Thanks to No Child Left Behind legislation, no child of mine is learning much geography and history at school. The entire elementary school curriculum now skews toward reading and math. We decided that summer vacation was a good time to fill that curriculum gap.
Our summer vacation destination was preordained, since we were visiting family in Northern California. We knew we’d see the Golden Gate, eat in Chinatown, ride a cable car… but we wanted a special hands-on experience to share with our kids the essence of California’s past. So, we planned a side trip to historic Columbia, California, easily accessible from either San Francisco (140 miles) or Yosemite Valley (76 miles). This town is a relic of that history elementary school kids once learned about, the time when settlers loaded their belongings onto Conestogas and joined a wagon train to head west seeking their fortune.
Columbia is a gold mine of a town, pun intended. It’s hard to tell from looking at it, but it was once the second-largest town in the state. It is currently preserved as a State Historic Park and is reputedly the best-preserved gold-mining town dating to the era of the California gold rush. Of course, not all of Columbia is in the same condition as in gold rush days. Extensive rehabilitation efforts are obvious. But to the kids, that didn’t matter.
The town’s size, one car-free main street and a few side streets, made it ideal for our three elementary school-age kids to try out their fledgling independence and exercise their imaginations. Main Street consists of functional buildings, a few with business operations like restaurants and candy shops, others with historical displays, like the court house and blacksmith. Townspeople dressed in period clothing answer questions and contribute to the quaint atmosphere. Kids can skip from one end of Main Street to the other without losing sight of their parents.
Off the main thoroughfare, through and beyond the yards of Matelot Gulch Mine Supply Store, there are building frames and facades, where the old west spirit overtook my 7 and 10- year-old for a long evening of play. Here they assumed the roles of innkeeper, bandit, jailer, and sour dough (a nickname for gold miners), one after another, without showing signs of tiring. An adjacent series of rock outcroppings created a climbing maze in which they could chase each other and hide endlessly. This unencumbered evening may have been the highlight of their visit.
While there is plenty of fodder for imaginary free play in these parts, there is no need to depend on your kids to busy themselves, for organized hands-on activities are also available. The most popular activity is panning for gold. At the Matelot Gulch Mine Supply Store on Main Street, kids can choose to try their own luck with written instructions or pay a bit more and book an experienced panner to assist them. Paid customers may pan as long as they can stand the sun beating down on them; about an hour seemed to satisfy most people, including our persistent 6 year old who was more fascinated by the colorful bits of gemstone than the harder to manipulate gold flakes. The gold flakes are abundant enough that, with a little effort, everyone has a chance to shout “Eureka!”
The Wells Fargo horse-drawn stage coach is also immensely popular. Children under 8 are required to ride inside, while those older may ride on the roof between the rails. Front and rear facing roof seats are usually assigned to adults. And seats are assigned by the driver, with whom one is advised never to argue, not about seating, not about routing, not about anything whatsoever. Stage coach etiquette must be preserved, after all.
Our kids were amused to learn that one of the coach horses was named Pearl, same as our cat. After Pearl and her buddy were watered and fed, they took off at a trot, the pace of which surprised us. It’s bumpy up there on the roof of a stage coach and harder to hold on than a novice might imagine.
On the day we rode, ominous signs in Wells Fargo’s office on Main Street warned of robber sightings. Sure enough, as the horses galloped through the woods, masked gunman California Slim jumped into our path and assaulted us- with jokes. He robbed us of our laughter, then let us pass, after one of the children aboard satisfied him with a joke, strangulated in that special manner characteristic of kids with gap teeth.
Later in the trip when we learned that travelers long ago rode stage coaches to the top of 7000 foot high Glacier Point in Yosemite, we thanked our lucky stars that our ride was limited to flat ground and fifteen minutes duration. It gave us a taste of the real thing without being unduly wearing on our backsides or taxing on our nerves.
Columbia’s General Store sells a selection of middle elementary level books on the gold rush and settling the West. We found our kids much more willing to read such books in the middle of the old west than they would be at home in our living room. Before long, they were explaining vigilante justice to us and threatening to inflict it on each other. The low point of educational travel. We pick what they read, and they pick what they assimilate.
The town is full of little things that captivate kids like the Jack Douglass Saloon next to the Wells Fargo office that serves homemade sarsaparilla and wild cherry sodas on tap. Its piano player is permanently preoccupied as you will discover when you approach the piano…
Nelson’s Candy Kitchen contains jar upon jar of candy, many of them homemade. Our kids loved watching rocky road fudge under construction through the kitchen window next door to the retail store. Our 10-year-old son is still savoring the 4-inch-diameter jaw breaker he bought there, more impressed by the novelty than the taste, I’m afraid.
