This is Gold Country, where pioneers flocked to seek their fortune during the Gold Rush. You can go prospecting for all kinds of fun—from riding steam locomotives and whitewater rafting to gold panning and telling campfire stories. No matter what age you are, Sacramento and the Gold Country region are a blast for everyone.
Railtown 1897 State Historic Park
Kids who live and breathe Thomas the Tank Engine will love watching real-life locomotives at Railtown 1897 State Historic Park (Hwy. 108, Jamestown, 209/984-3953, 9:30am-4:30pm daily Apr.–Oct., 10am–3pm daily Nov.–Mar., $5 adults, $3 youths). From April to October, you can travel through oak trees and craggy foothills on a six-mile adventure aboard a real steam train. Keep an eye out for leftover Hollywood props from movies like High Noon and Back to the Future: Part III, which were filmed here.
Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park
Take a gold panning lesson at the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park (310 Back St., Coloma, 530/622-3470, 8am–7pm daily during the summer, $8 per vehicle), the place where prospectors first found the precious metal that sparked the Gold Rush. After the lesson, grab a pan and try your luck by the river. Kids will especially love getting elbow-deep in the mud for a chance to strike it rich. The park also provides nature walks and hikes through the scenic American River canyon, like the Gold Discovery Loop Trail (3.6 miles), which takes you right to the very spot where gold was first discovered.
During the Gold Rush, prospectors often braved churning rapids on the American River to pan for gold. A wrong step could mean losing their gear—or worse. These days, facing the American’s whitewater rapids is more fun on a sturdy raft piloted by a trusty guide. The river’s South Fork has easy to intermediate rapids for beginners and families looking for fun but safe thrills. Hire a guide for a half-day trip from local outfitters like Beyond Limits Adventures (530/622-0553, $100-300) and Whitewater Connection (530/622-6446, $95-340).
Maidu Museum and Historic Site
Enjoy storytelling and campfires under the stars at Maidu Museum and Historic Site (1970 Johnson Ranch Drive, Roseville, 916/774-5934, 9am–4pm Mon.–Fri., 9am–1pm Sat., 6:30-8:30pm third Saturdays, adults $4.50, children and seniors $4, $16 for a family of four, discounts available during the week). Every month, this fascinating museum dedicated to native Maidu Indian culture hosts family campfires at an outdoor amphitheater. Sing songs and listen to native stories amidst the sound of crackling logs. No need to bring marshmallows or roasting sticks—they’re both provided by museum staff.
Go back in time at Sutter’s Fort (2701 L St., Sacramento 916/445-4422, 10am–5pm, Tues.–Sun., adults $5, youths $3), the oldest building in Sacramento. Once inside the giant wooden gates, you’ll discover costumed docents spinning wool, pounding iron at the blacksmith shop, or cooking bread in a beehive adobe oven in the courtyard. Kids will enjoy shopping for a memorable keepsake such as a handmade toy, some old-fashioned candy, or a harmonica at the trade store (10am–5pm daily), and adults will dig the handmade ceramics and the books and DVDs that explore Sutter’s mark on California history. Docents are on hand for lessons about the fort’s past, and there’s also a self-guided tour.
Old Sacramento Schoolhouse Museum
A trip to the Old Sacramento Schoolhouse Museum (1200 Front St., Sacramento, 916/483-8818, 10am–4pm Mon.–Sat., 12pm–4pm Sun., free) is one way to get kids back in school during the summer. Costumed “marms” and “masters” are on hand to talk about 19th century California school life in the one-room schoolhouse; sit at the old-fashioned wooden desks to listen. If you’re traveling at other times of the year, this place usually has a fun schedule of family-oriented events lined up for holidays, such as making arts and crafts on St. Patrick’s Day and pasting gooey gingerbread houses together before Christmas. The museum is an easy visit that lasts no more than 30 minutes, but it’s still a great place to learn more about early California education.