Exploring California Gold Country and the state capital

For families interested in California history, a trip through Gold Country and Sacramento will hit many highlights, focusing on the Golden State’s storied gold rush past.Raft and gold pan in the same river where gold was first discovered in 1848, ride historic steam locomotives, tour the state capital…and visit countless historic museums.

Start or end in Sacramento:


The state capital is, in many ways, the heart of the California history experience. Here’s what not to miss:

Explore Old Sacramento:

In addition to one of the best railroad museums we’ve ever seen (the California State Railroad Museum may even be THE best), Sacramento’s historic district hosts fun shops and eateries and carriage rides along the river. Go during the evening to avoid the heat of summer, or visit any time during the off-season. Read our review of Old Sac and the museum, and also be sure to check the fun schoolhouse museum!

Tour the Capitol:

It’s architecturally stunning, rich with history and free to the public. The California State Capitol Museum is open daily, except for major holidays. The Capitol is located on 10th Street between L and N streets, downtown Sacramento. Learn more here.

Learn even more about Sacramento history:

Don’t miss Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park, which is located in the city but feels a world away. Read our review of Sutter’s Fort. Next, pan for gold yourselves at Amador County Park’s Volcano Memorial Park, located four miles east of the town on Sutter Creek-Volcano Road. The park provides a picnic area, grassy lawns and a gold panning area where you can pan for gold nuggets. Also try Sutter Gold Mine to pan for gold and visit sites (13660 Highway 49, Sutter Creek).

Raft on the American River in the foothills of gold country:

The American River packs a big punch with history and big rapids colliding in an adventure-filled weekend. We recommend rafting the Middle Fork of the American River with OARS.

Where to Stay:

The Citizen Hotel sits adjacent to City Hall and the Capital Building in Sacramento. The historic 1926 Cal-West Insurance building with modern amenities displays such “tongue-in-cheek” touches as leather-bound vintage law books in the lobby, famed political quotes in the elevators, black-and-white political cartoon drawings from midcentury Sacramento Bee cartoonist Newton Pratt throughout the hotel, and lampshades screen-printed with the constitution of California.

Embassy Suites Sacramento is located right on the river at the entrance of Old Sacramento. We even walked from the hotel to the railroad museum. If you’re looking for a location closer to this area than to the capitol building, Embassy Suites is a good bet with their large rooms and complimentary breakfast.

Explore Nevada City:

Nevada City, north of Sacramento on Highway 49, sprang up almost overnight during the California Gold Rush. There’s a lot of history here, including museums and mine tours.


Check out the Firehouse No. 1 Museum:

This museum is run by the Nevada County Historical Society, and despite its name, features exhibits ranging from Victorian-era bridal wear to Chinese railroad workers’ artifacts. Afterward, stop by the Nevada Theater, a big brick building downtown that has hosted the likes of Jack London.

Get more of your train fix:

If you haven’t gotten your fill of train museums, check out the Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum, located between Nevada City and Grass Valley. Learn more about the Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum.

Check out a mine shaft:

Visit Empire Mine State Historic Park, where kids can take a mineyard tour, see a mine model, visit a blacksmith shop, and hike or horseback ride over the park grounds. Daily tours are offered, and many seasonal events and special programming days occur throughout the year.

Visit Coloma:

Coloma California is where California’s gold rush began. Located on Highway 49 between Sacramento and South Lake Tahoe, the Coloma-Lotus Valley is central to California’s Gold Country. Right on the South Fork of the American River, the town offers families the opportunity to bike, hike, and raft in addition to getting their California history on.

coloma with kids


Start at Marshall Gold Discovery Park:

See the site of the gold discovery that started the 1849 California Gold Rush, and the working replica of Sutter’s Mill, then learn to pan for gold. Meet docents dressed in period clothes and working as blacksmiths or doing other crafts of the time. The park is pretty touristy, but the history is definitely there.

Stroll through town:

The downtown streets of Coloma is lined with historic building in varies states of repair; some are dedicated historic sites in their own right, others are crumbling in disrepair. Read the plaques on the buildings and stop for a few ‘fun’ detours to souvenir shops and ice cream parlors.

Where to stay:

Whether you’re camping or looking for a cabin stay, the American River Resort is our pick: it’s located right on the water, has plenty of activities for kids.

What’s your favorite California Gold Rush town?