Only two and a half hours away from San Francisco or Sacramento, the Gold Rush city of Columbia still lives frozen in time like it's the 1850s—cowboy hats, saloons, gold panning, and stage coaches included. Located in the Sierra foothills between Sonora and Angels Camp, Columbia is one of the rare Gold Rush towns where a thriving restored historic downtown—with shops, restaurants, and museums—oozes an authentic feel. Preserved as a California State Historic Park, it is open every day of the year except Christmas and Thanksgiving, is run like a real town, and has been featured in many recognizable movies. With so many indoor and outdoor activities, Columbia is an ideal place for families.
Entering Columbia on Main Street from the visitor parking lot, you arrive next to the Fallon Theatre on Washington Street where you can catch some great theatre by the Sierra Repertory Theatre. Right across from the theater is the Columbia Gazette Newspaper Office where children can learn to write their name on a galley with the type backwards and upside down. Keep walking up Washington Street as it becomes Main Street. A small courtyard on the right hosts a candle-dipping shop where children get to pick a white candle and dip it in several buckets of hot wax for a colorful outcome. The Columbia Museum occupies the next corner and offers the kids a chance to learn how to build a brick wall with foam bricks or play dress-up in the back room.
If it's sunny, head to Brown's Coffee House & Sweets Saloon for a cold sarsaparilla and an ice cream. Just looking at the Gold Rush-inspired candy and old-fashioned teas is worth a trip inside. Next to the bowling alley, the Butcher Shop is a must-see if your kids like curiosities. Ask to see the solid tea bar, it's quite a work of art.
Now stop at the chicken coop and the California Store (get your kids to feel the straw filling of the mattress in the back) and head to the old schoolhouse. It is up Pacific Street, three blocks from the chicken coop and totally worth the final climb. Perched on top of a grassy hill, this is your typical Old West schoolhouse with lots of room to run around. And for ghost seekers, the graveyard and its pioneer tombstones is right over the fence. You can come back for Halloween and learn all about the local haunts.
Don't leave without letting the kids loose on the rock boulders behind the Hidden Treasure Gold Mine tours and planning store adjacent to the parking lot. They look like a sculpture garden but the limestone formations are in fact man-made. Where you are standing used to be eight feet below ground level and has been blasted off through hydraulic mining. The kids don't really care about the why but they certainly view the area as a giant natural playground, climbing up and down and crawling through rock tunnels around the miners' cabin.
Make a night of it and stay in nearby Sonora, Jamestown, or Angels Camp where lodging includes motels and historic hotels, or get rustic in an RV park or campground. From March until Labor Day, this part of the Gold County becomes a prime tourist hot spot because of the rich history and warm climate, and consequently, the area's many rivers with swimming holes for cooling off. The real hit for many is the Bowling Saloon Exhibit—bowling was so popular with miners that it was never vacant for more than ten minutes on Sundays. It seems this still holds true today—just line up outside, get a wooden ball, and see how many strikes you can score. Knocking down all wooden pins with the wooden ball may be more challenging than your local bowling alley, a great challenge for the kids.
Laure Latham lives in California and is the author of Frog Mom, a family travel blog with an outdoor and cultural angle. She is writing the upcoming book Best Hikes for Kids in the San Francisco Bay Area. For more information, contact Laure at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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