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California is a daytripper's dream come true. In addition to its many big cities, it also has plenty of tiny towns packed with personality just waiting to be discovered. These hidden gem towns can be found all over, from the Pacific Coast to the heart of the Sierra Nevada and everywhere in between, each more quaint than the last. One of the most underrated day-trip towns is Nevada City, a quick 2- to 3-hour drive away from San Francisco. This gold rush town boasts a 16-acre downtown historic district with turn-of-the-century buildings that now house local shops and restaurants. There's plenty of roadside fun to be had along the way, too, from offbeat museums to unusual ghost towns. Here's a guide to the perfect Bay Area day trip to Nevada City.
San Francisco is a great starting point for countless day trips. Whether sticking in the Bay Area, or heading out into the heart of Northern California, the incredible history, culture, climate, and landscape of the region make for some quirky small towns and unique destinations.
Fuel up on your way out of town at the Olde San Francisco Creamery. It serves up burgers and sandwiches if you're in need of a quick lunch, or treat yourself to a decadent ice cream creation. Inspired by the ice cream sodas and sundaes served by the dime stores and pharmacies of the 1940s, the atmosphere is utterly charming. The Creamery specializes in old-school sundaes like banana splits and hot-fudge-topped black and whites. A shake, freeze, or classic ice cream soda is the perfect grab-and-go goodie for anyone heading out on a day trip. The creamery is most famous for the Kitchen Sink Sundae, which has eight scoops, eight servings of toppings, three whole bananas, and more piled on top. It's a popular eating challenge for those not worried about brain freezes, or it can be split among a group.
Quick photo ops are the perfect stops along a day trip route, so hop out of the car at Lake Berryessa to snap a picture of its unusual glory hole. It's a man-made feature, built to serve as an open bell-mouth spillway. It measures 72 feet in diameter, and normally stands above the lake's waterline. The glory hole spillway drains out excess water to prevent flooding, just like a drain in a sink or bathtub. For that reason, it's best viewed after rain, but can be seen at any time near the Monticello Dam.
Reiff's Gas Station Museum is the kind of nostalgic, old-school roadside attraction you'd expect to see along Route 66, but plopped in the middle of Woodland, California. It's the work of Mark Reiff, who has spent years turning his own house into a public shrine dedicated to roadside kitsch. Inside, you'll find various artifacts and exhibits, including a replica gas station adorned with vintage pumps, a refurbished 1956 tow truck, a replica 1950s general store, a recreated diner, and a tribute to a classic movie theater (Woodland's Yolo Theater, that burned down in 1958). There's also a patio and garden space that is completely bedecked in vintage gas station antiques. The museum also serves as a bar and barbecue joint, so you can hang out here and soak in the kitsch as long as you need.
You'll have to make an appointment in advance to visit the Roseville Telephone Museum, unless it's the first Saturday of the month, but a tour of this collection is worth it. The Roseville Telephone Company was founded in 1914 to provide telephone service to 160 rural subscribers. Back then, telephones looked and worked a lot differently than they do today, so it's fascinating to see Roseville's display of antiques that were once used to connect the community, as well as novelty phones, Alexander Graham Bell original telephones, and more. In addition to the massive collection (one of the country's most extensive), the staff will demonstrate how the Roseville switchboard worked, and let you make a call.
California has its fair share of ghost towns, but no ghost town was quite as wild as Rough and Ready, California, was back in the day. The town was founded in 1849 by the Rough and Ready mining company from Wisconsin. The company's fearless leader chose the name "Rough and Ready" since it was the nickname of General Zachary Taylor, who had just been elected President. The post office was established in 1851, and the town was on its way to booming. The post office took a bit to get established because the USPS wanted the town to change their name to either "Rough, California" or "Ready, California." Apparently, "Rough and Ready" wasn't going to work for them. That, combined with a Nevada County tax on mining claims and a law prohibiting alcohol, didn't sit well with the citizens of Rough and Ready. So in April of 1850, the town leaders met and drew up articles of secession, naming their new country "The Great Republic of Rough and Ready."
