If you’re only going to visit one California Gold Rush town in your life, Nevada City is the one to visit. But don’t let the words “Nevada” or “City” fool you. This historic town in the Sierra Nevada Foothills is very much in California and the population is only 3,088… which is probably how it has managed to retain so much of its old-fashioned charm. It was also once the most prosperous mining town in the state. But mostly, it’s the perfect destination for a weekend getaway when you want to trade in the noise and chaos of the city for a few days of the quiet life (with a side of adventure).
WHERE TO STAY
Inn Town Campground
Your “excuse” (as if you need one) for going to Nevada City is that you for sure need to be one of the first of your friends to stay at the recently opened (and totally adorable) Inn Town Campground, an elevated and rather grown up camp site that’s a short drive or pleasant 25-minute walk from downtown Nevada City. You have a choice of a pitch-your-own tent site, an RV space with full hook ups, or—the one you’re going to actually pick because just trust me: a glamping tent.
Listen, I know. Glamping is so “very.” Except these cozy (and themed) canvas tents have electricity! And real beds! And fresh linens and towels! And private porches! And they allow dogs! And right outside there’s a picnic table and a gas fire pit, which is perfect for hanging out and making s’mores!
Regardless of which accommodations you choose (pick glamping!), everyone has access to super clean bathrooms (and private outdoor showers), a BBQ area, a communal kitchen, ping pong, foosball, a camp store, and… coming next summer: a swimming pool. It’s seriously the best camp site ever.
Tent Camping: $45-50
WHAT TO DO
There’s tons of fun stuff to do in and around Nevada City, but here are my top picks.
Empire Mine State Historic Park
The reason Nevada City is Nevada City is because of the Gold Rush. So you’d best do some learnin’ about it while you’re there. Empire Mine was an operating mine in Grass Valley (one town over) and was one of the largest, richest, and longest-operating (1850-1956) gold mines in California. The Empire Cottage Tour and the Mineyard Tour are both interesting and can be completed in two consecutive hours. Check out the schedule here.
Hours: Daily from 10 AM to 5 PM
The Historic Firehouse No. 1 Museum
This tiny firehouse was built in 1861 and protected the fire-prone town of Nevada City until 1938. Though the city eventually had to build a bigger firehouse, the original building remains and is apparently the most photographed spot in all of Nevada City. The museum won’t take you long to explore, but it’s worth checking out as it houses lots of local artifacts, photos, and memorabilia, including relics from the Donner Party.
Hours: Summer: Tuesday-Sunday, 1-4 PM
Winter: By appointment
The Abandoned Nevada County Hospital
Right outside of town is an abandoned mental hospital where a mentally ill man shot three people, two of whom died. I didn’t know that part of the story when I decided I wanted to check out the abandoned building, so I didn’t totally understand the weird looks I got when I told people that’s what I was doing. The building is apparently haunted and feels like it could easily be the location of a horror film, so if that’s your thing, go explore the grounds; it doesn’t take long. You can learn more about the history here.
Address: 10433 Willow Valley Rd.
Nevada City, California, 95959
Nevada County Narrow Gauge Rail Museum
The NCNGRM (longest acronym ever) is located right next to the Inn Town Campground, so you have no excuse not to pop over and learn a little something about Nevada City’s transportation history. But the real reason you’re going is for the train ride!!! Don’t worry. This isn’t some train ride for toddlers. It’s a real train ride. For grown-ups. (And toddlers if they’re being supervised by their grown-ups.) It’s a 35-minute trip on a railbus that parallels a portion of the original route of the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad. Just keep in mind: it only operates on Saturdays. You can find the schedule here.
Hours: Summer: Friday-Tuesday; 10 AM to 4 PM
Winter: Saturday and Sunday; 10 AM to 4 PM
I loved all of Nevada City, but my favorite part was definitely the afternoon I spent at a swimming hole under the Old Highway 49 Bridge. This particular swimming hole wasn’t crowded when I was there, but if you want to visit a swimming hole that’s less popular, the kind folks at the Inn Town Campground have a list of them on their website. Whichever one you’re going to, bring a backpack with a towel, water, sunscreen, and snacks, and be sure to wear shoes in which you can walk/climb. The rocks are slippery, so flip-flops aren’t recommended. And no, you’re not allowed to jump off of that bridge. But yes, I did see a kid do a double-back flip and land it perfectly.
Hiking and Mountain Biking
There’s tons of great hiking in South Yuba River State Park and there are plenty of mountain biking trails around as well. Check out the Inn Town Campground site for suggestions or ask someone at the front desk. They’ll be happy to give you advice about where to go based on how hard you want to work and how much time you have.
Hang Out at the Inn Town Campground
You’re definitely going to want to arrange your activities so that you have some “down time” at the Inn Town Campground where you can play ping pong, drink wine on your glamping tent porch, explore the historic Chinese cemetery, or even catch a flick during one of their movie nights.
