Yosemite & Gold Rush Country


Follow along on this six day road trip through California's beautiful Yosemite Valley and points-of-interest in gold country. Included at the end are our top picks for children's literature to help your journey come alive!




Points of Interest:

  • Yosemite!
  • River rafting on the American Fort
  • Discovering our own gold at the John Marshall Discovery Center
  • Sacramento: Sutter's Fort & the California State Railroad Museum

My Favorite Literature Pick for Gold Rush:

By the Great Horn Spoon by Sid Fleischman

Journal Idea:  Since a trip like this has so many special locations to visit, I recommend a Postcard Journal.  Collect postcards along the way, use the back to include special facts and memories.  Then collate them all into a journal.



Day One - We live in Southern California, so a drive to Yosemite is about 7 hours.  The closest large airports would be Sacramento or Reno.  Staying in the valley, whether camping or splurging on one of the beautiful historic inns requires a reservation well in advance of your trip, which we did not do.  So we opted for a small town called Fish Camp just outside of Yosemite and stayed at a family-friendly, very Disney-esque place called Tenaya Lodge -  We loved it.  The craftsman style lodge almost felt like a destination in itself with heated indoor pool, live music in the grand foyer, and even an arcade.  But let's not forget, we were here to see Yosemite!


Day Two & Three - These were our days to enjoy Yosemite and everything we could cram into 48 hours.  Even though Fish Camp is just outside one of the Yosemite's entrances, we were still about an hour away from the valley floor. This is a big place and we didn't realize we'd be spending so much time in the car.  I didn't want our boys to have their faces glued to iPads when there were so many wonderful things to see along the way, so we opted for audio books instead.  We got through a couple on this week long car trip. 


Side note:  I highly recommend Audible.  I originally signed up on a free trial, and wasn't sure if I'd think the price was worth it once the free trial expired.  But we've used it so much, I think we have and continue to get our money's worth.


There are actually four entrances into Yosemite.  Two from the West, one from the South and one from the East.  Fish Camp is just outside the South entrance.  This is Hwy 41 and took us by the Mariposa Grove and historic Wawona Hotel. Entering Yosemite from this direction provided us with a jaw-dropping lookout point too.  After exiting the long tunnel through the mountainside, we came to a spectacular view of El Capitan and Half Dome rising above the valley floor. 



We spent two wonderful days doing short hikes at Yosemite Falls and Vernal Falls, exploring the valley floor and Tuolumne Meadows, and eating ice cream at the general store at Curry Village.  Bike rentals are also available throughout the valley floor in various locations.  That makes a fun way to get around too.  That night we drove out of Yosemite and to Groveland where we stayed the night at The Groveland Hotel.  We didn't care for it and would not recommend it... cobwebs, bad food, dust galore, etc.


Day Four - We woke up, had breakfast at the Groveland Hotel, then headed out to Columbia State Historic Park, about 40 minutes away.  I love this State Historic Park.  We enjoyed panning for gold, choosing confections at the old-fashioned candy shop, visiting the old post office, school house and jail, but the real highlight was the stagecoach ride.  The boys didn't know our stage coach would be held up by horse-riding bandits.  And the funny thing is they had both just bought "gold" souvenirs in town and so when the very realistic and gruff robbers demanded gold while waving their pistols, I thought my two guys were going to fall to pieces.  We felt like we were right out of the pages of By the Great Horn Spoon



From there we made the short 15 minute drive to Moaning Cavern Adventure Park.  There is lots to do here: The walking cavern tour takes you down to the largest vertical (public) cavern in California.  It takes about 45 minutes.  And you truly have to put your "afraid-of-heights" issues behind you.  You can also rappel down if you find the stairs not adventurous enough.  They also have a zip line tour outside the cavern and panning for gold/rocks. 


