Outdoors in California’s Gold Country

Photo by Eugene Kim

Swimming holes, cave spelunking and more fun in the Sierra Nevada foothills

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You don’t have to be as adventurous as one of the original ’49er immigrants who came seeking gold in California just to have fun outside in Gold Country, but it helps to have a pioneering spirit. Gold County ranks among the most uncrowded places to visit in the Golden State, which is good news for outdoorsy types who like having hiking and mountain biking trails, campsites, and even ski runs all to themselves. Alternatively, join up with a group to paddle whitewater rapids in an inflatable raft or to strap on a hard hat and navigate creepy, cool underground caves.

When to Go to Gold Country

In spring, when snow from high in the Sierra Nevada melts, the rivers rushing through Gold Country are thunderous. The most popular spot for rafting tours and expeditions is on the American River. The class II and III rapids of the river’s South Fork, which runs through Coloma on Highway 49, are best for beginners and families. More experienced rafters seeking bigger thrills should book an overnight trip on the Middle or North Forks, which boast class III and IV whitewater. On the American River, the rafting season usually runs from April to September (spring and early summer only on the North Fork). Book rafting tours as far in advance as possible and expect to pay around $100 to $150 per person, per day. Reliable outfitters with decades of experience leading river-rafting tours locally include All-Outdoors California Rafting and O.A.R.S.

Summer is the most popular time to visit Gold Country, but it’s also the hottest season. Don’t worry, though: the Sierra Nevada foothills abound with hidden swimming holes. Wherever you see a bunch of cars pulled off alongside Highway 49, chances are there’s a refreshing swimming hole to splash around in nearby. Some of the most deliciously cool swimming holes are on the American River at Auburn State Recreation Area, just outside the town of Auburn on Highway 49, and at South Yuba River State Park, a quick detour from Grass Valley or Nevada City, both in the Northern Gold Country.

Another great way to cool off in summer is to take an underground cave tour. Eerie-looking stalactites, stalagmites, and curving flowstones and helictites will fascinate children and adults alike. Most of the caves that are open for public tours in the Gold Country have different options, from easy walks for families to scrambles pitched for teens and adults. Opening hours vary seasonally, so call ahead or check online before making the drive. Most caves are a detour off Highway 49, including Black Chasm Cavern, a national natural landmark; Moaning Cavern, which has zip-lines; and California Cavern, where you can sign up for a guided spelunking tour of wild caves. All of these caves are in the Southern Gold Country.

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From spring through fall, you can hit the Gold Country’s many hiking and mountain biking trails. Some of the best hikes await in state parks, found on and off Highway 49. Calaveras Big Trees State Park is quite a detour from Angels Camp along Highway 4, but it’s well worth the drive for the chance to traipse among giant sequoia trees and to bed down overnight in rustic forest cabins.

Also in the Southern Gold Country, Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park offers an educational introduction to Native American culture, with a museum, short nature trails, and a peaceful campground, all near the tiny town of Volcano. In the Northern Gold Country, Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park and Empire Mine State Historic Park offer longer hiking trails leading around some of the Gold Country’s most significant historical sites. For mountain biking madness, nowhere beats Downieville, home of the single-track Downieville Downhill and the annual Downieville Classic race and mountain-biking festival every August.

Even in winter, you won’t be without options for having outdoor fun in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Fifty miles east of Angels Camp via Highway 4. Bear Valley is the Gold Country’s favorite family ski resort. With nine chair lifts, 75 different runs, and a mix of beginner, intermediate, and advanced terrain, there’s something for everyone. In summer, mountain bikers ride these ski slopes, while rock climbers take to nearby crags.

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