If you’re traveling in Gold Country with family this summer, put Columbia State Historic Park on your “must visit” list. It’s a place where lasting memories are made. On weekends, you’ll encounter rumbling (and dog-friendly) stagecoaches, itinerant musicians, bonneted ladies in sweeping skirts, and swaggering, black-hatted characters who could go mano a mano with John Wayne. For city kids, this “Gold Rush town that never died” can be as much fun as Disneyland (well, almost).
Columbia is unique among California state parks in that it is an inhabited community. All businesses within the pedestrian-only historic district are themed to the Gold Rush, with merchants in 19th-century garb selling everything from hand-dipped chocolates and hand-crafted soaps to triangle dinner bells forged at a working blacksmith shop. Your kids can dip candles, pan for gold or sample sarsaparilla, and the whole gang (including the four-legger, of course) can dress up in 19th-century garb to have an old-timey family portrait made.
Free, pet-friendly walking tours depart the park museum at 11 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays, offering an engaging way to learn about Columbia's colorful history. The most lively time to visit is during Gold Rush Days on the second Saturday of each month, when volunteers in period dress staff special exhibits, stores and residences not regularly open to the public.
Pair your visit to Columbia with a few hours at Railtown 1897 State Historic Park in nearby Jamestown, where you’ll hear that lonely whistle blow just like it has in movies and television shows including “The Virginian,” “Little House on the Prairie” and “Back to the Future Part III.” This engaging park, a branch of the California State Railroad Museum, is a treasure trove of all things train-related. Docent-led tours explore historic buildings and shops, or you can wander on your own. Exhibits include monitors showing clips from the many Hollywood productions in which Sierra No. 3, the park’s star attraction and most widely seen steam locomotive in the world, has appeared.
Four-legged passengers are welcome to ride in open observation cars pulled by Sierra No. 3 and other vintage locomotives. Six-mile, 40-minute excursions operate weekends and holidays April through October. Don’t forget to BYO pickup bags!