Moaning Cavern is located 8 miles north of town on Parrotts Ferry Road. It is the largest vertical show cavern in California, a gold-seekers’ excavation which “didn’t pan out.” Daring visitors ages 12 and up can rent gear and rappel into the cavern. Be warned that the innocent looking neck of the cavern down which climbers drop on rappel apparatus soon opens into a gaping maw deep enough to hold the Statue of Liberty standing upright. Those younger or less daring can descend with a guide via winding staircase for a 45 minute tour, with two stops along the way for the guide to point out the cave’s compelling features.
Our kids were awed by the stalactites and stalagmites, having never seen the inside of a cave before. It surprised us all when our guide explained that caves are living things and that the oils from hands destroy them. So no touching is allowed, except on the one designated touching wall.
The name of this cave, Moaning Cavern, comes from the effect of water vibrating in the holes in the rock echoing on the cavern walls, which historically caused the emission of a moaning sound that could be heard outside the cave. A dubious decision to build a gift shop atop the cavern mouth obliterated the moaning and rendered the name obsolete.
For those who aren’t bothered by the lack of authenticity, gem stone and fossil mining is available at Moaning Cavern. The gem stones or fossils are disguised in bags of damp sand, sold in the gift store, and then sifted out in the sluice mining troughs located outside. Our kids had just as much fun trying to create dams in the sluice troughs as they did screening sand for gems.
The Hidden Treasure Gold Mine is the only working gold mine which offers tours of its hard rock mining operation. The tour can be arranged at and departs from the Matelot Gulch Mine Supply Store. Unfortunately an employee’s jury duty obligation closed down the tour during our visit.
The Columbia State Historic Park is open year round. Avoid Monday when the acclaimed City Hotel Restaurant is closed. Fallon Theatre is dark early in the week, so if you plan to catch a show (the only evening entertainment available), schedule your stay between Wednesday and Sunday. One to two days is enough time to do everything in town and an attraction or two outside town. But do plan your activities carefully. Columbia is a town that nods off at 5-6 p.m and then doesn’t raise its sleepy head again until about 10 a.m.
Even the eating establishments close early, limiting dinner choices to the City Hotel Restaurant, El Jardin, a Mexican restaurant across Parrotts Ferry Rd., or Lickskillet Café(open Thursdays through Sundays only, plus Wednesdays when Fallon Theatre has a performance), unless you are willing to settle for a sandwich in the What Cheer Saloon.
Planning Your Trip
Here’s the essential information you’ll need to plan a trip to Columbia, California:
Where to Stay:
The main hotels are the City Hotel and the Fallon Hotel, both 19th century reproductions. Room rates range from $65 for a tiny room with no bathroom in the Fallon Hotel to $130 for a larger room with bathroom in either hotel that can accommodate a family of five. Room rates include an attractively presented breakfast with fresh fruit, cereals, muffins and eggs. In the 19th century, television hadn’t been invented, so don’t expect to find one in your room. At City Hotel, we did find a cabinet full of board games in the parlor available for guests to borrow. And the hotels have succumbed to modernity in some particulars; they are air-conditioned and contain indoor plumbing. Columbia’s website lists motels, all of which are located outside the town proper, and trailer and RV parks.
Where to Eat:
City Hotel Restaurant offers gourmet cuisine and over 150 selections of California wine. The entrees, priced at $15-30, include intriguing options such as grilled lamb chops with mint-achiote butter, port demi-glace, and dried cherry quinoa.
What Cheer Saloon and Brown’s Coffee House and Sweets Saloon both offer the espresso family of beverages.
For lunch, try either What Cheer Saloon or Jack Douglass Saloon for moderately-priced sandwiches, fries, nachos, hot dogs and soft drinks. Both establishments are located on Main Street.
There isn’t any significant nightlife, excepting live theatre at the Fallon Theatre on Wednesday through Sunday nights.
The General Store has a variety of provisions from sunscreen and souvenirs to foodstuffs and toiletries.
Columbia is located about an hour west of Yosemite via routes 120E and 49N and about 3 hours east of San Francisco. From the Bay Area, take Highway 580E to 205 through Tracy, catch 5N, then follow 120 in the direction of Yosemite (in Oakdale, it becomes 108/120E) as far as Sonora, then take 49N to Parrotts Ferry Rd.