stanislaus River. The giant trees, the largest of which is about 30 feet in diameter, have drawn tourists since Gold Rush days. Most visitors meander along a 1.5-mile-long handicapped-access trail in the North Grove. In summer months, daily one-hour tours start at 1 p.m. The park has 75 sites: Two developed campgrounds feature restrooms and showers and rent for $25 per night. (Make reservations through Reserve America, 9-800-444-PARK.) In addition, there are five primitive, environmental walk-in sites (reserve them by calling the park). Kids enjoy daily campfire and junior ranger programs as well as a variety of nature walks. A shaded picnic area offers a respite from the walk. Day-use admission is $6 per car. More info: (209) 795-2334; www.parks.ca.gov

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