Nevada City is one of those “I can’t believe I’ve lived in Northern California for almost 20 years and haven’t been here yet” places. After passing by the Nevada City/Rte. 49 exit off I-80 countless times on trips to Lake Tahoe, my husband and I finally made the turn off to check out the historic gold mining town that is fast becoming a popular spot for San Francisco Bay Area transplants.
During an unusually hot Labor Day weekend, we spent one night at a lovely bed & breakfast, and my only regret is that we couldn’t stay longer.
A Perfect Marriage of Past and Present
In the mid-1800’s when gold was discovered in the foothills of the Sierra mountain range, Nevada City was booming with over 10,000 people dreaming of striking it rich. One of those residents, for a few years at least, was Herbert Hoover, who worked as an engineer in the gold mining industry before becoming President.
Originally named “Nevada”, which means “snow covered” in Spanish, until a certain neighboring state borrowed the name, Nevada City is home to the longest, continuously operating hotel in the Western United States and the oldest live theatre in California. Be sure to check out the North Star Mining Museum and outside that building, the 30-foot Pelton Wheel exhibit; it is apparently the largest in the world.
Train fans will want to visit the Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum about a mile outside of the downtown area and run by a group of enthusiastic volunteers. About half-an-hour away on the South Fork of the Yuba River is the Bridgeport Covered Bridge. It is arguably one of the most beautiful bridges in Gold Country, and at 230 feet, is the longest single-span covered bridge in existence.
Rough and tumble no longer, Nevada City’s population today is less than a third of what it once was, but still attracts its own breed of dreamers – artists, musicians, writers, and entrepreneurs who are able to escape the 9-to-5 office routine. What makes Nevada City such an appealing place to visit is that it has managed to retain its historic charm while embracing a contemporary, laid back vibe. The compact and walkable downtown area, which in 1985 was registered as a National Historic Landmark, is lined with boutique shops, fine restaurants, galleries, and local museums.
In more recent years, wine tasting rooms and craft brew pubs have sprung up among the colorful Victorian homes and brick-faced buildings that define the town’s history. Its appealing blend of past and present makes for a perfect weekend getaway almost any time of year. For three Sundays and two Wednesday evenings in December, Nevada City transforms into a holiday wonderland for the annual Victoria Christmas featuring wandering minstrels and carolers in period attire, vendors with unique holiday crafts, carriage rides, and festive lighting. And during the months of October and November, visitors can join the Victorian California Fall Colors Tour for a guided walk of Nevada City’s historic architecture and established trees. Visit the Nevada City website for a calendar of events throughout the year.
Summer Fun and Nearby Hiking
For those who love nature, summer is an ideal time to visit Nevada City. Rivers, lakes, and hiking trails provide for plenty of outdoor recreation. The Independence Trail, which is a six-mile drive along scenic Rte. 49 from downtown Nevada City, is one of the more popular due to its relatively easy, level grade. Founded by Naturalist John Olmsted, the trail skirts wooded hillsides, passes live streams, and crosses deep gorges on restored wooden flumes that once transported water for hydraulic mining. It was the first wheelchair accessible wilderness trail in the country.
If you continue driving about another mile from that trailhead, you’ll come to one of the parking areas for the South Yuba River State Park, which is comprised of several separate pieces of land around the river’s many bridge crossings. The one where we stopped has two impressive concrete spans – one old and one new – and in the summer, hordes of visitors come here to cool off in the waters below.
From the old bridge, you can also catch the Hoyt Trail for a scenic hike upriver above the South Yuba River. Along this mostly shaded trail, you’ll find numerous cut offs that lead to spectacular (and less crowded) swimming holes. About two miles in you’ll reach the historic Hoyt Crossing, where there’s also a nude beach (and yes, there were naked people!) Hoyt Crossing takes you to the other side of the river, connecting with the Independence Trail, so you can do one big circle back to the bridge.
Closer to downtown Nevada City is the Deer Creek Tribute Trail, which starts as an urban stroll through downtown Nevada City. This trail memorializes the early contributions of the native Nisenan and Chinese people to the area’s history. An impressive suspension bridge – Nisenan Tribute Bridge or “Anqkula Seo” – comes out of nowhere and spans a beautiful section of Deer Creek, connecting to the Environs Trail on the other side.
Where to Stay
Quaint bed and breakfasts dominate the lodging scene in Nevada City, and there are plenty from which to choose. We loved the Emma Nevada House for its homey comfort, delicious breakfast, and downtown location. Also downtown is the Deer Creek Inn, a Queen Anne Victorian mansion with beautiful grounds that back up to Deer Creek and the conveniently-located Madison House Bed & Breakfast, which dates back to the mid-1800s.
Where to Eat
Nevada City packs an impressive selection of eateries and drinking holes. For a hearty and healthy brunch or late afternoon bite, head to South Pine Cafe, which I can say from experience, has a delicious, thirst-quenching lemonade. With a sophisticated, big city atmosphere, New Moon Cafe serves trendier, locally-sourced cuisine on a lovely wrap-around porch, while popular Friar Tucks Restaurant and Bar evokes a friendly and rustic feel with live music to accompany its more traditional fare.
From San Francisco, it takes just under 2-1/2 hours (with no traffic) to get to Nevada City, and it’s about an hour from Sacramento. The most direct route is to take CA-49 North off I-80 East.