California History

Road Trip – 2.0


One giant loop: From Gold Rush Country

to Sacramento to San Francisco

to Coastal Missions!


6 Day Itinerary:

• Day 1: Drive to Gold Rush Country, Jamestown, Railtown 1897

• Day 2: Columbia State Historic Park, Moaning Cavern, John Marshall Discovery Center

• Day 3: White Water River Rafting, Old Sacramento, Railroad Museum
• Day 4: Capitol Tour, Sutter's Fort, Drive to San Francisco
• Day 5: Chinatown, Early Immigrants in SF, Santa Clara Mission

• Day 6: La Purisima Mission, Drive Home 

My Favorite Literature Pick for California History:

There are lots of great books for California history.  You can read all my suggestions here.  But if I had to choose just one, it would be By The Great Horn Spoon by Sid Fleischman.


Journal Project:


For this trip we decided on a 3-ring binder type of journal.  We pre-printed journaling pages to take along.  We also took a 3-hole punch, double-sided tape, colored pencils and extra paper to put together a “scrapbook” of everything we did.  We collected lots of brochures, bought postcards and saved ticket stubs.  To make the journal extra fun for the boys we also had them bring along a Lego figure, gave him an old mining name like Buckshot Bill, took pictures with him in special places along the way, and wrote journal entries from his perspective.  For more ideas on perspective journals, click here.




Well… California History here we go… for the second time!  I’m calling this blog entry 2.0 because when Elijah was in 4th grade 2 years ago, we did something similar.  We enjoyed a week in Yosemite, Gold Country and Sacramento.  You can read about it here.  Then another week we traveled along the coast to visit five different missions.  That post is here
So now that Joseph is learning about California history, we decided to head out on another educational road trip with a few changes this time.   Instead of traveling as a family, we are traveling with another 4th grader and his mom, Zion and Karyn – close friends of ours.  Yep, that’s right.  Hubby and older brother will stay home for this one.  There are a couple of great advantages to doing it this way – our two 4th graders will make wonderful memories together and splitting the cost of gas and hotel rooms will be a big saver!

These two call each other 'first friends
These two call each other 'first friends" since they've been spending time together since they were newborns.


This trip will be a FIVE night road trip, each night staying in a different location.  The key to easy transitions is to pack lightly from the start.  Who wants to drag a bunch of stuff in and out of hotel rooms day after day?  Not me!  So do yourself a favor and pack as lightly as possible.

Day One – Jamestown/Railtown 1897 State Historic Park

We made our way to Jamestown, the gateway to Gold Rush Country.  Located just outside of Merced between Hwy 99 and the Sierra foothills, sits this charming town built up around the Gold Rush.  The little Main Street is full of character with antique stores, a couple of historic hotels, restaurants and even a wine tasting room.  Built in the 1850s for the booming Gold Rush, this town has stood the test of time.  Less than 1000 residents today, many are descendants of those gold seekers that came over 100 years ago.  We checked into the Jamestown Hotel and I highly recommend it!  Even though it is a historic hotel built in 1850, they have updated the bathrooms and each space is very clean, spacious and tastefully decorated.  We enjoyed the outdoor balcony that overlooked Main Street with its comfy furniture.  We also greatly appreciated the morning coffee bar located in a central location for all guests.


The Jamestown Hotel
The Jamestown Hotel

Railtown 1897 State Historic Park – Open 7 days a week, this is a fun spot to visit for anyone who loves trains, early California history or Hollywood movie history.  A number of movies and TV shows have been filmed here over the years including Back to the Future III.  You can take a self-guided tour with the help of a complimentary guide at the Railtown Depot Store, but I recommend a guided tour.  They are offered throughout the day, so inquire about the next available tour when you first arrive.  The guided tour will allow you to go into the round house and actually climb aboard some trains that you wouldn’t be able to do otherwise.  Admission is $5 for adults and $3 for children.  On the weekends, they offer train rides on old steam engine #3.



