Gold Rushing in Columbia State Park

It’s a rite of passage for California fourth graders: drink Sarsaparilla, ride a stagecoach, pan for gold like a 49er, and dream of striking it rich in the Golden State.

By Darya Mead


While Aboriginal Australians take solo walkabouts in the bush, 4th graders in California head to the Gold Country to learn why their state is called the “Golden State.”

You can’t get through California’s history without building a mission out of sugar cubes and studying the Gold Rush, the 49ers, their lives in the Sierra foothills – and that means panning for gold!

During Covid, so many trips, events, and rituals have had to be canceled, but a trip to the Gold Country is still possible if you follow the social distancing, hygiene, and mask-wearing guidelines.

A few years ago, I was experiencing a bit of S-A-O, Seasonal-Autumnal-Overload. Something that almost sounds quaint after these years of lockdowns, chaos, and challenges. In “before times,” I had relented to a trip to a giant pumpkin patch, harvest day for my son’s school, Halloween preparations, and the omnipresent pumpkinification of October—from coffee flavoring, to muffins to candles… I was done.

So when we had a late fall, early winter getaway planned to the California Gold Country in the Sierra Foothills and I was looking for some fun things to do with the family that might diverge a bit from the frolicsome fall activities I had so deeply felt were a slog, and now miss. We have driven past Sonora on our way to the mountains, often heading that way in summer or winter. It was exciting to think about a weekend trip that didn’t involve preparing food, camping, or ski gear and with an open itinerary I could craft as we went along. (I also had a secret hope to see some changing leaves…)

I did some research and Columbia State Historic Park sounded like it could be educational but I was a bit concerned about the cheez/ kitch factor. With groans from the peanut gallery, we decided to give it a whirl on a perfect October day.


It was fantastic! My then ten and fourteen-year-olds had a blast and even my cynical husband was enchanted. The kids made candles, tried on hats and boots, bowled like pioneers, learned about blacksmithing and dental care in the 19th century, and walked up and down the streets once used as a stage set for Little House on the Prairie. The Living History park had a lovely mix of historic authenticity and modern appeal without the overly earnest reenactment feel.



Talented musicians were dotted around the park and some costumes were worn by merchants and actors. Kids can pan for gold and you can ride a stagecoach. My boys loved touring the old candy shoppe and each having a few bucks to spend. Sarsaparilla was the beverage of choice and after much prodding, I convinced my family to dress for a Western bandito, old-timey black-and-white photo; this was the highlight of the weekend!



Tips for Visiting Columbia State Historic Park

Called the “Gem of the Southern Mines,” Columbia delivered: More than $150 million in gold was taken from the area between its founding in 1850 and the early 1900s.  Nearby

The park, parking, and docent tours are free, many families bring picnics and treat themselves to ice cream, tea, and cakes, or candy. Click here for the latest information on visiting the area.

Businesses and park exhibits are open year-round, seven days a week. Columbia also hosts several living history demonstrations, school programs, and special events throughout the year.

Two authentically-restored 19th century hotels are right in town—the City Hotel and the Fallon Hotel. Click here for more info and reservations.  There are a few cottages in the park, as well.  Head to Sonora for larger motels and hotels.

Darya Mead 

ROAM Contributor   

Growing up in NYC and attending the UN International School gave Darya a head start as a global citizen. But her extensive travel and media experience now takes a back seat to raising two boys in San Francisco. Darya loves the outdoors, cooking, teaching yoga and the fact that her boys have taught her to be a sports fan. Follow her travels on Triporati.


 June 2021

© ROAM Family Travel 2021 – All rights reserved

ROAM with us! Read more REAL family adventures


Don’t miss a single trip! Enter your email address in the box below to subscribe to ROAM and receive notifications of new posts by email. Check your inbox for an email to confirm your subscription, click the link and you’re ready to ROAM!