As the white water of the American River rushed over the nose of the raft, the butterflies in my stomach finally disappeared. Only a short 20 minutes prior, I had been reading a list of what to expect on the roaring rivers of Northern California’s Gold Country as we made the bus ride from Coloma. We were dropping in at Chile Bar, notorious for some of the best rapids on the North Fork.
The first rapid on the run, known as the “Meat Grinder”, rushed back memories. Growing up in Auburn, only forty-five minutes away, these were the waters I grew up rafting on. Even though I had spent the greater part of the past decade in the city, all it took was a splash of snowmelt water to remind me of my roots.
As I set out on a week-long journey to explore the cuisine and adventurous culture of California’s Gold Country along Highway 49, I didn’t know what to expect. What I found was a region of California rich in connection with its local farmers and producers. The result is an array of businesses with a passion for creating sustainably and with a greater purpose. Microbreweries to vineyards, farms in the countryside to urban agriculture, all of it showed me how Gold Country’s roots run deep. Immersed in a history that dates back to when gold was first discovered here in 1848, there is still more to the adventure to uncover today.
After returning back from the trip, I’m eager to share everything that Gold Country has to offer. Whether you’re off for a road trip, passing through, or looking for a weekend getaway, here’s a look at this special part of Northern California.
[This post is created in partnership with Visit California.]
A Road Trip Guide to Gold Country, California
What to Know Before Travel
- The best way to get to Gold Country is to fly into Sacramento (SMF) or San Francisco (SFO). I would pick up a rental car, my preferred company is Avis, and head out on a road trip. Use the coupon “UUWA006” for a one time, single upgrade (rentals before 12/31/19).
- The roads are easy to navigate and signage is well established.
- I would recommend 4-5 nights depending on how many areas you want to see.
- The time of year depends on the experience you would like. I would suggest late spring to early fall to enjoy the bulk of summer adventures like hiking and rafting.
Where to Stay:
I’ve listed a few hotel options below for your stay in each area. In addition, there are some incredible Airbnbs in Gold Country, so I’d recommend searching here:
Highlighted Destinations (By Area)
+ Walk Old Sacramento and visit the railroad museum.
One highlight is a walk back in time through Old Sacramento. The historic area has been wonderfully preserved and gives a look into the setting of the Gold Rush-era buildings. Right in the heart of Old Sacramento is the California State Railroad Museum — somewhere I hadn’t been yet as an adult. It’s a fascinating museum that showcases everything from trains to the systems used to connect California with the rest of the US.
+ Get a taste of local coffee.
Sacramento has a vibrant coffee culture. Some of my favorite local shops include places like Temple and Chocolate Fish. Since the downtown is easily accessible, you can explore Midtown by foot.
+ Tour the state capitol.
With free admission, one point of interest to visit is the California State Capitol Museum. There are historic rooms to see as well as revolving exhibits in the space.
+ Visit an urban farm.
Right in the heart of the city is Soil Born Farms — it’s one of those hidden gems. You can visit on the weekends and stop by their farm stand. They even offer educational classes throughout the week.
+ Enjoy Korean-style BBQ.
Inside the KP International Marketplace is the Red Alcove. We stopped by for lunch and got to taste great Korean food (love a good BBQ!). If you’re looking for international food as well, the grocery store inside also has a ton to offer.
+ Taste local beers at Fort Rock Brewing.
One local brewery in the Rancho Cordova Barrel District is Fort Rocking Brewing. It’s a great local spot to grab a beer and play some darts.
+ Dine locally.
Folsom’s endless options for eating out means you won’t run out of spots to dine at. One place we ate at was Mas Taco Bar for a la carte tacos and margaritas. Afterward, we stopped by Chocolate Architect to try their signature “chocolate silk.” The next morning, we stopped into Karen’s Bakery for a homey breakfast and you definitely will want to try their baked goods!
+ Rent an electric bike and ride the Johnny Cash Trail.
