Going back in time in Nevada City
November 30, 2004
NEVADA CITY, Calif. – You can stare at a palm tree a long time before you realize it’s fall in Southern California.
About the only clues that I, a native Angeleno, see of autumn’s arrival are the shorter days and football on TV. Seeking more traditional evidence of the season, my wife and I headed to Nevada City in California’s Gold Country this fall for a quiet weekend together.
We flew to Sacramento on a Friday and rented a car for the scenic, hourlong drive to Nevada City. Oaks, maples and dogwoods with brilliant red, orange and yellow leaves lined state Route 49 along the way.
My wife, Leslie, had booked us a two-night stay at the Red Castle Inn, a bed-and-breakfast in a historic four-story red-brick mansion built in 1857 and run today by the mayor of Nevada City. The inn, with its Gothic Revival architecture, has been well-preserved and boasts that it was one of the first B&Bs in the state.
The grounds are lushly landscaped and have sitting areas and gardens where guests can read, enjoy a glass of wine or simply rest. Inside, the mansion’s decor is decidedly Victorian.
The rooms, $120 to $165 a night, all have their own personality. Some come with high ceilings, verandas or private gardens. Our room, which was on the children’s floor of what originally was a private residence, was “cozy.” Translation: a tad small. Still, our room had a sitting area, a private bathroom and a nice view.
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The inn is known for its gourmet breakfasts. During our stay it served a tasty baked egg dish, a pastry filled with creamy mushroom sauce, a “harvest pie,” stuffed tomatoes, potatoes, muffins and fruit smoothies. The breakfast was good enough and big enough to carry us through to dinner on both days.
Another nice feature was the inn’s location. Just a short walk down Prospect Hill led us to the edge of town.
Nevada City, originally called Deer Creek Dry Diggins when it was a mining camp, is a charming, homespun place straight out of the days of the Wild West. The entire downtown is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Looking at the Western-style storefronts and restored gaslights, one almost expects to run into Hoss and Little Joe moseying down the street.
Today, tourism is the town’s gold. Many of the 2,800 residents are artisans, musicians and small-shop owners. Galleries, saloons, a theater and fine restaurants lie throughout the business district. Visitors can find live music on the weekends with no cover charge.
Les and I window-shopped and visited tasting rooms, where we sampled the local wines. We scouted out restaurants for dinner and made it back to the inn’s free afternoon tea.
For dinner, we took the advice of some townsfolk and went to Friar Tuck’s, where the house specialty is fondue. We had a cheese fondue and a hot oil fondue in which we cooked chicken, shrimp, scallops, meatballs and sirloin, dipping the items in one of several sauces. I was looking forward to the chocolate fondue for dessert but was too full by the end of the meal to order it.
The next day, after breakfast, we made plans after breakfast to visit the Empire Mine, formerly the state’s longest-running and most profitable hard rock mine and now a state park.
The park was less than a 10-minute drive from Nevada City and it turned out to be one of my favorite parts of the trip. It costs $3 per adult, plus $1.50 for each of several tours offered. We went on two.
The first was a living history tour of the cottage and gardens built by the Bourn family, who ran the mine from 1869 to 1929. The cottage’s impressive exterior was built from the mine’s waste rocks, and the interior was paneled with unfinished redwood.
Volunteers dressed as members of the Bourn family interacted with visitors and talked about events as if it were 1906. It was fun and informative.
The other tour offered an in-depth look at the mine, which closed in 1956 when the cost of mining the gold exceeded its worth at the time.
By the time the mine closed, 367 miles of tunnels and 5.8 million ounces of gold had been dug out. We saw the stamping stations where ore was crushed into small pieces, the refinery where gold was extracted from the rock and the blacksmith’s shop where tools were made. But the highlight was going a short way into a mine that was hundreds of feet deep.
Park officials are working on a multimillion-dollar Underground Tour Project, expected to be completed in two years. Visitors will ride a tram 800 feet into a mine and see how miners worked.
After the tours, we drove through Grass Valley, another former mining town that’s larger but similar in appearance to Nevada City.
Back in Nevada City, we strolled around downtown again and found ourselves drawn to the saloon-style bar at the National Hotel, which says it’s the oldest continuously operating hotel west of the Rocky Mountains.
We downed a couple of frosty pints of beer and made it back to the inn.
The next morning, after breakfast, we looked for more fall colors. In the couple of days we had been here, it seemed as if the leaves had grown more vibrant.