Gold Country Road Trip Redux: Sonora and Columbia
Last summer we undertook a road trip to the Gold Country. About a three-hour drive from the San Francisco Bay Area, it's a fun long weekend or day trip that's steeped in California and American histroy. We had such a good time that when it came time to decide upon a road trip destination this year, we unanimously to head up there again. Like last time (which we wrote about here and here), our home base was the Gunn House Hotel in downtown Sonora, from where we explored the surrounding area, including Columbia State Historic Park. This time we made sure we went up in time to check out the annual Columbia Diggins 1852, a Gold Rush reenactment event held each year the weekend after Labor Day.
As always, Sonora's Gunn House was a fantastic experience. Not quite a motel and not quite a B&B and housed in Sonora's oldest building (ca. 1850), the Gunn House is ideal for families with children. We enjoyed the pool (a necessity up in the Sierra Foothills during the summer) as well as the wonderful breakfast they serve every morning. We also found a new place to eat in downtown Sonora—the Sonora Pub and Wood Fired Oven. Just a short walk up the street from the Gunn House, it's a small restaurant dominated by a huge wood-burning pizza oven, which churns out tasty pies in a matter of seconds, due to its 1000ºF temperature. Everyone loved the crisp-crusted pizzas; we ordered a traditional margherita and one with pancetta and spinach. Grown ups will like the selection of beers on tap from the Growler craft brewery in nearby Murphys.
We spent most of our time at Columbia State Historic Park, one of our favorite Gold Country destinations. This time our visit was made even more special by the presence of the Columbia Diggins, the yearly recreation of the tent town from Columbia's 1850s mining camp heyday. We weren't sure quite what to expect from this, but I was really quite impressed. The recreated tent town was historically accurate and extremely authentic. Passing through the entry was indeed like stepping back in time. In fact, you had to exchange your 21st-century money for brass "eagle" coins if you wanted to purchase anything in the town. The town was populated by docents in period dress going about their day-to-day lives in the 1850s. You could buy food, gamble, watch a musical performance, bowl, help mine for gold, and more. It's one of the few things here that you have to pay admission for ($4 adults, $1 children), but it's well worth it.
Of course there's plenty to see in the town of Columbia, too, including a museum (with fun 19th-century clothes for kids to try on), saloons (all family friendly), and various historical attractions. You can ride a stage coach, pan for gold, get an ice cream cone, shop, and explore. Don't miss the 1860 school house on a hill behind the town, as well as the adjacent Columbia Cemetery with graves dating back to the early 1850s.
All in all, the Sonora/Columbia area is one of our favorite places to visit. To get there, take 101 to 580 in San Rafael and cross the Richmond Bridge. Follow 580 through the East Bay and over the Altamont Pass, then hook up with I-5 North and Highway 120 outside of Tracy. Take Highway 120/108 through Oakdale to Highway 49 and Jamestown and Sonora. Expect the drive to take three hours or so, longer if you stop for a meal and at one of the numerous fruit stands you'll find on the way. They're convenient for bathroom breaks and also picking up some healthy snacks to munch on during the drive.
The Gunn House is located at 286 South Washington Street in Sonora. For reservations and information visit them at www.gunnhousehotel.com or call (209) 532-3421. Sonora Pub and Wood Fired Oven is at 177 South Washington; call them at (209) 532-1670.