Grass Valley and Nevada City, both in Nevada County of Northern California, are the heart of the historic California Gold Country. Both these cities offer quaint and extremely walkable downtown areas to explore and they’re only a five-minute drive away from each other while easily being a day trip or weekend getaway to major cities in the Greater San Francisco Bay Area.
According to the history section of the Greater Grass Valley visitors bureau, the town was created in 1851 from portions of Yuba County, Nevada County was named after the mining town of Nevada City, a name derived from the term “Sierra Nevada.” The word Nevada is Spanish for “snowy” or “snow-covered.”
So what’s with the use of “Nevada” so frequently? This IS California, after all…
Here’s some more history: Nevada City was the first to use the word “Nevada” in its name. In 1851, the newly formed Nevada County used the same name as the county seat. The bordering state of Nevada used the same name in 1861. The region came to life in the Gold Rush of 1849.
By 1851, thousands of people were living in the bustling town now known as Grass Valley and in the nearby town of Nevada, (later renamed Nevada City when Nevada became a state). Grass Valley suffered a disastrous fire in 1855, and Nevada City burned in 1863, but the towns quickly rebuilt and continued to grow.
Both Grass Valley and Nevada City are on the national register of historic places, and have multiple buildings on the national register — including the National Exchange Hotel in Nevada City and the Holbrooke Hotel in Grass Valley and are fantastic places to spend the night while you’re in town.
There are plenty of places to eat, drink, and lots of outdoorsy stuff to do, because both towns are located near the South Yuba River which is a fantastic place to hike. Here’s how to spend 48 hours in the region.
Grass Valley dates back to the late 1840s when a party of men searching for cattle supposedly stumbled upon this “grassy valley” (not very creative, but pretty descriptive!). But it officially rose to fame and grew in size when large amounts of gold were discovered in the local underground mines. In its more than 100 years of mining, the mines of Grass Valley made it the richest of all California gold mining towns.
In December 1848, when President James K. Polk announced gold had been discovered in California, prospectors flooded the area. In 1850, a settler named George McKnight discovered gold in the quartz rock along Gold Hill and the “rush” took off. After that, this little tiny town settlement began looking like a real village. And even today, you can feel the community that’s present in this area.
Morning: Breakfast or Lunch at Caroline’s Coffee Roasters
When you’re there, be sure to check out one of the multiple delightful coffee shops, like Caroline’s Coffee Roasters which has been brewing coffee since the 1980s. Here, you’ll encounter delicious fresh roasted coffee as well as a diverse selection of bagged and whole leaf teas from all over the world, and bites to eat.
The interior feels welcoming and cozy, like you’re spending time in a best friend’s living room. There are outlets and WiFi if you’d like to work, or you can have a chat with friends or read a book.
Afternoon: Explore the Downtown Area and Visit Booktown Books
After fueling up for the day, stop into my new favorite bookstore, a co-op bookstore which features more books than I’ve ever seen in one place in my life called Booktown Books.
Booktown is located in a historic building that was originally a Salvation Army office and store, and later became a drug store with an old-fashioned soda fountain before finally turning into the Booktown cooperative.
The cooperative consists of 14 independent booksellers and offers 4,000 square feet of used books, rare books, DVDs, CDs, art and more. Each Bookseller has their own booth in the store that displays their special genres of books which is really cool, because it feels like 14 book stores under the same roof — in fact, each book is coded and individually priced by its bookseller.
Dinner: The Golden Gate Saloon at the Holbrooke Hotel
Before the Holbrooke Hotel existed the Golden Gate Saloon stood in its place as a landmark in town. After Grass Valley was destroyed by the fire in 1855, the owners adapted and sold whiskey and beer to people from a tent among the rubble the day after.
Today, the saloon sits in the interior of the hotel with a full bar and a dining room with an outdoor patio that overlooks the bustling main street of Grass Valley. The menu is updated seasonally, and features the fresh flavors of California with a hint of Mexican influence. The best part of eating here is the restaurant uses the plentiful selection of produce and products of the local and organic farms.
Spend the Night at Holbrooke Hotel
This historic building dates back to 1879 when it was purchased by Ellen and Daniel Holbrooke and was given its current name. Daniel Holbrooke passed away in 1884, but Ellen continued to manage and operate the hotel until 1908.