Where to Eat

We opted to eat at the restaurant located inside the Jamestown Hotel for convenience, but were happy with the choice.  The real standouts were the fresh salads with all homemade dressings, the polenta lasagna, and the freshly baked desserts.


Day Two – Columbia State Historic Park/Moaning Cavern/John Marshall Discovery Center


We headed to Columbia State Historic Park, located about 15 minutes away.  This authentic gold mining town feels more like a movie set than a real town.  But the pedestrian-only streets lined with saloons and old-fashioned candy shops are a fun place to feel like you are living in the old west.  Most of the stores and museums open at 10:00am, but it’s a good idea to check on the website for seasonal information.  Head straight for The Bank to purchase your stage coach tickets.  They run once or twice an hour based on the season and getting your tickets first will ensure your ride.  Then right across from The Bank is a little mining shop where you can pan for gold.   Buy your pan for $5 each and head outside for the wooden water troughs.  The boys enjoyed searching for gold and fit right in with the large group of local 4th graders on a field trip.  Since they weren’t having too much success, Karyn snuck back into the store, bought a small vile of gold flakes and when the boys weren’t looking, dropped them in the water right in front of them.  Eureka! They were delighted with their discovery!  



Then it was time for our stagecoach ride!  We boarded the old coach pulled by two sturdy horses.  Each of the guys working the coach were in full character and so fun!  We headed out of town and into a little back country area behind Columbia.  The scenery is beautiful and everyone was enjoying the ride when all of the sudden a gun-slinging bandit, with a bandana over his face, jumped out of the brush and stopped the stagecoach.  He demanded gold and even though he sounded and looked mean, there was a slight twinkle in his eye.  Of course our boys knew he was just part of the fun, but the four year old in our coach knew too. There were lots of giggles all around.  For our boys, the literature we read this year was again coming to life.  By the Great Horn Spoon by Sid Fleschman is a great historical fiction book about two gold seekers named Jack and Praiseworthy.  The boys remembered their stagecoach hold up and recounted the details as we finished our ride back into town.


Don’t miss the candy shop in Columbia.  Right next door, they have their candy kitchen where you can watch them make their confectioneries in the old style.  You’ll find fudge, divinity, caramels and fruit jellies.  A real treat!  There is also a nice little museum with a dress-up area in the back.  In all, we spent about 2 hours in Columbia.

Our next stop was Moaning Cavern Adventure Park.  Again the drive was about 15 minutes away.  Here there are a variety of things to do.  The main attraction is the guided cavern tour, but we warned, this is not for anyone who is afraid of heights or of being in enclosed spaces.  You also need to be able to walk down and back up hundreds of steps!  But if you can, you’ll be rewarded with a geological wonder, incredible sights and a very interesting history lesson.  Also at the adventure park, they have rappelling, a zip line, gem and fossil panning and a nice gift shop. 


From Moaning Cavern we drove up to Coloma to visit the John Marshall Discovery Center.  The drive is about 1 ½ hours.  This is the exact location along the American Fork River where John Marshall discovered gold in 1848.  He was sent there by John Sutter to set up a lumber mill in order to supply the nearby Sacramento Fort with lumber, but then gold was discovered by mistake.  Lumber was quickly forgotten and the rest is history.  We got there about 2 hours before they closed and this was a good amount of time to explore the area.   There is a small museum and a large expansive outdoor area.  If you park where the museum is, you can pay a small fee to leave your car there and that same fee covers your entrance into the museum.  The museum itself isn’t that great, but we did enjoy all the outdoor areas to explore.  Crossing the road, you can take a look at reconstructed lumber mills and the gold discovery monument.  There is a small village to explore with Chinese immigrant houses and stores, Indian houses, and mining tools and methods on display.  If you’re in the mood for a hike, head up behind the museum and carriage house to the little cabin John Marshall lived in and the tall monument dedicated to him.  It’s also possible to drive back there if you don’t want to hike.

