Coloma: Not just for fourth graders

Gold discovery park offers grown-up experiences too
By: Gus Thomson, Reporter/Columnist
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The stomach-churning bus ride along winding Highway 49.

The rustic buildings that danced off the pages of a social studies book to kindle fourth-grader imaginations.

The field trip deep into the foothills to walk in the footsteps of the man who first found gold in California in 1848.

For tens of thousands of schoolchildren who have been trooping to Marshall Gold Discovery Park at Coloma for generations, the drumbeat on the memory banks still rattles loudly in adulthood.

But it’s not just for fourth graders.

And it’s not just about dimming childhood memories of a long ago field trip.

Coloma and environs are oft-ignored destinations that have plenty to offer more discriminating adult tastes.

The park was inundated last month with families and history buffs attracted to the annual Gold Discovery Day commemorating the anniversary of James Marshall’s 1848 find at the sawmill he was building, sparking the explosion of speculation, exploitation and Americanization that was the California Gold Rush.

On any day though, the park can reveal its mature side.

The Gold Rush wasn’t for kids and today the park and the surrounding Coloma area has its more adult attractions:


Foodie fare

The Argonaut Food to Fork Cafe is not your kid’s park concession fare. The menu is locally sourced and the coffee is roasted in neighboring Placer County. No corn dogs here. You’ll find avocado toast, vegan grilled cheese sandwiches and much more. Cross the newly constructed Highway 49 bridge into Lotus and the Coloma Club Cafe and you can load up the calories in the morning with breakfast specialties like cowboy potatoes that have kept the place thriving for more than 30 years.


Walk the walk

A local nosh will fill up to tank for hikes or walks along scenic trails in the park. The obvious trek is up to the James Marshall monument. It’s a quarter mile to his final resting place and the view there of the valley is worth the walk. But don’t stop there. A 2½-mile round trip will take you farther into the park, with a view from Monroe Ridge providing another expansive vista. One of the best-kept secrets of the park is that the $8 admission-parking fee can also be applied the same day at the Auburn State Recreation Area, allowing park visitors a twofer on parking to allow a hike closer to Auburn as well.


A vineyard past

Who knew that the Coloma area was a beehive of winery activity during the Gold Rush days. Even James Marshall got into the act, planting a variety of vines for wines that were pure gold to the panning set. These days, the tradition of fine wines has been re-established near Coloma. A visit to the park is a perfect jumping-off point for tastings at vintners like David Girard Vineyards and Hart 2 Hart -Everhart Cellars. An uphill drive from Lotus takes onophiles to Jose Wine Caves on Prospector Road and incredible views.


Hidden history

You heard the sugar-coated version when you visited as a kid. Now get the gritty adult version from docents during tours and at the new exhibits at the Gold Discovery version. We’re talking tales of gambling, boozing, opium binges and ladies of the evening here folks, like how “hooker with a heart of gold” Texas Ellen tended to miners during a cholera outbreak. There are plenty more stories that were kept from you as a fourth grader that are now worth delving deeper into.


Gold in store

With 70,000 schoolkids taking field trips to Coloma annually, the Gold Rush Mercantile store naturally opts for plenty of nicknacks and doodads. Before you enter, it’s no surprise to find one of those machines that squishes pennies into miniature souvenir park medallions. And while the big sellers are vials of fake gold imprinted with first names, the real gold is there too, in a glass case, ready for sale. On a recent day, a four-gram nugget found in the American River was one of many available for sale as an adult souvenir.


The park itself is open daily from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., with nearby eateries and bars open later.