Travel

11 Reasons to Drive to Grass Valley-Nevada City Cultural District

From historic saloons to year-round mountain biking, Nevada County Cultural District has plenty to offer.

Wasim Muklashy/Shutterstock
Wasim Muklashy/Shutterstock
Wasim Muklashy/Shutterstock

The Nevada County Cultural District that encompasses Grass Valley and Nevada City was once the most famous gold mining area in California. Now the district consists of two charming old towns filled with historic landmarks, miles of outdoor trails, newly renovated hotels, and plenty of pit stops for beer and wine. Less than 2.5 hours from San Francisco and just one hour from Truckee, the area is a great destination for a standalone weekend trip or as an extension of a Lake Tahoe trip. Thinking about making a visit? Here are 11 reasons to gas up the car and drive to Grass Valley-Nevada City Cultural District:

California Heritage: Indigenous Research Project
California Heritage: Indigenous Research Project
California Heritage: Indigenous Research Project

Visit ‘Uba Seo Gallery

Before the miners, there was the Nisenan people. This group of Indigenous Americans lived between the Sacramento River and the Sierra Mountains. The Gold Rush brought a large influx of people and the Nisenans were driven away. The California Heritage: Indigenous Research Project works to bring more awareness to the Nisenan culture, including opening of the ‘Uba Seo Gallery in downtown Nevada City in the summer of 2021, bringing in exhibits of Native American arts and culture, in particular those of the Nisenan people. The current exhibit “Erased” places focus on “anti-Indian legislation, negation of Tribal sovereignty and lasting impacts of forced assimilation that continue to affect the Nisenan.”

Photo by Kat Alves
Photo by Kat Alves
Photo by Kat Alves

Stay at historic (and possibly haunted) hotels

Grass Valley and Nevada City are home to two historic hotels that recently underwent major renovations under new ownership, outfitting them with modern comforts while bringing back the architectural and design details of the Gold Rush era. The Victorian-style National Exchange Hotel first opened in 1856 and holds the designation of being one of the oldest continuously run hotels west of the Rockies-outside of a fire that briefly shut the hotel down in 1863-as well as being recognized in the National Register of Historic Places and as a California Historical Landmark. The historic hotel has 38 unique rooms with vintage details, plus the National Bar for bites and cocktails in a tavern setting, Lola for modern, market-driven fine dining, and the Grand Lounge for relaxing and taking in the views of Nevada City.

The masonry-style Holbrooke Hotel is also an icon of the area. Opened in 1852, it’s the oldest continuously operated hotel in California’s Mother Lode and recognized as a California Historical Landmark for a history that includes past guests like Mark Twain, Jack London, and five US presidents. The hotel has 28 rooms, each offering unique charm and cozy details like fur rugs and brick walls, to invite you to hang your hat for a night or two.

With over 150 years of history and famous and infamous guests who have stayed in the rooms, both hotels frequently draw supernatural enthusiasts to the area. Some of the packages offered at The National Exchange come with a tour of the hotel where they will spill some of these haunting histories with the guests. Take a peek into Holbrooke’s ghostly past by reading the history on their website.

Photo by Kat Alves
Photo by Kat Alves
Photo by Kat Alves

Drink cocktails at the oldest continuously operating saloon in California

The Golden Gate Saloon in Grass Valley opened in 1852 and is the oldest continuously operating saloon in the state. Part of the newly renovated Holbrooke Hotel, the Golden Gate Saloon still boasts the beautiful original mahogany and marble bar. but now with a new food and cocktail menu from Santa Barbara’s Acme Hospitality Group. Sit at the bar for a cocktail or local beer, and stay for the seasonal, California-Mexican dinner menu. Also within the Holbrooke Hotel is The Iron Door, a speakeasy lounge that’s rumored to have been a brothel in a former life. Now they’re beloved for creative and classic cocktails in an underground setting, with stone walls, wood ceilings, and ambient lighting.

Learn about life in the mines during the Gold Rush

The Empire Mine was one of the most productive hardrock gold mines in its heyday, producing 5.8 million ounces of gold. The success of the Empire Mine was responsible for much of the development in Grass Valley. While the mine closed in 1956, it’s now a state historic park with docent-led tours and trails throughout the mine yard and the owner’s estate, including entrance to 367 miles of underground mine shafts.

