As we careen towards Christmas, I was experiencing a bit of S-A-O, Seasonal-Autumnal-Overload. Having already relented to a trip to a giant pumpkin patch, harvest day for my son’s school, Halloween preparations and the omnipresent pumpkinification of October, from coffee flavoring, to muffins to candles…I was done.

Alas, we had a fall getaway planned to the California Gold Country in the Sierra Foothills and I was looking for some fun things to do with the family that might diverge a bit from the frolicsome fall activities I had been enjoying. We have driven past Sonora on our way to the mountains, often heading that way in summer or winter. It was exciting to think about a weekend trip that didn’t involve preparing food, camping or ski gear and with an open itinerary I could craft. I had a secret hope to see some changing leaves.

One of  Triporati’s Northern California destinations piqued my interest.  Columbia State Historic Park sounded like it could be educational but I was a bit concerned about the cheez/kitch factor. With groans from the peanut gallery, we decided to give it a whirl on a perfect October day.

It was fantastic! My ten- and fourteen-year-olds had a blast and even my cynical husband was enchanted. The kids made candles, tried on hats and boots, bowled like pioneers, learned about blacksmithing and dental care in the 19th century and walked up an down the streets once used as a stage set for Little House on the Prairie. The Living History park had a lovely mix of historic authenticity and modern appeal without the overly earnest reenactment feel.

Talented musicians were dotted around the park and some costumes were worn by merchants and actors. Kids can pan for gold and you can ride a stage coach. My boys loved touring the old candy shoppe and each having a few bucks to spend. Sarsaparilla was the beverage of choice and after much prodding I convinced my family to dress for a Western bandito, old style black and white photo; this was the highlight of the weekend!

The park, parking and docent tours are free, many families bring picnics and treat themselves to ice cream, tea and cakes or candy.

Businesses and park exhibits are open year-round, seven days a week. Columbia also hosts several living history demonstrations, school programs, and special events throughout the year.

Following our successful Gold Rush town experience we decided to head to an apple orchard, the thinking (in lieu of a winery) was the boys could play catch, possibly pick apples, and we could do some hard cider tasting. We found our way to Indigeny Reserve, an artisanal hard cider distillery, on the forefront of a renaissance in the fermented alcoholic beverage.

Their chic new digs and beautiful old orchard got us excited as we drove down the windy road outside of Sonora. The tasting was jolly, with a mixture of diehard cider geeks and tourists just passing through. We got a behind-the-scenes distillery tour, tasted their apple brandy and shopped in the apple-centric gift shop. We actually had our picnic there and enjoyed the warm fall weather and munched on crisp apples having learned a bit about the area’s orchards and apple growing history. My husband bought a big jug of cider to take home and was kicking himself later that he didn’t buy more!

We stayed at the recently opened Black Oak Casino and Resort, near Sonora. The rooms were large and well appointed. My kids loved the giant wide-screen TV in the room given the World Series was in full swing. Like the Indigeny Reserve, local wood and crafts were used in construction and a commitment to share in the native bounty and to give back to the land was palpable. Not being a gambling family we opted instead for the pool, arcade and bowling, making a great comparison with the pioneer bowling lane from earlier in the day. The hotel is smoke-free, but the casino (even the smoke-free areas) are quite overpowering. The place was packed and I gotta say I was tempted to try my luck, but instead stuck with skee ball and arcade games.

Run by the Me-Wuk tribe, the casino, and now the resort, has brought employment and life to this gorgeous but economically depressed part of Tuolomne County and has helped to create healthcare centers for the tribe. A fine restaurant called Seven Sisters, named after the Matriarchs of the Tuolumne Me-Wuk Tribe, with floor-to-ceiling window views of the foothills, was a fun splurge after a long day of foothills fun. We ordered a cheese fondue to start, to get in the spirit of the mountains.

We often visit Yosemite and the Sierra but this trip was unique for our family of outdoors people. We enjoyed the Gold Rush towns of Jamestown and Sonora, ate far too much and were all surprised at how much fun we had. This area is a doable weekend trip from the Bay Area, but with heavy traffic and so much to see and do, two nights would be a minimum not to feel rushed. It’s fun to plan a few things and then just explore…next time we hope to make it to Pinecrest Lake.

Filed Under Budget Travel, California, California, Driving Trips, Eco Friendly Travel, Fall Foliage Tours, Family Travel, Food, Gold Country, Northern California, State Parks, Theme Park, Wine Tours, wine tasting


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