Since I was a child, I’ve always loved places that are like living history. Anywhere you can walk around and feel part of a period of time. I was thrilled to be invited to visit and stay in Columbia State Park in California this September.
I arrived at around midday after travelling from San Francisco. Walking from the outside of the park down a narrow alley onto the main street, I was taken from our time back to the time of the 49ers. Standing on a dusty road, I caught my first glimpse of a town perfectly frozen in time.
This area has been moulded into the historic place that it is by many generations. For thousands of years, Native Indian people settled in the Sierra Nevada foothills and central parts of California. The Miwok lived in Columbia and still survive today. It became a melting pot of cultures when news of the gold rush came out. By 1852, the whole area was covered by camps of thousands of miners searching for gold. They were Chinese, Italian, Irish, German and French as well as rival locals from Sonora and Jamestown.
The buildings were brick and wood with large verandas and walkways. The signs outside gave an idea of the type of shop or service. I particularly liked to see statements like ‘honest goods’ on them. Old advertising was fascinating and everywhere I looked there was something I wanted to know more about. This is the perfect place to explore some of California’s history.
The gold rush made this area famous and many people from all over the world flocked here to make their fortunes. Very few of them ever left with riches. Taxes and other fees for working here hit some miners hard and competition was high. Today, tourists can try their hand at gold panning too.
I didn’t pan for gold while I was there but I did watch kids and adults concentrating very hard on finding some gold!
You can also dip dye candles, watch a blacksmith working and buy the beautiful iron horseshoes and gifts, go to the soap shop, wine tasting, ghost tours, photography exhibit, farmer’s markets and much more. There are weekly and annual events all detailed on the website.
City Hotel was the place on the main street that I stayed and it is a beautiful, historic hotel. The room was light, airy and gorgeous. I had a great night’s sleep and I’m very pleased that this accommodation is available.
Old fashioned costumes were worn by all of the staff around the park and rangers were on hand to give tours and answer questions. I found the staff friendly, accommodating and very knowledgeable. It was obvious that everyone loved working at the state park and preserving California’s heritage in this way. Drop into Columbia Booksellers to find out even more about the history of the area and some stories of communities who have lived here. Strolling down the street and going into the places that caught my attention was my personal way of exploring but there are maps to plan your visit.
Columbia State Park is fun and interactive which is why it really appeals to me. I’m ok walking around exhibits and I can learn from them but give me something I can get involved with and I’ll understand more and have a brilliant time. There is quite a long list of things to do and see here.
The first thing I went for was the stage coach ride. This is a perfect way to see a large part of the park and hear a few stories on the way. The horses are beautiful and they work on a rotation. The old coach was fun and I sat up front with the driver which was exciting. Not something I’ve done before. There is a bit of a surprise halfway round but I won’t ruin it.
There is a theatre in the park that has some great musicals called Fallon House Theatre. It gets booked up in advance so buy tickets ahead of time if you want to go. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I love going to the West End in London and have watched a musical on Broadway too. This was one of the main things to do on an evening in the park after stores had closed so I was hoping it would be good entertainment.
I went to the showing of The Robber Bridegroom, a comedy musical that was very impressive. The casts of these performances have often come from Broadway musicals and for a smaller theatre in a state park, it is very high quality entertainment. Definitely a big surprise for me that evening.
Don’t miss out on a delicious handmade ice cream before or after the show too!
As if this wasn’t good enough already, the food is also delicious. At City Hotel, I had a great evening meal with locally sourced produce and a lovely glass of wine. California is known for fantastic wines but food generally was mouth-watering too.
Kate’s Bakery (great name!) and Teahouse is pretty well known and I got to find out why. I had a very tasty quiche and cinnamon bun for breakfast with a great freshly ground coffee. The food here is great value and the portions are big enough to share. I wish I had booked an afternoon tea at the Teahouse but I had other parts of Tuolumne County to discover.
After the bakery for breakfast, I went to the sweet shop. This is no ordinary sweet shop. This is a sweet shop I made an appointment to go into to speak to the owner. It’s a special kind of place because sweets have been made here for five generations.
Nelson’s Columbia Candy Kitchen is my must visit recommendation of the park. People from all over the world visit this sweet shop and take part in the annual candy cane lottery for a place to hand make your own candy canes at Christmas.
Chocolate and sweets are my downfall and what a great downfall to have, especially here. I was fairly restrained and only left with four handmade candies but the temptation was real! The surfaces were starting to become covered with the most enticing creams and caramels, fruit and nuts hand dipped in dark and milk chocolate.
I went on a behind the scenes tour to see almonds being covered by hand and to look at some shaped chocolate ready for Thanksgiving. The methods and recipe used are still the originals which I particularly love about this place.
The workshop has some tools and equipment that has been used for five generations. The old methods from Europe were passed down and recipes have been kept almost exactly the same. Sugar free products are now available so there have been some necessary changes to keep up with demands in the 21st Century but other items are identical to the old sweets/candies.
Christmas is a huge time of the year for this small business with products being shipped all over the world and sell out events for kids. I would love to go back and make some traditional sweets with them.
The quality of the candies was one thing that made this place special but the story of generations of a family making these sweets over time was the real connection I found. This area was full of hard working people who ran businesses through successful and also challenging times. Its part of the heritage and history of this area and what makes California the state that it is today.
Have you visited Columbia State Park? Would you like to experience this great place and stay at City Hotel?
Disclaimer: I was working with Tuolumne County to discover places throughout this region of California. As always, my views are my own and I wouldn’t recommend a place unless I love it