California North America

Discover Gold Country in Nevada County, California

June 6, 2021

Hello, friends! (Yes, I’m alive!) I feel like every time I write now I’m going to have to apologize for being MIA. I still haven’t really been traveling, so this blog has been more dormant than I would like. However, recently, I stayed at an Airbnb in Colfax, California and visited its neighboring city, Grass Valley in Nevada County (about 1 hour northeast of Sacramento and 1.5 hours west of Lake Tahoe). The only thing I had heard about those towns before was that they’re predominantly white and that my husband and I would be the only minorities there. Okay, that did turn out to be true (ha!), but they were not the podunk, nothing-to-do towns that I had imagined. They were actually quite quaint. Moreover, I discovered that these were former Gold Rush towns, with fascinating mining sites that you can visit today. In fact, Nevada County was where much of hydraulic mining was practiced and where deep quartz mining was started. If you are into California history, you’ll definitely want to stop by! Read on for my recommendations.

Downtown Grass Valley

Downtown Grass Valley is one of the cutest downtowns I’ve been to. Here you can find a colorful candy store, antiques, records, games, and lots of historic touches in the buildings.

Lazy Dog Chocolateria

Lazy Dog Chocolateria is a sweet tooth’s dream come true. Here you’ll find chocolates, candies, ice cream, and gelato with a fun 1950’s theme.

Nevada County Bank

This Greek-style building, built in 1917, actually doesn’t function as a bank anymore. Inside you’ll find a gift shop, a coffee shop, and hair salon, but with lots of historic remnants throughout. For instance, you can still see the former after hour depository on the wall. If you peek inside Champagne Jane Salon, you can even find the door to a huge bank vault!

Marshall’s Pasties

Okay, I actually did not try this place and thus don’t have a picture. So why do I recommend it? Well, only after seeing this bakery did I learn that the Cornish pasty (pronounced “PAST-tee“), which was the Gold Rush miners’ typical meal for the day. It’s traditionally baked with beef, diced potatoes, onion, and rutabaga. It looks very similar to an empanada in my opinion! For a true taste of history, please try a pasty and let me know how it tastes.

Empire Mine State Historic Park

Empire Mine State Historic Park is about 1 mile away from Downtown Grass Valley. From the street, this state park is very unassuming and can be easy to miss. But it’s the site of one of the oldest, deepest, and richest gold mines in California. In fact, the mine extracted 5.8 million ounces of gold before it closed in 1956. Money-wise, that’s more than eight billion dollars by today‚Äôs standards!

You’ll see old mine yards and learn about pasties (like we talked about before!) and “tommyknockers.” Admission is $7 for adults and $5 for children 7 years+.

Once you go through the park entrance, you can either turn left toward the mine yard or turn right toward the cottage and gardens. Let’s start with the cottage and gardens first.

Empire Cottage and Historic Gardens

Empire Cottage is a beautiful English manor-styled cottage built using waste rock from the mine and with electricity powered by the mine’s electric system. Its architect was Willis Polk, the San Francisco architect to whom we have a dedicated a street in San Francisco.

Further down from the cottage is the heritage rose garden where you can wander through rows of beautiful flowers.

Empire Mine Yard

To visit the mine yard, you can take the scenic route by visiting the Clubhouse and stopping by the Caretaker’s Residence. You should then see the remains of a stamp mill, shown below.

To the right of the stamp mill is a cyanide plant site (closed to the public). Adding sodium cyanide to crushed ore was a way to recover gold.

The rest of the mine yard feature mining equipment, mine carts, and fascinating exhibits on the hard working conditions of the miners. You’ll also learn about the main Empire shaft, which is actually a underground, 367-mile maze! Due to COVID restrictions, I actually did not get to go inside the portal for the shaft, but I’m sure it’s cool.

Whenever you finish exploring and exit the Empire Mine, you can drive (or walk) down the street to see another tall mining building near the Empire Mine sign.

North Star Mining Museum & Pelton Wheel Exhibit

The North Star Mining Museum is a great way to supplement your learning on the area’s mining history. You’ll find a number of gold mining artifacts. Step further in and you’ll see the world’s largest Pelton Wheel, which extracted energy from moving water to power the North Star Mine. The folks there will even give a demo of how it works.

Summary

As many of you know, I like to not only see things, but also learn about the culture and history of whatever place I visit. The Gold Rush was something I always knew about, but I never really saw its historic remnants in California. I left Nevada County feeling grateful to have connected with California’s gold mining past firsthand. I highly recommend stopping by if you have the opportunity!

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