Three California Gold-Rush Towns Worth Visiting

Floyd Øydegaard won’t let me leave his bookstore.

He’s talking to two fellow bearded reenactors and me about Lincoln’s outhouse.

“You see, he used a barrel so his coattails could hang off the back edge,” Øydegaard says, his lips smacking with excitement. “He was such a smart man.”

The 19th century has a way of working its way into the most casual of conversations here in Columbia, California, one of a trio of gold-rush towns—Sonora and Jamestown are the others—clustered together on the fringe of Yosemite National Park.

All three are worth exploring—whether you use one of them as a home base while you’re touring the Valley (each is well under an hour’s drive to the park’s Tioga Pass entrance, sans peak-season traffic) or tack an extra day or two on to your Yosemite trip to soak up a bit of living history in the heart of the Sierra Nevada Mother Lode.

Here are a few highlights from each:

Sonora

The county seat of Tuolumne County, Sonora is the largest and liveliest of this trio of California gold-rush towns. Its main drag is a stretch of the Gold Country Highway (aka California State Route 49), and lined with gift shops, saloons, and creekside restaurants.

It’s a real mix. One store offers scones and freshly roasted coffee beans, while a sign in an old-timey bar nearby alerts passersby to the fact that guns, knives, ammo, and beer can be bought on the premises.

I stay at the hillside Barretta Gardens Inn, a early 20th-century farmhouse with a Swedish flag flying from its porch. The bed-and-breakfast is run by Astrid Stone, who moved to California from Scandinavia in 1972, and her husband, Dan. “You could never find the time t o do everything here,” Astrid says as we sit sipping a local wine she’s poured for us.

I immediately see what she means. Looking at the Weekender—a free supplement of the town’s Union Democrat newspaper—I see Sonora’s social calendar is crammed with events: an opera, a fall fair, a sci-fi gathering, an exhibit of French landscapes painted by a local artist, and a one-man show about Alexander Hamilton at Stage 3.

I go with the play (the theater is located next door to a new bourbon bar, which I happily visit for a pre-show nip), and for $15 watch as Tom Maguire portrays one of the least understood figures in United States history on the eve of his fateful duel with Vice President Aaron Burr in 1804. It’s excellent.

Afterward, I talk with Tom. He tells me all about why America’s first secretary of the treasury should never be taken off the $10 bill (“People have no idea what Hamilton did for the country!”) and how he moved here from Los Angeles to do a Sam Shepherd play decades ago, found a healthy theater scene in Sonora, and just stayed.

Columbia

The current (and ongoing) California drought has produced one small silver (or should I say gold?) lining. Lowered river levels have loosened some nuggets, setting off a prospecting renaissance of sorts.

A popular place to learn how to pan for gold is the Columbia State Historic Park. Visiting the town (the “park” is actually a working town, where people live) feels like walking through Branson‘s Silver Dollar City—except it’s real.

During the 1850s and ‘60s, Columbia, located four miles north of Sonora, grew to become the second largest city in California. And, unlike most mining towns that flourished in the era, it never died.

Most visitors make a pit stop here to walk the town’s main street, a collection of mid-19th-century buildings that now house an ice cream parlor, a few saloons, a theater, a bookshop, and a gold-panning shack.

I’m staying the night. I saunter into the Columbia City Hotel. Reenactors are lunching in the restaurant as I climb the squeaky staircase to deposit my bags in my room. I find it comes with a balcony that looks out over Main Street. I spy on a bearded man dressed like a 19th-century businessman who scans his cellphone, then pops it inside his plaid vest. This is fun.

I wander the street a bit, past a guy playing “Drift Away” on an acoustic guitar, and end up at a bookstore, where I meet Floyd Øydegaard, who, as I mentioned, is more than eager to talk about the dusty 1800s.

“History is like a beautiful tapestry,” he explains. “We can pull a couple threads, and assume we understand. But it’s only a couple threads.”

After listening to a couple of Floyd’s threads, I continue down Main Street. I pass kids queuing up outside a Victorian-era bowling alley to knock down wooden pins (it’s free!), then breeze through the photo archives at the wee (and also free) town museum and stop off for some coffee. The young man selling it tells me I should “go to the Labyrinth.”

I follow his directions to a jumble of exposed limestone rocks, huge ones, some of which are coated in moss. These are the remains of hydraulic mining efforts from the golden days of gold prospecting when there were dozens of saloons and a few “hurdy-gurdy houses” (where German girls entertained lonely miners by dancing with them for a fee) in town.

It’s lovely, and—unlike Main Street—there’s no one else around.

Jamestown

A few miles southwest of Sonora, Jamestown is another gold-era landmark with a couple of blocks of historic buildings strung along a main street. To boot, it boasts a train attraction for fanatics, Railtown 1897 State Historic Park. The undisputed star of the park is Sierra No. 3, a circa 1891 steam locomotive that made appearances in Back to the Future Part III and High Noonamong other films. On weekends, April through October, visitors can ride behind an “iron horse” for a 45-minute trip through the scenic hills of California’s Mother Lode country.

When I go, my guide is dressed like a pirate, with a fake parrot on his shoulder, a hook for a hand, and a fluffy shirt tucked into his (real) acid-washed jeans. “It has water in it,” he says dryly as we pass a historic water tower (which made a prominent appearance in television’s Petticoat Junction). “What more can I say about it?”

I overnight at the National Hotel, one of the first permanent structures in this early gold-rush town. The Main Street guest house has been in continuous operation since 1859 (despite sustaining damage from two fires), and has been run by Stephen Willey since 1974.

Stephen’s a character. I join him for a drink in the hotel’s original back bar (which comes complete with a working cash register dating to 1881), and he tells me of other local characters like Wimpy Jones (“He founded Drunks Against Mad Mothers,” Stephen jokes) and about his idea to rename Tuolumne County “Yosemite County” owing to the fact that no one can quite figure out how to spell or say it. (If you’re curious, it sounds a bit like “To All o’ Me,” with a silent N.)

Stephen tells me he’s contemplated allowing guests to settle their bills in gold nuggets. “Why the hell don’t I?” he asks, almost to himself.

We notice Tom Maguire, the actor who played Alexander Hamilton back in Sonora, eating in the dining room with his cousin, and join them. A bottle of wine appears. Talk flows from history to local politics, acting, and travel. The night runs late.

That’s just how things are done out here.

Robert Reid is National Geographic Travel’s Digital Nomad, exploring the world with passion and purpose. Follow his adventures in Yosemite Country on Twitter and Instagram

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Comments

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  4. Tom Maguire
    Sonora, CA
    December 16, 2015, 4:06 pm

    Good article, Robert. It was a pleasure talking and drinking with you.

    Cheers,
    Tom

  5. H8R Girl
    Kawaii City, Anime Land
    January 25, 2016, 3:41 pm

    i looked up ” Californian gold rush” and THIS is what i get?!?!?!?!?!!?!?!? CMON NATIONAL GEO!!!!!!!