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Nevada City / Grass Valley

Born during the Gold Rush madness, two Sierra foothills hamlets have grown into respectable, tidy towns. And when autumn colors creep into the Sierra foothills, they’re at their best.

Commercial Street in Nevada City, image
Photo caption
Commercial Street in Nevada City, Calif., is lined with old-fashioned store filled with new-fashioned goods.

Nevada County was quite a scene a century and a half ago: rivers clogged from constant dredging; tunnels driven hundreds of feet underground into solid rock; entire hillsides blasted away by giant water cannons. All to find that most precious of metals—gold. It’s hard to imagine such frenzy occurring in the bucolic foothills of the northern Sierra, but it did. And though they were born in the madness of California’s Gold Rush, Nevada City and Grass Valley have matured into respectable, tidy towns.

Nevada City got going in 1849. Within a year, "The Queen of the Northern Mines" was home to some 10,000 residents and a center of trade and government. Now, 150 years later, about four-fifths of the population are gone and the downtown, some 93 buildings, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In other words, it’s a great place to stroll around.

Admire the architecture as you saunter past antique shops and restaurants, but do poke your head inside occasionally. Nevada City Winery or Indian Spring Winery both offer daily tastings of their vintages. Top that off with chocolates from Confectionately Yours. More robust palates can sample suds at the Old Nevada Brewery, along with salads, sandwiches, and other fare.

Now a performing arts and community center, Miners Foundry has been around since 1856. Hydroelectric power got a big jolt when the first Pelton wheel, used to generate power in the mines, was built here in 1879. Historic artifacts on display at Firehouse Museum #1 include items from the town’s former Chinese neighborhood.

For local art, visit the Artists’ Guild Gallery on Main Street. Area resident—and Vulcan extraordinaire— Leonard Nimoy showcases his photography here. Or try the 1856 Nevada Theatre, home of the Foothill Theatre Company.

Grass Valley was the Malibu of its day with entertainers such as Lola Montez and Lotta Crabtree calling it home. Mining, however, took a different route—underground. In fact, hard-rock mining continued for over a century, earning the town the title of "The Boomtown that Never Died."

Learn how profitable it was at the Empire Mine State Historic Park. Over 5 million ounces of gold were extracted from the ground here. Tour the operation’s buildings and the English manor home of the Bourn family, owners of the mine, with its antique rose garden.

If museums are your thing, you’re in luck. Hard-rock mining is the cornerstone of the North Star Mining Museum, featuring the world’s largest Pelton wheel. The Grass Valley Museum, housed in an 1865 orphanage, spans the town’s heyday, from the Gold Rush to the 1930s. View historic footage of the county at the Video History Museum.

Seven miles south of Grass Valley, on Auburn Road, are the Alta Sierra Biblical Gardens, where scenes depicting the life of Christ are interspersed along a short loop trail.

Cooler autumn weather spreads a canvas of yellow and orange across the surrounding hills. What better way to enjoy it than with a short hike? Ecosystems are the subject of the U.S. Forest Service’s Rock Creek Nature Trial, a 3/4-mile interpretive loop about six miles east of Nevada City off Hwy 20.

Mountain bikers have a dozen routes from which to choose, from the mellow Champion Mine Road to the "sounds-like-what-it-is" Augustine Agony. Local bike shops can offer more suggestions.

South Yuba River State Park, a new addition to California’s state park system, runs in sections along the river for some 27 miles. Quiet fishing spots, great photo ops, and big boulders, perfect for lounging in the sun next to the turquoise-hued water, can be found along a dozen or so trails. Start exploring in Bridgeport, a former mining camp and ranch, about 7 miles west of Grass Valley off Pleasant Valley Road. Now the park’s headquarters, it’s the site of the longest covered bridge in the country and trails leading to Englebright Reservoir.

One park section encompasses Independence Trail, the nation’s first wheelchair-accessible wilderness trail. About 6 miles north of Nevada City on Hwy 49, this route was originally used in the mid-1800s to channel water through a series of wooden troughs, or flumes, to the area’s hydraulic mines. Today the flumes carry people, not water, roughly 3 miles across ravines and to the banks of Rush Creek.

Farther east and slightly north of the river is Malakoff Diggins, site of the world’s largest hydraulic mine. For over 30 years, beginning in 1853, high-pressure nozzles were used here to wash away sections of earth to get at the gold. The resulting scars on the landscape and the restored village of North Bloomfield are now a state historic park.

When it comes to bedding down, you’ll notice an absence of well-known hotel and motel chains. So much the better. Perhaps they have conceded this as bed-and-breakfast territory, and rightfully so. A surprising concentration of historic 19th-century-Victorians-turned-B&Bs makes it easy to go from admiring the local architecture to spending the night in it.

Or, imagine it’s 1860 and you’ve arrived in town in need of some lodging. Nevada City’s 43-room National Hotel, established in 1852, bills itself as the oldest continuously operating hotel west of the Rockies. The National’s Victorian Dining Room serves breakfast, lunch, dinner, and Sunday brunch. Established in 1851 and now a state landmark, Grass Valley’s 28-room Holbrooke Hotel has hosted the famous and infamous, including four U.S. presidents. Lunch, dinner, and Sunday brunch are available. Though awash in antique and period decor, both hotels play up their Gold Rush origins without excessive kitsch.

The motel-like Northern Queen Inn is suitable for those who want comfort and a good night’s rest after an active day. The Nevada County Traction Co. is also on site offering short train rides (guests get a complimentary ride).

Throwing some fun into the mix is the Outside Inn, a renovated motor court from the 1940s with 12 rooms, each reflecting a different local outdoor activity.

What both Nevada City and Grass Valley excel at it is keeping you entertained in a subtle, laid-back way. There is, however, one hazard—getting lost in a bookstore. With two dozen booksellers between the two towns, it’s easy. They have recently earned the joint title of Book Town. This Welsh concept is the state’s first and one of only three nationwide. The literary-minded can also revel in the written word during the annual Wordslingers Festival.

Photography courtesy of Travis.Thurston/Wikimedia Commons

This article was first published in September 1998. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.