Where to Sleep

Since Coloma doesn’t have much in the way of hotels, we chose to drive 15 minutes away to the town of Placerville (also known as Hangtown) where there were a number of choices.  We picked the Historic Carey House Hotel.  The jury is out on this one.  If you like historic hotels located right on Main Street then you just might like this one.  For me, it was a little too old and dusty and didn’t look like much had changed since the 1800’s.  An interesting detail about the Carey House Hotel is that they had many famous guests in their heyday including: Buffalo Bill, Mark Twain, Levi Strauss and Ulysses S. Grant.  

Where to Eat

Right on Main Street in the cute town of Placerville, across from the Historic Carey House Hotel, you’ll find The Farm Table, a culinary treat!  We started with the cheese plate served with homemade bread and a glass of a local El Dorado wine.  The boys were thrilled to have an old-fashioned root beer in a glass bottle.  Then for dinner we had the salmon filet over beluga lentils with asparagus and curried cauliflower cream sauce.  If you think that sounds amazing, well… it was!  They make their own cured meats, breads, pickled items, and more.  We took a box of cookies to go for our car ride the next day.

Day Three – River Rafting on the American Fork/Sacramento/Railroad Museum

We woke early, checked out of our hotel, grabbed a quick bite and coffee at Centro Coffee House, and then headed back to Coloma to meet our river rafting excursion at 8:30am.  I highly recommend American River Rafting.  I have rafted with them personally several times, have recommended them to friends and everyone has the same response – awesome!  They run a very professional operation, have outstanding staff and are very safety conscious.  I appreciate that.  We chose the half-day Chili Bar Run with class II and class III rapids.  It was very cold, but they supplied us with wetsuits and wind breakers.  Our river guide, Gordy, was everything we could have hoped for.  He was knowledgeable and experienced.  He gave us lots of interesting information about the history of the area, and he was really fun with the boys. 

We finished up about noon, changed into dry clothes and made the 45 minute drive into Sacramento (with our box of cookies from The Farm Table, oh joy!).  We were very glad when we arrived at the Embassy Suites to find our room was ready.  We were overdue for a hot shower and a change of clothes.  By 3:00pm, we were enjoying Old Sacramento and making our way to the California State Railroad Museum. 


Where to Stay

I love the Embassy Suites River Promenade when staying in Sacramento for a trip like this.  The location can’t be beat, right on the river and across the street from Old Sacramento.   Going the other direction, you’re only about ½ a mile from the Capitol, making it another walkable destination.  The free made-to-order breakfast and the two-room suite are added bonuses for families traveling with kids.  I find it annoying, however, that they charge for internet (the only hotel on the entire trip).  We didn’t care to pay their $12 fee and used our hot spots instead.


The handshake at the golden spike - connecting the Transcontinental Railroad
The handshake at the golden spike - connecting the Transcontinental Railroad

California State Railroad Museum – This is a fabulous museum and a must-see for anyone traveling to Sacramento with kids.  Admission costs are $10 for adults and $5 for children and they are open daily from 10:00am to 5:00pm. 


My favorite part was walking through the passenger cars from the 20s, 30s and 40s.  From sleeping cars to dining cars, it’s so fun to see a bygone era for travel.  But the real historic stand out is the “Golden Spike” along with a large photograph and painting to commemorate the event of when the Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869.  This is not the actual spike used but a “second” that was made at the same time and discovered later.  It is, however, equally valuable and the display case it’s located in is very interesting.  Each evening when the museum closes, the spike automatically goes down into a vault that keeps it locked up overnight.  Each morning it automatically comes back up into the glass display case.  A few years ago, there was an attempted burglary.  But the intruders didn’t plan out their heist very well.  When they broke into the museum in the middle of the night, they discovered the golden spike was not in the display case.  Oops!  In all, we spent about two hours touring the museum, watching the short film, and shopping in the gift shop. 

