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COLOMA — If you’re looking for a place to stretch your legs midway through a trek to Tahoe, perhaps, or en route to Camino’s apple orchards, this is the place. Coloma’s Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, on Highway 49 near Placerville, offers a Gold Rush immersion, complete with gold pans and blacksmiths. It’s like time traveling back to the era of the argonauts.
Park your 21st-century buggy at one of the lots along Back Street and Highway 49, and head straight for the blacksmith shop. Dressed in traditional garb, the smiths on duty demonstrate their endangered pastime and dole out a few free gifts — a pot hook and horse nail ring on the day we visited — to patrons. Kids will enjoy learning how blacksmiths bend and treat iron, and exploring the array of expertly crafted goods, including iron snails and dragonflies.
All the experiences here are free, save for the $8 per car day-use fee, although donations are accepted. And that day-use permit can be re-used at as many California State Parks as you can manage in a single day.
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The rest of Back Street and this stretch of Highway 49 give a nod to the past, with buildings reminiscent of the era when Sutter’s Sawmill first become famous. In 1848, when James Marshall first spotted gold in the sawmill tailrace — the water channel that powered the waterwheel — an entire nation went gold crazy.
You’ll find a monument to Marshall at the top of the hill here, with a road for visitors to drive up, and Gold Rush-era buildings along Back Street and Highway 49. Each of those buildings served a different purpose, and plaques outside share details of how each exhibit fits into Coloma’s golden past. On Living History Days, you can even step inside some of them.
But the doors to The Argonaut stand wide open every day. This organic, healthy-options cafe is two doors down from the blacksmith shop, offering gourmet coffees, gelato, breakfast and lunch. And on summery Friday and Saturday evenings, the Argonaut serves farm-to-fork dinners under the stars, no reservations required.
Stroll down a bit further and you’ll spot the re-constructed Sutter mill, standing much as it did 170 years ago when gold was discovered on the South Fork of the American River. Miner’s cabins offer a glimpse of how people lived, and there are designated sections of the river where intrepid modern-day argonauts can pan for gold today.
Across the street, you’ll find the Gold Discovery Museum and visitors center, a walk-through exhibit that explores Coloma’s history and the Gold Rush — and shows you how many gold bars it takes to make $1 million. Gold panning sessions are offered several times a day, as well as guided walking tours, for a small fee. Check the schedule before you go; tours tend to be offered early and not often.
Finish your adventure outdoors, where picnic benches offer pleasant places to perch. If you’re planning ahead, pack a lunch and enjoy it on the covered patio, before letting the kids loose to run and climb in the open space. If you’re really looking to stretch those legs, take the trail behind the museum up into the hills. And if you didn’t plan ahead, circle back to The Argonaut to grab salads and veggie-rich sandwiches.
If You Go
Marshall Gold Discovery State Park: This State Historic Park is open daily from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. through Labor Day weekend, until 6 p.m. through Halloween and 5 p.m. in the late fall and winter. Day-use passes are $8 ($7 for seniors) per car. Living history days are held on the second Saturday of each month, and Coloma Gold Rush Live will be Oct. 13-14. The park is located along Highway 49, Coloma Road at Bridge Street, Coloma. Find more information at www.parks.ca.gov/marshallgold.
The Argonaut Cafe: Open for breakfast and lunch from 8 am. to 4 p.m. daily, and dinner from 5:30 to 9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. 331 Highway 49, Coloma; www.argonautcafe.com
Find more Amador and El Dorado travel adventures here.