Shops and eateries along Broad Street in Nevada City, California, featuring rainbow flags during Pride Month. Editorial credit: Chris Allan /

6 Must-See Historic Towns in California's Sierra Nevada

The Sierra Nevada Mountains are among the most important geological features of the Western United States and stretch for 400 miles between the Central Valley of California and the Great Basin Desert in Nevada. Given its immense size, there is little wonder this beautiful region is home to countless important landmarks, including the world's largest tree (General Sherman), North America’s largest alpine lake (Lake Tahoe), and the country’s highest mountain peak (Mount Whitney).

For adventurous travelers, there is also no end of great little towns from which to explore these and so many other points of interest in California. Find out more about these and other great places to visit in six must-see historic towns in California's Sierra Nevada.

Nevada City

Nevada City, California: A Gold Rush era town in Northern California. Broad St. City Hall features an Art Deco facade attributed to Works Progress Administration projects.

Nevada City, California: A Gold Rush-era town in Northern California. Editorial credit: EWY Media /

Nevada City’s location, an hour’s drive northeast of the state capital of Sacramento, has made it a popular day trip and weekend getaway destination. Established in 1849 on Deer Creek, it swiftly rose in importance as a major player in the Gold Rush, and a visit today is about as close as it gets to stepping back in time to this significant era in US history. Remnants from the past are plentiful in the 16-acre Nevada City Downtown Historic District and include the Nevada Theatre, built in 1865 and California's oldest existing theater (it still hosts performances), and Firehouse No. 1 Museum, housed in the original “firehouse” from 1861.

Prefer outdoor fun? Nevada City serves as a gateway to nearby South Yuba River State Park with its river canyons, hiking trails, and opportunities for swimming and gold panning. The park's historic Bridgeport Covered Bridge is a photographic icon and spans the Yuba River, making for a great selfie spot.

Grass Valley

Grass Valley, California, USA: Main Street featuring a clock tower, Clock Tower Records, Sierra Star Winery, and Pete's Pizza.
Grass Valley, California, Main Street. Editorial credit: EWY Media /

Grass Valley is another once-important gold rush town that’s worth visiting. Just a short and scenic drive off the I-80 that connects Sacramento with Reno, Nevada, it was established in 1860, and much of the original historic downtown has been carefully preserved. The most interesting attractions here are deeply connected to the town’s mining past, the most interesting being the Empire Mine State Historic Park. One of the oldest, largest, and richest gold mines in California, the park offers tours not just of the mine and its underground shafts but also of the owner’s impressive Empire Cottage, which is built entirely of waste rock from the mine.

Another popular attraction in Grass Valley is the North Star Mining Museum. Highlights include displays relating to mining techniques, equipment, and history, as well as the fascinating Pelton Wheel water turbine. The Grass Valley Museum is also worth visiting and chronicles the town's history and culture.


Horse-drawn stagecoach ride awaits passengers near a preserved historic building in Columbia State Historic Park, Columbia, California, USA.

Stagecoach near a historic building, Columbia State Historic Park, Columbia, CA, USA. Editorial credit: Michael Vi /

Fancy a ride in an authentic stagecoach? Columbia is known as the "Gem of the Southern Mines” and is a must-do for lovers of the Old West. Provided by the Quartz Mountain Stage Line, you can hop aboard one of these relics from the past in Columbia State Historic Park, a living gold rush town offering an immersive glimpse into the 1850s. This unique Gold Country destination looks much as it would have done when it was founded in 1850 during the California Gold Rush and also features fun panning for gold features.

Other highlights include the Columbia Mercantile 1855, a recreated country store filled with period-appropriate goods and offering a fascinating glimpse into the shopping habits of miners and their families, as well as several working artisan shops, including a blacksmith, candle maker, and even a candy factory.


Ironstone Amphitheatre in Murphys, California.

Ironstone Amphitheatre in Murphys, California. By TaurusEmerald, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Murphys' location 140 miles west of San Francisco is a plus for travelers wanting to include this attractive town in their California travel itinerary. Known as the "Queen of the Sierra" for its pretty setting in the Sierra Nevada foothills, Murphys Main Street is fun to explore on foot for its many well-preserved historic buildings. For wine lovers, numerous tasting rooms line the streets and offer samples from an array of Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley wineries.

The Ironstone Vineyards, just outside of town, is one of the best and is favored to visit, not only known for its wines but also for its beautifully landscaped grounds. It’s also home to a fun museum housing the world’s largest gold leaf sample, among other Gold Rush-era artifacts. Murphys is also the gateway to Calaveras Big Trees State Park with its giant sequoias, some of the planet’s largest and oldest living trees.


Bell tower in the historic center of Placerville, California, USA.
Bell tower in the historic center of Placerville, California, USA. Editorial credit: Marc Venema /

Placerville is perhaps the holder of one of the most chilling nicknames of any Sierra Nevada community:  "Old Hangtown." Legend has it the name stuck after an angry mob hung a group of out-of-town outlaws from a Main Street oak tree for an attempted robbery… and without so much as a trial. Tales of this Gold Rush-era rough justice and other fascinating past events can be discovered at the El Dorado County Historical Museum, along with displays relating to its Native American roots.

Placerville’s historic Main Street is fun to stroll, with landmarks such as the Placerville Hardware Store, one of the oldest in the country, unchanged by time with its old-fashioned merchandise and fixtures. Gold Bug Park and Mine is another blast from the past with its mine tours and gold panning.

Sutter Creek

Emporium in Sutter Creek, California.
Emporium in Sutter Creek, California. Editorial credit: Jeffrey B. Banke /

Known for its well-preserved old main street, Sutter Creek serves up a delightful blend of history, culture, and natural beauty. Standout historic attractions include the Knight Foundry, one of America's best-preserved 19th-century industrial complexes. Founded in 1873, this historic water-powered foundry and machine shop is still in operation and offers open house events so visitors can experience firsthand the machinery and techniques that helped power California's early industry.

The Sutter Creek Theater is another historic landmark to explore. Built in 1919, it’s still in use for live music concerts, theatrical performances, and film screenings. The nearby Mokelumne River is a must-visit for fishing and kayaking adventures.

Discovering California's Historic Sierra Nevada

These six historic towns – Nevada City, Placerville, Murphys, Grass Valley, Sutter Creek, and Columbia – are perfect getaway destinations for those seeking a taste of the authentic Old West of California's Sierra Nevada region. Each of these entirely unique towns provides a fascinating and immersive experience into the California Gold Rush era, from panning for gold in Columbia to savoring fine wines in Murphys… with plenty of fun to be had along the way.

  1. Home
  2. Places
  3. Cities
  4. 6 Must-See Historic Towns in California's Sierra Nevada

More in Places