It has seen gambling, gunfights, love, hate, fortunes made and literal gold lost. The building is haunted by rough cowboys and Victorian Madames (it’s true, I totally felt the presence of spirits while I was there) and legend tells us even Prohibition didn’t stop the whiskey from being served in the Saloon…
Over the years, the Holbrooke has hosted numerous well-known guests from presidents to writers and artists whose names are historic. When the original building was the Golden Gate Saloon, constructed in 1852 by Stephen and Clara Smith, some of the first to invest in the boomtown known today as Grass Valley. It has caught fire twice, burning down completely once, but quickly recovering and always standing as a central meeting place of locals and out-of-towners alike.
The property has since been revitalized, but still celebrates its original compelling past and offers its timeless charm. Visitors will encounter an interior that incorporates elements of both classic and modern design, mixing vintage furniture and fixtures with modern amenities. One of my favorite touches is how you can see the building’s original brick — but it is painted white, which feels bright and clean.
Morning: Breakfast at Heartwood
Heartwood just opened a few years ago, and prides itself on hosting a menu with a focus on local, seasonal, nourishing, farm-to-fork foods. Here, the menu offers a healthy selection of salads, grain bowls, hearty toasts, curated espresso drinks, teas, and fun seasonal beverages. The menu will even change seasonally based on what’s available from the local ranchers and farmers.
Late Morning: Explore the Downtown Area
First, check out Nevada Theatre in Nevada City which is the oldest theater built in California in 1865. It still operates to this day and once hosted Mark Twain, among numerous other historical figures.
Then, be sure to check out the Old 5 Mile House stagecoach stop which was first built in 1890, and operates to this day as a provider of hospitality spanning three centuries.
Late Afternoon: Lunch or Happy Hour at Three Forks Bakery & Brewing Co.
Three Forks Bakery & Brewing Co which is a brewery, a bakery and restaurant with legendary wood-fired pizzas and craft beer brewed in the on-site 7 barrel brewhouse. This club has everything from pizzas and sandos to pastries, cakes, pies, cookies, pizza sauce, jam, mustard and much more — usually made right on-site. Check out what’s currently on tap here (the Porter and Imperial Stout were calling my name!) and the menu here.
Something to note about this business is that they strive to be as close to zero waste as possible. Coffee grounds, food waste and spent beer grain are all used by local farmers to feed their animals which is pretty neat. It all plays back into the strong feeling of community these towns give off.
Afternoon Walk At Deer Creek Tribute Trail
This 3.1 out and back trail features a gorgeous river with a fun suspension bridge to walk across to feel as if you’re a real life Indiana Jones.
It’s an easy trail with relatively little elevation gain and loss, perfect for a leisurely afternoon stroll with family, a friend, or a significant other.
Dinner: Lola at The National Exchange Hotel
After working up an appetite at Deer Creek, dine at The National Exchange’s on-site restaurant, Lola, which was named after and inspired by Lola Montez. The atmosphere at Lola is fun and high-spirited, serving modern food fare inspired by the flavors of the wild west with a twist of European finesse. Everything is locally sourced, sustainable, seasonally inspired and beautifully plated. And the cocktails are especially fun, too…
Dessert: Choquiero Chocolate
After dinner, grab a dessert at Choquiero Chocolate, a local shop dedicated to selling chocolate made with organic, fair trade and vegan ingredients. The chocolates are sweetened with unrefined low-glycemic coconut sugar, and they don’t use any preservatives or emulsifiers such as lecithin.
I had the best hot cacao of my life here (different from hot cocoa because it was made with straight cacao — but it was really rich and flavorful and not at all too sweet) and I loved that it was made with non-dairy milk because my stomach and dairy do not agree. But something my stomach does agree with? Chocolate…
Evening: Spend the Night at the National Exchange Hotel
The National Exchange Hotel is listed the National Register of Historic Places and is a State of California Historical Landmark (#899!). It’s one of the oldest continuously operated hotels west of the Rockies, having first opened in August 1856 under the name of “Bicknell Block”
Today, the property has a new outlook inside and out after undergoing an extensive, three-year, floor-to-rafters renovation. When we checked in, the woman at the front desk described its decor as if you were heading to hang out at “a funky favorite aunt’s apartment” which I thought was funny, and accurate.
Visitors can explore the interior which is full of playful patterns, opulent furnishings, rich colors, and lovingly restored vintage features. There are literal whispers of the past to be experienced in its walls — I’m pretty sure we encountered a friendly ghost or two here, too! It’s a fun place to spend a night and it’s in a great location on the start of Main Street in Nevada City, right off the highway. It’s perfectly walkable for exploring the town’s sights but also conveniently reachable from the main roadway.
A Successful Weekend of Exploring
A trip to both of these towns can be easily combined for a full weekend of adventure and a quick 48 hour getaway in Northern California. Is there anything I missed that you recommend visitors do in either city? Let me know!
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