During the California Gold Rush, miners were said to have declared, “There’s gold in them thar hills.” There are still plenty of reasons to head for the hills 165 years later, especially in late August when the Empire Mine in Grass Valley offers a glimpse into the bygone days of gold mining.
One of the largest and richest gold mines in California, the Empire produced 5.8 million ounces of ore while operating from 1850-1956. The mine is now a state historic park and open every day except Christmas and Thanksgiving.
If you’re looking for an end of summer weekend getaway, the yearly Miner’s Picnic is 11 a.m.-4 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 29 and will include food, games and entertainment in addition to regular living history events.
“A picnic, a tradition and tons of fun since 1895, that’s an accurate way to describe the Miners Picnic,” said event chair Jack Laird, “and everyone is invited to be part of the festivities this year as we celebrate the picnic’s 120th anniversary.
“Gold fever burns bright here still,” said Laird, “and the Miners Picnic is a special way to discover the mine’s colorful past in a way that’s appealing to all ages.”
Visitors can peer down into the depths of a mineshaft, tour the elegant mine owner’s cottage and walk through the mine yard, which is filled with all sizes and shapes of mining equipment. On living history days, volunteers in period costumes bring the park to life, allowing visitors to watch a blacksmith at work and chat with characters from the mine’s colorful past, including volunteers representing the mine owners, the Bourn family.
In the Visitor’s Center and Mining Museum, view a scale model of the underground mine and its 367 miles of shafts. A button activates a taped narrative about each of the mines’ many shafts, with cued lighting that comes on and highlights each part of the model as it is being explained.
Coupled with the sepia-toned photographs of miners and their life underground, it doesn’t take much imagination to visualize the Cornish immigrants lunching on pasties and tea, poking and prodding the rich gold from nearly 11,000 feet below ground as they toiled in the dark.
The park’s 856 acres include many hiking, biking and equestrian trails. The well-maintained grounds can also be reserved for weddings and receptions from spring to fall, but tend to get booked, so plan to reserve early.
For more detailed information, visit empiremine.org or parks.ca.gov and search for the Empire Mine.
While you’re in the area, plan to visit the South Yuba River where all the gold panning excitement began. Pan for gold and view a covered bridge at Bridgeport, or swim in the sparkling, fresh water at one of the four historic bridges.
Enjoy miles of hiking trails, including the nation’s only wheelchair-accessible wilderness trail, the Independence Trail. For all the information on where to access the river, go to southyubariverstatepark.org.
Both Grass Valley and nearby Nevada City trace their history back to Gold Rush days and have historical buildings dating to that era.
In 1985, Nevada City was recognized as “the largest and best preserved historical downtown district in the California Gold Country” and was named to the National Register of Historic Places. Both towns offer music, theater and excellent restaurants.