The road leading to Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park, California, USA with the Half Dome in the background. Image credit Tom Nevesely via AdobeStock.

7 Oldest Founded Towns To Visit In California's Sierra Nevada

The Central Valley of California's range of the Sierra Nevada mountains is stunning to admire and explore on outdoor ventures. From wildflowers during the summer to thrilling wintertime sports, the Sierra is a sight-seeker's paradise with worldwide followers who also enjoy quick access to the Golden State's other gems.  Each town and village has distinguishable flavors, from apple pie events to crisp alpine air and firn musk, all representative of the beautiful Sierra Nevadas.

Skip the overcrowded LA scene for now and choose its opposite, the ghost town of Bodie. Exchange San Diego for Julian, gloating from above this city. Despite their high alpine setting, these towns are warm and welcoming through all seasons, with regular events celebrating the rich heritage of the Golden State. Enjoy shopping, mountain-style dining, and farm visits with family, or embark on a thematic road trip between the vineyards and stop for a stroll!

Angels Camp

New Melones Lake near Angels Camp.
New Melones Lake near Angels Camp. Image credit Cassiohabib via Shutterstock.

The small town where it all started, Angels Camp, is strewn with inspiring memorabilia of early history, with peaks and mountain views in between. Visit Angels Hotel Saloon for a story about a legendary frog that jumped further than any competitor, now celebrated through the frog jumping jubilee in May, first established by Mark Twain himself. See the Frog Hop of Fame at the Calaveras Visitors Center and stroll through the old downtown area amid charming boutique shops and its quality restaurants for a bite.

The cozy town aspires to its City of Angels Camp name with a quaint streetscape in the picturesque foothills overlooking the Sierra Nevada. It is where some of America's greatest literary works were written, for example Bret Harte and Mark Twain, while they stayed in town with the same vistas! Enjoy the convenient access to the range for summertime hiking, mountain biking, and great fishing at New Melones Lake.


Bodie Ghost Town in California's Sierra Nevada. Abandoned vehicles and houses make for a creepy scene
Ghost Town of Bodie. Image credit Boris Edelmann via Shutterstock.

Visit a real ghost town for a truckload of Gold Rush history and the best views of the Sierra in a crowd-free environment. Choose Double Eagle Resort and Spa to get pampered, Mammoth Lakes, or June Lake Campground for an immersive natural experience, all just over 40 miles away from Bodie. This Golden State's historical landmark, east of the Sierra Nevada range, just off Highway 395, is a perfect stop on a drive in between Death Valley and Lake Tahoe.

Bodie is the best preserved town from its glory days after the main gold rush in California, on the opposite side of the mountains. Abandoned soon after, it is essentially a historic park in a state of "arrested decay," greeting visitors with empty streets that look as if residents just left before travelers' arrival. The bustling gold mining town of around 10,000 in the 1870s, with multiple saloons, a red-light district, and opium dens on the California-Nevada border, now survives with a visitor center, museum, and ranger-led tours.


Downieville is a historical gold mining town. The bronze fire bell in the center of the town is a remnant of its history.
Bronze firebell in historic Downieville. Image credit Sneaky Buddy via Shutterstock.

Downieville's storied past runs deep back to the auriferous gravels along the countless emerald-blue-green pools around the North Yuba River. Seek remnants of first settlers through historical landmarks and the stone building from 1852 of the Downieville Museum with original iron doors and shutters. Downieville originated with an overnight millionaire and get-rich-quick schemes in "The Forks," at 3,000 feet elevation. Jim Crow, a Kanaka, helped William Downie and prospectors settle in 1849, who renamed the town the same year after building a cabin along the Downie River before winter.

Quickly finding their gold nugget in the North Yuba, the word of riches spread like wildfire, and by the summer the following year, 5,000 prospectors were scavenging above town, which was by then equipped with over a dozen hotels and gambling locations. The wealthy and populated town deflated just as quickly after the gold rush era. Visit Downieville for heritage sights along the confluence of the Downie River and North Yuba River, and enjoy kayaking, fishing, and swimming, as well as the nearby tranquility of the Tahoe National Forest.


Scenic panoramic view of famous Yosemite Valley with El Capitan rock near Mariposa.
Panoramic view of famous Yosemite Valley with El Capitan rock near Mariposa. Image credit Brester Irina via Shutterstock.

Mariposa is a scenically historic town at the gateway to Yosemite National Park. Enjoy easy access via the historic highway to the southern end of California's gold country, and choose the cozy Engvadonia Yosemite B&B to begin discovering the town. Marioposa means "butterfly" in Spanish, and tourists can sightsee large seasonal butterflies flying through the area, among other memorable nature ventures through the surrounding park. Despite being burned in a fire at the time, the town was persevered with stone masonry, allowing buildings to stand unrenovated to this day. Stop by the historic courthouse, the oldest continuously operating courthouse in the west, dating from 1854, just off the main street.