Where to Eat

It was now dinner time and we were ready to eat!  I have two suggestions for Old Sacramento, although there are lots of restaurants to choose from.  Ten22 has new American cuisine with an extensive wine and beer list.  The boys deemed their mac n cheese to be the best ever!  Plus, they gave the boys packages of Wikki Stix to play with.  Coloring can be so boring – but the boys had so much fun with their Wikki Stix creations, they didn’t even turn on their iPods during dinner.  If you’re in the mood for Mexican food instead, right across the street is La Terraza.


School House - Old Sacramento
School House - Old Sacramento


Don’t Miss


The Pony Express statue is fun to see after learning all about westward expansion and the early days of California. There are lots of shops to explore like The Candy Barrel and old-time photos.  The boys enjoyed shopping for magic tricks in variety stores and the Old School House was a fun visit too.

Day Four – California State Capitol/Sutter’s Fort/Drive to San Francisco/Pier 39 & Fisherman’s Wharf

We began our day with a hearty breakfast downstairs at the Embassy Suites.  Then we walked down Capitol Mall to the State Capitol, about ½ a mile away.  Free public tours are offered every hour on the hour.  When you arrive, check-in downstairs to the tour office to sign up for the next available tour.  We were on a tight schedule, so we arrived in time to take the first tour at 9:00am.  (Monday through Friday, the tours begin at 8:00am).  Check the website for more information on tour times, entrance locations and parking.  The tour lasted about one hour and was very interesting.  They are used to 4th grade visitors and our guide did a great job keeping the boys engaged and also providing lots of interesting “little known” details for the adults.  Before you leave the Capitol, be sure and explore the beautiful grounds outside.  There are several war memorials and a number of statues that commemorate important details of California history.  We enjoyed the Statue dedicated to Junipero Serra and the map of California showing all 21 missions.


California State Capitol
California State Capitol

From there we walked back to the Embassy Suites, checked out and drove the short distance to Sutter’s Fort, about 10 minutes away.   Admission prices for Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park are $5 for adults and $3 for kids.  They are open daily from 10:00am to 5:00pm. 


Honestly, there is not a lot to see here and one hour is plenty of time to explore the place.  The significance for us was the connection to Coloma and the John Marshall Discovery Center.  We did learn more about John Sutter here and decided that he wasn’t such a nice guy.  The other big stand out here is Patty Reed’s doll.  In case you’re not familiar with this, Patty Reed was a young girl and part of the infamous Donner party.  They traveled west by covered wagon in 1847.  They made a terrible decision to take a different route, got stuck in a blizzard and many lost their lives.  Patty Reed, along with others, survived.  She kept a journal of her experience and tells the whole story in Patty Reed’s Doll, through the perspective of her doll.  This is a great book for kids when learning about westward expansion.  Both our boys read the book this year, so seeing the actual doll in person was interesting.  But hey, they’re boys, so they weren’t overly thrilled.  I think they liked the cannons and gun room better.


We picked up some sandwiches to go from nearby Jacks Urban Eats and hit the road for San Francisco, about 45 minutes away.  We drove straight to our hotel in the Fisherman’s Wharf area.  We chose this location to stay because it was close to what the boys would enjoy most and would best fit the purpose of our trip: early California immigrants.  But I must say now that San Francisco is one of my favorite cities and a short 24 hour visit with one purpose in mind is almost painful!  My only consolation is that we’ve been here before and will be here again.  Sigh!

Where to Stay


For a fun-family friendly option with a great location on Fisherman’s Wharf, look no further than Hotel Zephyr.  This hip, fun and unique boutique hotel with a nautical theme will please everyone in your family.  The boys were thrilled with the large Connect 4 game out in the courtyard and all the other activities such as tubes to jump through, shuffle board and interesting recycled sculptures.  The room was quite small, but that’s typical for San Francisco.  Besides, you’re not here to hang out in your room, right?


PLaying on a giant Connect 4 at Hotel Zephyr
PLaying on a giant Connect 4 at Hotel Zephyr

Soon after we arrived, we headed out for fun at Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf.  Pier 39 was just plain fun… street performers, carousel, shops, puppets, sweet treats…  Then we walked over to Fisherman’s Wharf, where we ate our way through history. 


