Discovering the California Gold Country with Kids

One thing I love about trip planning is finding the unexpected. While researching my first vacation to Yosemite with kids this past summer, I discovered California’s Gold Country. It’s the region made famous by the California Gold Rush which began in 1848 with the discovery of gold in Sutter’s Mill and lured thousands of fortune seekers west to California. The area is a California gem; rarely do you find an off-the-beaten-path destination that has so much to offer in terms of historical significance, culinary diversions and active adventures.

Location

Cailfornia’s Gold Country encompasses several counties running north and south of Sacramento. We chose to base our vacation in the town of Murphys in Calaveras County, 90 miles west of Yosemite Valley. Calaveras County may sound familiar – Mark Twain made this county famous for its jumping frogs – visit in May to see the jumping frog contest.

California Gold Country Adventures with Kids

Giant sequoias at Calaveras Big Trees State Park. While the giant sequoias in Yosemite and Big Trees State Park are similar the visit experience is not. Big Trees does not see the crowds of Yosemite and it’s much more accessible for families. The ambiance is tranquil and there is a trail to follow with informational markers.

During summer, rangers lead hour-long nature programs which get a thumbs up from our school aged kids.  The highlight of the sequoia grove hike is standing on the trunk of a giant sequoia that was once used as a dance floor!

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The dance floor is open but no takers

Pan for gold. As we found out on our gold panning experience with Goldrush Originals and miner Mike there’s still gold to be found in these hills. Depending on the number of people on the tour, it lasts two to four hours and “gold fever” sets in quickly.

This is a hands-on activity and it’s hard work. The first two hours are spent digging in a dry creek bed down to the bedrock with picks and shovels and the next two hours are spent sitting in the creek panning for gold.  If you want a real gold panning experience this is it but be prepared and bring gloves and water shoes. If this sounds too strenuous for your crew there are many gold panning tours that skip the digging part and go straight to panning. This tour is my six-year-old daughter’s favorite part of our Yosemite/Gold Country trip.

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Twenty minutes of panning for a flake of gold…you hope!

Caverns, caves and a creek. Gold isn’t the only thing in the hills of Gold Country. Calaveras County has an abundance of caves and caverns. They are either vertical or horizontal – you’ll climb down several hundred steps and back up again or meander through different “rooms” on a horizontal path.  We chose to try both types at Moaning Cavern and California Cavern.

Moaning Cavern has a vertical winding metal, fully enclosed, spiral staircase.  Teens might like this cavern best as there is an option to rapel into the cavern and on-property ziplining.  California Cavern is flat and has the largest variety of things to see inside the cave.  I’d recommend this tour with small children if you only have time for one.

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Stalactites hang “tight” to the ceiling in California Cavern

Now that you’ve toured a cave it’s time to swim through one. Natural Bridges is a series of open ended caves with a creek running through the inside. It’s a twenty minute walk down to Coyote Creek where families picnic, play in the creek and swim through the caves. Be prepared – the water is freezing in the cave and it does get dark at some points although you can always see the exit or entrance. Bring noodles or floats and water shoes. There are no facilities here.

Columbia Historical State Park. The town of Columbia is a fully restored historical park. Take a stagecoach ride, check out an old-fashioned candy store or dress up like the old days. Kid favorites here are free pin bowling and sampling candy store goodies – sassafras candy makes a good souvenir.

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Columbia State Historical Park has real shopping in restored Gold Rush buildings

Wine tasting. Gold Country has a growing wine industry and the town of Murphys has almost 20 wine tasting rooms on Main Street.  If you like a little history with your wine, head to Ironstone Vineyards to see the 44 pound chunk of gold and other Gold Rush mementos.

Fantastic House Rental in Murphys

We traveled to Gold Country with another family and after many evenings searching the internet I found the perfect house rental at the Villa at Val du Vino Winery. It’s not remotely like you would imagine a villa but this three bedroom/three bath house with a gourmet kitchen, modern décor, basketball court and a small swimming pool played a big part in making our vacation relaxing for the adults and fun for the kids.

It’s a one minute walk to the Val du Vino tasting room and a five minute walk to Murphys where you’ll find restaurants, shops, a playground and creek where families play.  Don’t be surprised to find a family of deer enjoying their dinner in the front yard around dusk.

Relevant Links:

Ciao Bambino recommended family hotels in the San Francisco Bay Area

Visiting California with kids, a year-round road trip

California zipline tour at Margherita Ranch

Things to do in Santa Cruz with kids

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