From there we drove to the small and picturesque town of Murphys, a short 10 minute drive.  We enjoyed a delicious ice cream cone at The Peppermint Stick on Main Street (oh my - it's becoming obvious that we have an ice cream addiction).  We also stopped by the Ironstone Vineyards.  They have a nice museum paying tribute to the Gold Rush.  The focal point of Ironstone's Heritage Museum is the largest Crystalline Gold Leaf specimen in the world. Weighing forty-four pounds, this specimen of gold was discovered in 1992 by the Sonora Mining Company, on Christmas Day, just fifteen miles from its current home at Ironstone. And of course they have fabulous wine and a beautiful tasting room.  I would not recommend going out of your way to visit this museum, but if you're in the area and you like wine, stop in for a visit!  And if that wasn't enough for one day, we were able to squeeze in one more thing:  The Calaveras Big Trees State Park -  



It is a 20 minute drive from Murphys.  We loved this place... BIG, BIG trees, walking paths through nature, trees you can walk through, fabulous nature center, etc.  It's a mixed conifer forest of Sequoias, pines and firs.  We were exhausted after a very full day and headed to the Days Inn in Sutter's Creek.  We had just enough energy to grab a pizza dinner at Pizza Plus (perfect outdoor spot along a river) and then hit the hay - tomorrow would not be any less busy!


Day Five - We woke up, grabbed a quick breakfast (Days Inn style) and hit the road.  Our next stop was Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park - about 50 minutes north.  This is also known as Sutter's Mill.  And a little side note here... it can get pretty confusing.  There's Sutter's Creek, where we slept at the Days Inn, there is Sutter's Mill where gold was first discovered, and there's Sutter's Fort, located in Sacramento.  And each one of these locations is about 45 minutes from the next. 


We visited the Historic Park with a little museum and movie.  I have to say I was not impressed.  For being the very location where the gold rush was sparked, I expected something more. The museum was very small and the movie was not done well.  Our favorite spot in visiting this area was actually on the river. 


I found gold!
I found gold!


My boys spent hours in the river, with their pants rolled up to their knees, searching for gold.  And they actually found some.  Small little specs, that when all weighed together wouldn't amount to much value, but it was a priceless experience none-the-less.  Perhaps the highlight of the whole trip.  From there we met up with American River Recreation - for their "Half Day Gorge Run" on the American Fork. 


My husband and I have only done a little bit of river rafting and this was a first time experience for our boys.  This was a class III adventure and all I can say is WOW!  It was so fun and so scary all at the same time.  The company was highly professional and I would recommend them.  This particular trip has an age 7 minimum, but they have many other excursions to choose from. Tired, wet and hungry... we drove into Sacramento in the late afternoon and checked into the Embassy Suites - Riverfront Promenade.  After hot showers and a snack we walked over to Old Town Sacramento, just a block away and found a perfect farm-to-table restaurant (Ten22) to relax and recount our adventurous-filled day. 


Day Six - The Embassy Suites was perfect for a number of reasons, location being one!  Not only could we walk to Old Town, we could also walk to the Capitol building.  Another great reason, is the made-to-order breakfast.  Right after breakfast we set out for the Capitol.  There is much to see there and fabulous tours going on throughout the day.  We spent about 3 hours in all, including the grounds.  Then we went back to Old Town.  Highlights included the California State Railroad Museum (they even have one of the original golden spikes from the joining of the two railroads) and the Pony Express Monument. 

Patty Reed's Doll at Sutter's Fort

Then we went over to Sutter's Fort and spent about an hour there before hitting the road and beginning the LONG drive home.  Sutter's Fort, like a few other stops along our route was somewhat unimpressive.  But seeing Patty Reed's Doll was not to be missed and see her we did!  We also enjoyed seeing authentic Blue Willow china from the Dust Bowl era.  Once again, our literature made everything come alive!


My Favorite Literature Picks for California/Gold Rush History:


Patty Reed's Doll: The Story of the Donner Party
by Ms. Rachel K. Laurgaard and Ms. Elizabeth Sykes Michaels


By the Great Horn Spoon
by Sid Fleischman

Blue Willow

by Doris Gates


John Muir: My Life With Nature
by John Muir and Joseph Cornell


The Camping Trip that Changed America
by Barb Rosenstock

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