First stop was the Boudin Bakery.  This is a great spot for a yummy dinner, after all, who doesn’t love a bread bowl with clam chowder?  But this stop also provided the history lesson we were looking for.  Upstairs, there is a small, free museum showcasing the history of the Boudin family.  European immigrants, they had something to offer this fast growing city in the mid-1800s... BREAD!  


The next stop was Ghiradelli Square for dessert and of course another history lesson.  Yep, the Ghiradelli family, also European immigrants had another commodity we all need – CHOCOLATE!  There isn’t a museum, but a small area that shows the earliest machinery used and historic pictures throughout the parlor.  I highly recommend a hot fudge sundae!


From there we had had enough and were ready for bed.  It was hard to believe this was the same day we woke up in Sacramento and visited the Capitol!  Not wanting to walk the 20 minutes back to Hotel Zephyr, we called an Uber and called it a night!



Day Five – Chinatown/Levi Strauss Museum/Drive to Santa Clara/Drive to San Luis Obispo


Our day started with a cable car ride to Chinatown for breakfast!  Breakfast in Chinatown was a first experience for me, but won’t be the last.  I thoroughly enjoyed standing at a take-away window, pointing at the various yummies I was interested in and walking away with chopsticks and a smile.  Thank you Karyn for a great idea!  We also stopped by the Fortune Cookie Factory – just a little place where you can see an authentic fortune cookie machine at work and the hand-working of a little Chinese woman forming the cookies by hand while they are still hot.  Of course this is a tasty stop too.  Samples are free, but they like you to make a purchase.  Not a problem.


Fortune Cookie Factory
Fortune Cookie Factory

Shopping in Chinatown
Shopping in Chinatown

A stop at the Cable Car Museum is also worth the time.  Since we had all been there before, we decided not to.  Just a few blocks from Chinatown and right off the cable car line, they have a great historical museum.

From Chinatown we walked to the Levi Strauss Museum on Battery Street.  It was about 1 mile away and the walk was pleasant through the financial district.  The Levi Strauss Museum is housed in the Levi business complex that is a hub of young professionals.  The small museum and retail store are located on the ground floor.  On display are some of the early 501 jeans, an early factory machine, and a nice timeline display of Levi’s life.  Having just read Mr.Blue Jeans by Maryann N. Weidt, it was a meaningful visit for Joseph.  A quick 20-30 minute stop was all that was needed.  Plus there was a nice public restroom in the building, always a welcome site in a large city.


Levi Strauss Museum
Levi Strauss Museum

From there we walked back to Hotel Zephyr along the Embarcadero (about another mile) and checked-out.  Our trip was beginning to wind down, but first we would hit two California missions on the route home to Southern California.

Every fourth grader in California gets “assigned” a mission for a school project.  We planned to make a special visit to both of the boys’ missions as our final stops on this road trip.   California has 21 missions that were built and settled in the 1700’s by Spanish Padres.  The Padres wanted to “Christianize” the natives, but the Spanish also wanted to claim more land for themselves.  It was a time of European exploration and the California coastline got plenty of attention.  The missions follow the historic Highway 1 route and are roughly one day’s journey apart by horseback.  Over the years we have been able to visit a number of them and although they certainly have some things in common, each one is unique in its own way.  I was glad to be visiting two missions on this trip that I had never been to before. 


Santa Clara Mission was our first stop, located near San Jose, just one hour south of San Francisco.   This was Zion’s mission and he was excited to see the actual mission church that he and his dad had built earlier this year.  Today this mission church stands on the campus of Santa Clara University and is owned by the Catholic Church.  It is a beautiful building, well-maintained and used regularly.


Santa Clara Mission
Santa Clara Mission

After our visit, we drove another three hours south to San Luis Obispo.  This would be our stop for the night.  This college town has many wonderful things to see, a number of nice places to stay, and even a mission of its own… but this would be a quick stop, just a place to sleep and continue on the next day.

