Columbia, America’s best preserved Gold Rush town
Pale Rider, Little House on the Prairie, The Lone Ranger – these staples of wild west cinema have one main street in common and it is located at Columbia State Historic Park. Columbia is said to be America’s best preserved Gold Rush town and the city offers family vacations complete with period costumes, stage coach rides and the cutest candy store. What better excuse for a day trip from the Bay Area?
Only two and a half hours away from San Francisco or Sacramento, the Gold Rush city of Columbia still lives frozen in time like it’s the 1850s—cowboy hats, saloons, gold panning, and stage coaches included. Located in the Sierra foothills between Sonora and Angels Camp, Columbia is one of the rare Gold Rush towns where a thriving restored historic downtown—with shops, restaurants, and museums—oozes an authentic feel. Preserved as a California State Historic Park, it is open every day of the year except Christmas and Thanksgiving, is run like a real town, and has been featured in many recognizable movies. With so many indoor and outdoor activities, Columbia is an ideal day trip for families.
Entering Columbia on Main Street from the visitor parking lot, you arrive next to the Fallon Theatre on Washington Street where you can catch some great theatre by theSierra Repertory Theatre. Right across from the theater is the Columbia Gazette Newspaper Office where children can learn to write their name on a galley with the type backwards and upside down. Keep walking up Washington Street as it becomes Main Street. A small courtyard on the right hosts a candle-dipping shop where children get to pick a white candle and dip it in several buckets of hot wax for a colorful outcome. The Columbia Museum occupies the next corner and offers the kids a chance to learn how to build a brick wall with foam bricks or play dress-up in the back room. If it’s hot outside, it’s a great spot to cool down.
If it’s sunny, head to Brown’s Coffee House & Sweets Saloon for a cold sarsaparilla and an ice cream. Just looking at the Gold Rush-inspired candy and old-fashioned teas is worth a trip inside. Next to the bowling alley, the Butcher Shop is a must-see if your kids like curiosities. Ask to see the solid tea bar, it’s quite a work of art. My girls held it dearly like it was a giant chocolate bar. Across the street is Nelson Columbia’s Candy Kitchen, a sweet kid-trap that’s a delight for the eyes. Don’t miss their home-made marshmallow rolls, they’re nothing like the store-bought kind.
Now stop at the chicken coop and the California Store (get your kids to feel the straw filling of the mattress in the back) and head to the old schoolhouse. It is up Pacific Street, three blocks from the chicken coop and totally worth the final climb. Perched on top of a grassy hill, this is your typical Old West schoolhouse with lots of room to run around. For those of you ghost seekers, the graveyard and its pioneer tombstones is right over the fence. You can come back for Halloween, take a ghost tour and learn all about the local haunts.
Don’t leave without letting the kids loose on the rock boulders behind the Matelot Gulch and Hidden Treasure Gold Mine tours and planning store adjacent to the parking lot. They look like a sculpture garden but the limestone formations are in fact man-made. Where you are standing used to be eight feet below ground level and has been blasted off through hydraulic mining. The kids don’t really care about the why but they certainly view the area as a giant natural playground, climbing up and down and crawling through rock tunnels around the miners’ cabin.
Make a night of it and stay at the historic cottages or hotels of Columbia State Historic Park or in nearby Sonora, Jamestown, or Angels Camp where lodging includes motels and historic hotels. You can also go rustic at an RV park or campground. From March until Labor Day, this part of the Gold County becomes a prime tourist hot spot because of the rich history and warm climate, and consequently, the area’s many rivers with swimming holes for cooling off.
The real hit for my girls and her friends is the Bowling Saloon Exhibit—bowling was so popular with miners that it was never vacant for more than ten minutes on Sundays. It seems this still holds true today—just line up outside, get a wooden ball, and see how many strikes you can score. Knocking down all wooden pins with the wooden ball may be more challenging than your local bowling alley, a great challenge for the kids.
Gotta love the Gold Rush.
- Website: www.columbiacalifornia.com
- Upcoming events 2012 (there are more but I made a short selection so you can pen all this in your calendar): June 9 – Sarsaparilla Roundup, June 9, July 7, August 11, September 89, October 6, 2012 – Saturday evenings Ghost Tours, July 4th – Columbia July 4th Parade and Celebration, August 18 – Summer Street Dance, September 15 – Back To School Day 1861, October 6 – Fiddle and Banjo Contest and Chili Cookoff, October 27 – Illumination of the Jack’ o Lanterns, November 32 through December 16 – Candy Cane Making, November 30 and December 1 – Lamplight Tours, Decemb er 8-9 and December 15-16 – A Miners’ Christmas.
- Directions: roughly 2.5 hours drive from the Bay Area. From San Francisco, get on Interstate 580 East and take Interstate 205. Exit onto Interstate 5 north for a very short distance and head towards Highway 120 – Sonora, get on Highway 99 north, and take the next exit which puts you back on Highway 120 east towards Sonora. In the center of Oakdale, turn left onto Highway 120/108 east. After Highway 120 splits to the right (Yosemite Junction), continue straight on Highway 108 until you reach Jamestown. At the eastern end of Jamestown, take a left onto Jamestown-Shaw’s Flat Road (this is a shortcut). You will reach a stop sign in about 5 miles. Bear to the left and you will shortly reach Highway 49. Turn right and in less than a mile you will take your first left onto Parrotts Ferry Road. In about 3 miles you will see the Columbia State Historic Park sign on the right. You can park at the lot there or a few smaller ones around the park.
Note: Parts of the post were an original piece published on the family blog of Away.com.
One thought on “Columbia, America’s best preserved Gold Rush town”
What great timing! We will be taking a few days next week to explore the gold country. I wasn’t sure how interesting it would be for a 5 and 3 year old. But now I am encouraged by how much you guys discovered in Columbia alone. I’ll be sure to leave plenty of time for this stop.