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5 Gold Country Towns Worth a Visit

These historic towns along Highway 49 offer great food, hospitality, architecture, and scenery. 

Gas lamps line Broad Street in Nevada City.

Ian G. Dagnall/Alamy

Along the northern stretch of California's Highway 49 as it follows the Yuba River into the Sierras, five Gold Country towns—with populations ranging from around 350 (Sierraville) to nearly 13,000 (Grass Valley)—rival one another in Gold Rush–era attractions and outdoor splendor.

Grass Valley's architecturally rich downtown is great for shoppers. First stop: Lazy Dog Chocolateria, known for its hand-dipped ice cream bars. Bibliophiles can choose between the Book Seller, with its curated selection of new releases, and Booktown, housing 11 vintage and used sellers under one roof.

Victorian homes, iron-shuttered brick buildings: Nevada City lives up to its early name, "Queen City of the Northern Mines." Relics include the Firehouse No. 1 museum and the restored Nevada Theatre. Food is the star, though. Try creole-inspired potato boats at Ike's Quarter Cafe or the pork belly with fig-onion-port marmalade at New Moon Cafe.

At the confluence of the Downie and Yuba Rivers, Downieville boasts picturesque bridges and swimming holes. Pick up a walking-tour map and follow the plaques detailing the town's raucous history. There's even a gallows next to the courthouse.

With the Pacific Crest Trail and Yuba nearby, Sierra City is your supply stop for outdoor fun. Fuel up with a three-inch-thick BLT from the Sierra Country Store.

Sierraville may be best known as the home of Sierra Hot Springs, but the Fork & Horn is its newest draw. Chef Cassandra Martinetti, a third-generation area resident, offers quirky takes on traditional dishes such as a marbled-rye Reuben with house sauerkraut. Down the road, homespun Smithneck Farms Cafe serves fresh-baked muffins and seasonal pies.