I hesitate whether to even mention it here because it has nothing to do with our educational road trip, but I might as well tell you about the fun we had at the Madonna Inn, our hotel of choice in SLO.  Where else can you…  eat cake for dinner (famous for their cakes), dine in an overly pink dining room (literally looks like a Pepto Bismol explosion), go swing dancing, swim in a heated pool until 11pm and sleep in a room called Jungle Rocks (complete with a rock waterfall shower)?  We had a BLAST for the 15 hours or so we were there!  Later when we were all saying our “favorites” from the trip, it’s no surprise that the Madonna Inn was the stand out for our boys.


Overnight at the Madonna Inn
Overnight at the Madonna Inn

Day Six – Bubblegum Alley/La Purisima Conception Mission/Drive Home

Before leaving San Luis Obispo, we had to hit Bubble Gum Alley in downtown.  This is certainly not an educational site, nor would it make anyone’s top list of things to do in SLO, but when you’re traveling with two 10 year olds and you can only spend about 15 minutes in town, this is it!  We bought our big pack of Hubba Bubba at nearby Rocket Fizz, chewed and chewed and stuck our mark on the wall. 


Bubble Gum Alley - yuck!
Bubble Gum Alley - yuck!

The drive to La Purisima Concepcion Mission was about 1 hour away near the city of Lompoc.   The most extensively restored mission in the state, La Purisima sits on over 2,000 acres.   It was founded on December 8, 1787 and was the eleventh mission built.  It is open every day of the year (except major holidays) from 9:00am - 5:00pm and there is a small parking fee but no admission price to tour the grounds.  A free guided tour is available every day at 1:00pm and meets at the Visitor’s Center.  Our docent, Barbara, was knowledgeable and fun.  She took us to a number of special places throughout the mission.  We even got to climb the bell tower and ring the bells.  This is the only mission in California that allows this.  Joseph built a big replica out of Legos for his project, so it was fun for him to tour the actual mission in person. 


La Purisima Mission
La Purisima Mission

Whew… with five nights away and six full days of tours, museums, and activities we were exhausted, but full of historical insight and memories.  We thoroughly enjoyed sharing this experience with friends.

If you’ve taken a historical road trip in California, I’d love to hear about it.  Please share your experience below in the comment section.


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Eileen Sanchez says... (Reply)
"Loved this! We did a similar trip 2 years ago and I'm now planning my 2.0 trip with 4th grader #2! Excited to stop at some of the sites you recommended and changing it up from last time!

The last trip we took, we bought San Francisco Go City Cards and found them to be an amazing value! We did the Monterey Aquarium, CA Museum for Arts and Sciences, The Exploratorium and Alcatraz in SF. It also included all public transportation so we were happy to ride the cable cars, trolleys and muni buses. It was such a thrill to use public transportation since we are SoCal-ers and rely on cars for everything! Also not to be missed was the free Cable Car Museum. It was so impressive to see it working underneath us in all its glory. We couldn't resist stopping on the SF bridge. Such a marvel.

After 3 days in SF we headed up to the Jelly Belly Factory for a factory tour and free samples. We then went on to stay at Angel's Camp. The Angels Camp Historical Museum is such a gem full of history. We ventured out to Ironstone Winery to see and learn about the largest piece of crystalline gold ever found. 44 lbs! We spent a day in Jamestown on a riverbank mining for gold and headed out to check out the railroad museum.

From there we hit Yosemite, rafting down the Merced River and hiking. It was an exhausting but fun road trip!

It was about 10 days in total so a bit longer than yours but also jam packed.

***Wow Eileen! That sounds like quite a trip. There is just so much to see in California and I love it all. Some of those things you mentioned we did the first time we did our California history tour when our older son was in 4th grade. But we’ve never been to the Jelly Belly Factory or rafted on the Merced River. Thanks for sharing. I love to hear about the travels of others!" (11/3/16)