Get away modern life in Mariposa with no stoplights to distract pedestrians while they stroll along boutique-less and mall-less streets while enjoying the Sierra views to the fullest. Take a carriage ride through the charming old American Wild West frontier past, with sights in between engaging attractions. One of the first towns ever established in early California history, "The Southernmost Golden Nugget," is home to museums reminiscing about how this Gold Rush town thrived in the 1850s, dating to the state’s modest beginnings. The California State Mining and Mineral Museum keepsakes the "Fricot Nugget," a 13.8-pound "monster" fished from the American River in 1864. Explore the Hite Cove Trail during the seasonal wildflower blooms and try procuring gold to take home with Prospect Yosemite.


Murphys Grammar School - heritage site in Murphys, California
Murphys Grammar School, Murphys, CA. Image credit Jeffrey Beall via Wikimedia Commons. 

Murphys is one of the Sierra's earliest towns, dating to the state's modest beginnings and the gold rush era. It boasts the largest piece of gold ever mined in North America, the Kautz specimen, weighing 44 pounds. Seek history in between modern-day attractions such as wine tastings and jewelry shops, and choose the Courtwood Inn in Murphys to stay close to all the amenities. Explore this town with many cool things to see and do, and enjoy easy access to Angels Camp, 10 miles away. Murphys was founded and named after two brothers who were among the first Irish immigrants to California.

The old gold mining town enriched them by the age of 25, with $2 million from their gold mining exploits, making Murphys one of the most impressive gold rush towns in Gold Country. Visit Ironstone Vineyards for strolls around the expansive grounds and highly rated tasting room, along with an outdoor amphitheater with famous appearances! Minutes away, enhoy access to a wealth of outdoor adventures such as alpine lakes and world-class fishing rivers, as well as hiking and biking along the foothills. Come back for the best wintertime skiing, snowboarding, and sledding down the scenic slopes, and enjoy Main Street year-round through interesting shops, great eateries, and delicious tasting opportunities from the winemakers themselves.

Nevada City

Tourists partaking in water activities in Lake Tahoe near Nevada City
Water activities on Lake Tahoe near Nevada City. Image credit maislam via Adobe Stock.

Visit Nevada City, a naturally scenic and historically beautiful town for a well-rounded getaway, 30 minutes from Truckee on Highway 20. Enjoy easy access along the Golden Chain Highway’s northern end, with Grass Valley next door and halfway between Yuba City and Lake Tahoe. This charming town fashioned itself as the "Queen of the Northern Mines," with cool ways to explore the area. Choose a budget stay at Flume’s End or the Inn Town Campground, near many distinct attractions, like Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park, the state's biggest hydraulic mine, some 40 minutes away.

The National Exchange Hotel from 1856 is a gorgeous and oldest continuously run hotel in the west boasting a French-Californian restaurant, Lola, and a Victorian-era bar. Splurge on a stay in the recently renovated rooms with over a century and a half of history in its walls. Seek bucolic views on a nature venture to the nearby Apple Hill area of the Sierra Foothills, some 50 miles west of Lake Tahoe. The town is full of memorable experiences, from year-round outdoor fairs to farm visits to the popular Rainbow Orchards, with the best hot apple cider donuts. Take a relaxing stroll through town with farm stands and U-picks during the summer, or visit anytime for excellent restaurants, breweries, and saloons. Come for the lovely Victorian Christmas to chill like in the days of yore and holiday parades.


River Ranch restaurant on theTruckee River, Lake Tahoe, California,
River Ranch Inn and restaurant over Truckee River. Image credit Marina Va via Shutterstock.

This scenically old town sits soaked in history, with sights and a nostalgic feel in the air. Find Truckee near the California-Nevada border with easy access from both states to its mind-blowing, sky-high pine trees. The magnificent Sierra Nevada Mountain Range peaks from every point, beckoning for adventurous hikes and biking. Enjoy easy access to favorite summertime pursuits at nearby Lake Tahoe, such as sailing and water skiing, or just relax by the "big blue." Come for the winter wonderland atmosphere with skiing and snowboarding!

The town's endearing character shows itself through the historic downtown area, with a beautiful blur of vestiges, in the embrace of the Sierra that aspires for the best outdoor ventures. The Truckee River offers nature from the doorstep, including whitewater rafting to float amid Truckee views and experience its natural beauty up close. The foodies gather in town for its famed mountain-themed cuisine, including Cottonwood's top-notch dining overlooking downtown and then hit up the Bar of America, the local drinking scene on Main, which offers delicious libations in a gorgeous 19th-century building.


The historic Sierra Nevada foothills are strewn with many towns that speak to the state's origins, the Gold Rush era, and the Wild West scene. The Sierra Nevada has stood the test of time, preserving its natural beauty and history which attracts tourists for a variety of pursuits. Choose one of the lively towns, or perhaps a ghost town, for unforgettable sights and ventures around the many alpine lakes, state parks, and gold mining sites. From hiking and museum visits during the day to wine and beer tasting in the evening, surrounded by the bounty that the Sierra foothills offer, it is easy to find something cool and fun to enjoy for everyone who visits! 

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