Driving northeast from Sacramento on Interstate 80 to Reno takes you through some of the most spectacular scenery in the world and to some of the most historic Gold Rush towns in the country. Following some of the old wagon trails, today’s Interstate 80 actually begins in San Francisco and passes through Sacramento, cresting at Donner Summit, which was the site of the ill-fated Donner Party tragedy of the mid-1800s. The interstate follows the main emigrant trail to California that many people followed during the Gold Rush years of 1848-1849. At the summit, beautiful Donner Lake sits like a glowing jewel amidst the towering Sierra Mountains, and is the site of many activities, like swimming, boating and fishing. Donner Memorial State Park is located here and is the site of the Emigrant Trail Museum and Pioneer Monument, which was built to commemorate those who emigrated to California in the mid-1800s.
Included in the museum are displays and information about the Donner Party, who were forced by severe weather to camp at the east end of Donner Lake in the winter of 1846-47, resulting in terrible human suffering and loss of life. Interstate 80 is the main East/West artery in northern California and runs parallel to the railroad and takes you to some of the Gold Rush towns with colorful names like Colfax, Gold Run, Dutch Flat and Cisco. Portions of I-80, old U.S. 40 and the Lincoln Highway, in the Big Bend-Donner Lake area, are still open as a scenic route during the summer months. In the wintertime, however, heavy snowfalls can still be so bad that roads have to be closed temporarily – including portions of Interstate 80. However, once the roads are cleared, driving along this part of the highway in the wintertime can be one of the most beautiful times to visit. Towering pine trees heavy with snow glisten in the sunlight, transforming the Interstate into a winter wonderland. The following is a brief guide to some of the interesting towns found along Northern California’s Interstate 80.
Auburn is a historic town located just 30 miles northeast of Sacramento along Interstate 80 in the Sierra Nevada foothills. It is one of the oldest gold mining towns in California, established in 1848 when gold was discovered in the Auburn Ravine. It has retained its heritage in its beautiful “Old Town Auburn,” which is visible from Interstate 80. The downtown historic area offers tons of shops, galleries, hotels and bed and breakfast inns. The town of Auburn is situated near the American River and offers some of the most exciting white water rafting and kayaking in the state. You’ll also find lots of hiking and biking trails in the area, golf courses, skiing and camping. For special events, don’t miss the rollicking good time at the Auburn Wild West Stampede, an annual event that has been held in Auburn since the 1800s and is one of the largest rodeos in the country. Other annual events include the Gold Country Fair and Country Christmas Festival. If you take Historic Highway 49 south out of Auburn for about 18 miles, you will come to the small town of Coloma, which was the site of the very first gold discovery in the state of California on January 24, 1848. This event was one that would, of course, ultimately impact the entire nation. Part of Highway 49 from Auburn to Coloma winds through rugged canyon of the North and Middle forks of the American River, so it may be difficult for those traveling with very large RVs. Coloma can also be accessed via Highway 50 from Sacramento/Placerville.
Heading the other direction, (north) on Historic Highway 49 from the town of Auburn, you will pass through two of the most beautiful Gold Rush towns in Northern California. Grass Valley is nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Mountains, and dates back to the mid 1800s. It is near the Empire Mine State Historic Park, which conducts daily tours of the mine yards, grounds, cottage and gardens. Grass Valley enjoys a unique way of life with a combination of small town charm, exceptional outdoor recreational opportunities and cultural events. You can take a guided white water rafting tour of the nearby American, Yuba and Truckee Rivers, go fishing, hiking, or camping, and in the wintertime, Grass Valley has easy access to all the northern California ski resorts. With four distinct seasons in this part of the state, spring is also an especially popular time when people come to hike the hills that are covered with beautiful wildflowers. Grass Valley is also filled with antique shops, museums, art galleries, live theater and concerts.
A little further north from Grass Valley lies Nevada City, one of the most picturesque of the California gold rush towns. Nevada City exudes old-time charm and elegance. The city began as a mining camp in 1849, and quickly grew to become the wealthiest gold mining city in California. At one time, it was the third largest city in the state, and it is considered to be the best-preserved gold mining town in the west. The downtown district in Nevada City is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and Nevada City has become a haven for artists, writers and musicians. The town also offers high quality restaurants, live theater and music, antique and specialty shops, art galleries and museums. The main street of town is one of the most interesting attractions, with its historic storefronts; lovely Victorian architecture and old-fashioned street lamps. Since Nevada City borders the Tahoe National Forest, you are just minutes from the mountain lakes, rivers and streams that are filled with fishing, boating, hiking, biking and skiing opportunities. From Nevada City, you can travel east on Highway 20, which eventually connects with Interstate 80 above Emigrant Gap and continues on through the High Sierra mountain town of Truckee and on to Reno, Nevada.
Back in Auburn, if you continue north on Interstate 80, (rather than venturing off onto Historic Highway 49,) you will see an exit for the little town of Colfax. This quaint little town is at the 2,400-foot elevation line, which is below the heavy snow line but above the winter fog found in the valley below. Situated between the Bear River and the North Fork of the American River, Colfax offers biking and hiking trails, parks and access to rivers and lakes. Ask anyone in town for directions to the Bear River (a secluded retreat that wont leave you disappointed.) The history of Colfax is closely tied to the gold rush and the original transcontinental railroad. A wood sided caboose is on display at Main Street in Colfax’s historic downtown and other attractions include the original 1905 passenger depot, which is currently being restored. Just outside Colfax is famous Cape Horn, known as one of the most difficult and dangerous portions of construction for the Transcontinental Railroad. From Colfax, you can continue east on I-80 to Truckee and Reno, or take a picturesque drive on Highway 174 to Cedar Ridge, which will eventually connect up to Highway 49 in Grass Valley.