WHERE TO EAT
Nevada City Classic Cave
When I asked around town about breakfast options, the Nevada City Classic Café kept coming up because it was featured in a Hallmark movie once upon a time. So if you saw and loved “The Christmas Card,” you’ll be very excited to eat there and you need to know nothing else. But even if you haven’t (which, uh… you probably haven’t), you’ll still be stoked because this is a totally adorable breakfast spot with Nevada City murals on the wall, friendly service, and great food.
South Pine Café
South Pine Café is all about fresh food and supporting local farmers and vendors. There are lots of healthy options on the menu; skip those and indulge in the Lobster Benedict or a stack of pancakes.
Almost all of the restaurants in Nevada City shut down between lunch and dinner, but Lefty’s Grill is open all day. Be sure to ask for a seat on one of the decks overlooking the creek. The lunch menu is what you’d expect—burgers, sandwiches, and salads—but it all tastes great when paired with that view. And an ice cold beer.
Ike’s Quarter Café
Lunch on the adorable garden patio at Ike’s is a must. The food’s got a Cajun kick to it with dishes like a Voodoo Burger, Creole BLT, and a huge selection of Po’ Boys.
Friar Tuck’s Restaurant and Bar
Everyone is going to tell you to go to New Moon Café, which is an amazing option as they serve delicious, seasonal dishes made with natural and organic ingredients. That being said, entrees are in the $30 range, and the food is very much something you could get in San Francisco. Instead, head to Friar Tuck’s, which is straight out of the 1970s, has a Sherwood Forest theme, and serves fondue. Get the Bubble and Squeak, which is a meat and cheese fondue combo, plus a champagne cocktail to kick things off. Totally over-the-top and totally worth it.
Three Forks Bakery & Brewing Co
Just up the block from Three Forks is a Matteo’s Public. If you walk by and you’re digging the live music and you can get a seat in the cozy garden, then you may want to eat there. If not, head to Three Forks, a counter-service spot serving up tasty wood-fired pizzas and house-brewed beer. Grab a seat at one of the communal tables; this is your chance to chat with the super friendly locals.
I’m more of a post-dinner drink than post-dinner ice cream kinda girl, so I had no intention of indulging in a cone at Treats, but when the 15th person asked me if I’d tried the ice cream there yet, I decided it was a must. Lucky me ‘cause those 15 people all knew what they were talking about. The hand made Mint Chip is made with fresh spearmint and rich dark chocolate pieces and is definitely the ice cream to order. It’s so popular though that there was only enough for one scoop when I got there and my traveling companion seemed to want it more than I did. I did get a lick though and if it’s available, it’s the flavor to order. (Though I was more than happy with the coconut.)
WHERE TO DRINK
The National Hotel
The National Hotel is the oldest continuously operating hotel west of the Rockies and when you walk inside, you’ll see not much has changed since the Gold Rush. Head there before dinner, order a drink at the saloon downstairs, and then take it upstairs to the veranda that overlooks the town. It’s a pretty perfect experience that you can only have in Nevada City.
Golden Era Lounge
If you’re craving a craft cocktail, Golden Era is the place to go in Nevada City. The building is old (1861), but the bar is new (2015). Still, on the night I went, there was live music, the crowd was lively, and I was served a perfect martini.
The Willo Steakhouse
If you can, stop by The Willo on Highway 49 at some point during your trip (maybe after the swimming hole). It’s an old roadhouse with a restaurant where you can cook your own steak (or have them cook it for you) on one side and a bar full of awesome and friendly characters on the other. I didn’t eat there, but I did sit at the bar, drink cheap drinks, and chat with some men who’ve lived in Nevada City for a long time and consider The Willo a home away from home. (Their advice is to come during the week because it gets crowded and touristy on the weekends.) You probably won’t want to stop talking to those guys, but if you do, there’s a shuffleboard and a pool table. And plenty of signs like, “Top Ten Reasons Men Prefer Guns Over Women” to Instagram.
The Mine Shaft Saloon
If you’re looking for a strong drink at a local watering hole, The Mine Shaft Saloon is the place to go. Grab a seat at the bar or settle in on the back patio.
Clavey Vineyards & Winery, Nevada City Winery, Szabo Vineyards, BYOB
Downtown Nevada City has four tasting rooms where you can stop in, learn about the wine, and taste what’s coming out of the local vineyards. Visit one or do a little tour; they’re all within walking distance of each other.
1-3 PM: Late lunch: Ike’s Quarter Café or Lefty’s Grill
3 PM: The Historic Firehouse No. 1 Museum or the abandoned Nevada County Hospital
4:30 PM: Check-in at the Inn Town Campground
6 PM: Drinks at The National
7:30 PM: Dinner at Friar Tuck’s
9:15 PM: Drink at Golden Era Lounge
9:30 AM: Breakfast at Nevada City Classic Cave
11 AM: Empire Mine State Historic Park
1:30 PM: Swimming Hole
5 PM: Drinks at The Willo
7:30 PM: Dinner at Three Forks Bakery & Brewing Co.
8:30 PM: Ice cream at Treats
9:00 PM: Drink at the Mine Shaft
10:30 AM: Checkout og the Inn Town Campground
10:45 AM: Breakfast at South Pine Café
12 PM: Shopping/Wine Tasting in Nevada City or Go on a Short Hike