Photo by Fiona Chandra
Photo by Fiona Chandra
Photo by Fiona Chandra

Take a hike

With the Tahoe National Forest as its backyard, Grass Valley and Nevada City have over 600 miles of trails. The Deer Creek Tribute trail, complete with creek views and suspension bridges, starts out just a few blocks from downtown Nevada City and is easily accessible even without a car. An outdoor trip here can be inclusive for the whole family, and just six miles away is Independence Trail, which is the country’s first wheelchair-accessible wilderness trail.

Photo by Angela Nunnink Photography
Photo by Angela Nunnink Photography
Photo by Angela Nunnink Photography

Drink award-winning beers

Three Forks Bakery & Brewing Company is a small-town spot where beers are brewed in-house and most of the ingredients used in their pastries and pizzas are sourced from local farms. They also strive to minimize waste by providing food waste, coffee grounds, and spent beer grain to local farms for their animals. Three Forks’ beers have won multiple gold medals at state competitions, including a Munich Helles lager called Mother’s Beach Blonde, and the dry-hopped Dynamite Double IPA. Pair your selection with fresh pastries or wood-fired pizzas with organic wild yeast crust.

Go wine tasting

The Grass Valley-Nevada City area is part of an appellation called the Sierra Foothills. Nevada City Winery is the oldest winery in Nevada County and all of the Sierra Foothills American Viticultural Area (AVA); it started producing wine in 1880. Prohibition and the end of the Gold Rush put an end to many wineries here, but Nevada City Winery was revived in 1980 and their wines have been winning awards at various California wine competitions ever since. Of particular note is their North Coast Brut, an aromatic sparkling wine with hints of citrus fruits, pear, and floral notes, that took home Double Gold and Gold medals at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. The tasting room right in downtown Nevada City houses an art gallery and with plenty of indoor and outdoor seating, is a nice spot to spend a leisurely afternoon.

Watch a burlesque show

Cabaret and burlesque shows were a common form of entertainment during the Gold Rush, and you can now regularly catch them thanks to a collective called The Fringe Society, a nonprofit that supports performance arts in the community. The Fringe Society puts on a monthly Drag Bingo in partnership with Boozy Drag Queen Bingo at National Exchange Hotel’s Lola restaurant. They also put on a monthly Western-themed burlesque show at Holbrooke’s speakeasy, The Iron Door.

Bob White/Shutterstock
Bob White/Shutterstock
Bob White/Shutterstock

Kayak on Scotts Flat Lake

About six miles east of Nevada City is Scotts Flat Lake, a locals’ favorite for water activities and camping. The lake may be man-made, but has a lot to offer including beaches, picnic areas and grills, and hiking and biking trails. There are kayak and SUP rentals locally, so it’s easy to head out to the water and enjoy a view of the shores lined with pine trees. The lake is also a popular spot for trout and bass fishing. There is a $15 day-use fee per vehicle (up to four people), so we recommend carpooling.

Hit the road or mountain for biking

Nevada City hosts the oldest professional cycling races on the West Coast with Nevada City Classic, as well as the youth-organized Nevada City Dirt Classic, so you know it’s a great area for both road and mountain biking. There are a dozen mountain biking trails from easy to advanced difficulty, as well road biking routes that run through plenty of quiet backroads, ranging from 15 all the way to 113 miles. For those flying in, Tour of Nevada City rents out various types of bikes.

Photo by Akim Aginsky
Photo by Akim Aginsky
Photo by Akim Aginsky

See a show at the oldest theater on the West Coast

Nevada Theater opened in 1865 and is a historic landmark for being the oldest theater building in California. The theater recently underwent renovation, which includes a stunning mural that spans the entire auditorium, painted by California artist Sarah Coleman. The theater hosts plays, live music, and dance performances. Check the website for upcoming events and to purchase tickets.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTwitterPinterestYouTubeTikTok, and Snapchat.

Fiona Chandra is an Indonesian-born freelance food and travel writer based in Los Angeles. Follow her on Instagram.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

Get the latest from Thrillist Australia delivered straight to your inbox, subscribe here.

Related

Our Best Stories, Delivered Daily
The best decision you'll make all day.