They elected a President, Col. E.F. Brundage, who issued a manifesto that swore to defend the new country's independence "forcibly, if we must," It only took a few months for the town to regret secession: as the story goes, the citizens were debating whether or not to hold an Independence Day celebration on July 4th when they realized that leaving the US was a bad decision, and they immediately voted to rescind secession. During some research done in 1948, it was discovered that Rough and Ready had never actually been officially allowed back into the Union, and the US Attorney General welcomed what was formerly the world's smallest country back-- almost a century later.
While there are still more than 900 people living within the technical city limits of Rough and Ready, the original town itself has been largely abandoned. You can visit some of the old buildings today, though: the town has a church, a cemetery, a town hall (called Grange Hall), a Toll House, a blacksmith shop (which has been restored and now houses 1850s artifacts), and Oddfellows Hall, all reminders of the towns' rebellious, Wild West past.
Nevada City is another mining boom town that has managed to flourish as the mining industry wound down. Back in 1850-1851, Nevada County was producing the most gold of any county in California, thanks mostly to Nevada City. Tourism has since replaced mining as the leading industry in town, and it's not hard to see why. In addition to the stunning Victorian downtown that was built up, it's also in the heart of some of the most beautiful landscape in the whole state. It's surrounded by the Tahoe National Forest, the South Yuba River and, of course, the dramatic, snow-capped High Sierras. Whether you're looking to enjoy some culture downtown or outdoor recreation just outside the city limits, there's something for everyone here.
Get a bit further out of Nevada City to stop by Riverhill Farm's farm stand. One of the best parts of taking a day trip is getting out of the city and enjoying all the countryside has to offer, such as fresh, local produce. The farm stand is open on Wednesday afternoons and Sunday mornings to sell goodies and offer u-pick excursions. The owners only sell whatever is seasonal and recently harvested, so every trip here is different. Plus, a visit to the farm stand is a chance to enjoy the setting of a real, working farm, and it feels really great to support a local business.
Get a taste for Nevada City's storied past at the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad & Transportation Museum. It features a rail yard, museum, and restoration shop. If you're not a train fanatic, it's worth it to take a docent-led tour, since the volunteers here really know their stuff. Their most famous attraction is Engine 5, an 1875 Baldwin that began service hauling lumber, then passengers and freight for the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad, and finally as a movie engine at Universal Studios in Hollywood. On Saturdays in the summer, the museum runs railbus tours to the Northern Queen Inn and back, which are an awesome way to enjoy the scenery.
Back in Nevada City, one of the most iconic buildings in the historic downtown district is the Firehouse No. 1 Museum. It was built in 1861 for the Nevada Hose Company No. 1, and served as a working firehouse until 1938. It's pretty wild to think that this firehouse saw horse-drawn fire wagons transition into motorized fire trucks during its time. In 1947, it opened as a museum, and has been staffed by volunteers ever since. There are four main exhibits: one on the Nisenan Indians of the Nevada City Rancheria; one on the Chinese immigrants who came to work the county gold mines in the 19th century; one on everyday life in Victorian Nevada City; and one on the Donner Party. The Donner Party was a group of pioneers that famously were trapped by snowfall in the Sierra Nevada during their journey to California. They spent some time stuck in deep snow at Donner Lake, not far from Nevada City, and the museum contains relics collected from the makeshift cabins the pioneers stayed in.
If your idea of a good day trip involves a hike, Nevada City has some gems. Independence Trail is one of the best, as it combines the town's unique history and stunning scenery into one trail. It's an old mining ditch, the Excelsior Ditch, which was built around 1859 to bring in high-pressure water for hydraulic mining. The trail winds down shady hills, alongside streams, and across gorges on restored wooden flumes that once transported water. The best part about the trail is that, since it's on wooden flumes, it's handicap accessible. From the trailhead, one trail goes east, and another goes west. Independence Trail West is the more popular hike. It goes for 2.5 miles, but the first mile is the most scenic. There's a viewpoint at 0.4 miles, and Flume 28 at 1.1 miles features waterfalls and cascades.
Whatever activities make your Nevada City day trip itinerary, you're sure to leave town inspired and happily worn out from a long day of exploring. You don't have to drive far to find yourself in a different world, and Nevada City is a perfect example of that.
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