A highlight of the time in Gold Country was getting to rent an electric bike from Practical Cycle. We went out on the Johnny Cash Trail, worked our way by Folsom Lake and then back down into Folsom’s historic district. If you haven’t ridden an electric bike, it’s a lot of fun and a great way to experience this part of Folsom.
+ Eat lunch inside a flower nursery.
Off of Highway 80 is one of my favorite lunch spots to stop at, High-Hand Cafe. Set inside a large nursery, you get to dine inside a stunning space filled with lush gardens. The site also has a local shop of olive oils, produce, and a full-function gardening nursery, so be sure to explore around after lunch.
+ Stay overnight on a farm.
The bungalows at The Flower Farm Inn make for a romantic getaway. Set on an active citrus orchard, the grounds are stunning. One of the highlights is the home-cooked breakfast served family-style inside the home.
+ Wine taste with a view.
The town of Auburn in Placer County is full of opportunities to wine taste. PaZa Estate Winery is one of my favorites to go to as the owners are incredible and have a lovely setting. It’s so peaceful to head there, grab a glass of wine, and soak in the view of the rolling hills.
+ Shop local artisans’ work.
Auburn has a rich culture for local creatives. One standout is Nicholson Van Altena Glass, where artisans Hannah and Alana hand blow glass using a special technique. Their beautiful work can be found in shops around California (they also do custom pieces). Head here to see their events as well.
Where to Stay: Park Victorian Inn
El Dorado County
+ Join an event at one of the oldest pioneer farms and enjoy their food at a local cafe.
Right in the heart of Coloma is Bee Love Farms — a working farm that focuses on educational programs and opportunities to learn about conservation. They have seasonal events, with everything from learning about beekeeping to farm dinners. Their farm also sources the ingredients found at Argonaut Farm to Fork Cafe, just down the road in Coloma. Stopping in for lunch, I loved that their sandwiches and salads use the ingredients from the farm.
+ Stay overnight at a bed and breakfast with a view.
Staying a night at Bella Vista Bed and Breakfast Inn is an opportunity to disconnect. Set up on the hillside, there are unparalleled views that stretch over the canyon and river. Also set with a pool and hot tub, there’s no better way to unwind after a day of adventure than a nighttime soak.
+ Explore Placerville’s Historic Main Street.
One part of El Dorado County I was so excited to explore was Placerville’s Historic Main Street. There are so many shops and restaurants to explore, plus an incredible art gallery scene here. My favorite meals were at HeyDay Cafe, Totem Coffee, and The Farm Table. For shops, be sure to stop by Midnight Kin, Placerville Flowers, Dedrick’s Main Street Cheese, and The Bookery. You could spend a good afternoon here exploring!
+ Visit a local brewery.
If you’re looking for a local brew, make your way to Solid Ground Brewing. They have an extensive barrel list with beers ranging from IPA’s to sours.
+ Go whitewater rafting on the American River.
It’s a standout adventure in Gold Country. If you’re looking for a rush, book yourself a half-day whitewater rafting tour with All-Outdoors Rafting. Their professional guides know the river well and make the experience. If you’re looking for something a bit calmer, they also offer a variety of whitewater rafting levels.
+ Explore Amador and shop for local goods.
Amador County is a great weekend getaway as it has a ton of wineries and historic towns to explore. One to check out is Amador for its Gold Rush-era buildings and local shops. One shop to stop by for locally made products is Made in Amador, where shop owner Molly makes their own candles and goods.
+ Eat at the #1 Zagat-rated restaurant in the Sacramento Region.
Taste is one of the highlights in the region and I would recommend booking a table in advance to dine here. Their unique menu includes local ingredients paired with wines from the regions.
+ Wine taste at Iron Hub in Plymouth.
While touring Amador County, I loved wine tasting at Iron Hub. Their beautiful setting sits up on the hill and they have the perfect patio to enjoy the view. Their elegant tasting room features their range of wines from Sauvignon Blanc to Syrah.