A Weekend Getaway in Grass Valley, CA

Each year, Steve and I select a different California city for an anniversary getaway. We stay within about 2 hours of home so that we’re not spending all our time together on the road. This year, we chose Grass Valley

Grass Valley is located in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas at an elevation of approximately 2500 ft. It dates back to the time of the California Gold Rush. Gold was discovered in what is now Grass Valley in 1850, with a post office established in 1851. Grass Valley was home to the largest gold mine in California (more on that later), with most of the laborers coming from Cornwall, England. Grass Valley maintains its Cornish history today. 

Because our anniversary destinations are relatively close to home, we don’t feel like we need to see absolutely everything. We could come back any time, even as a day trip. It’s a much different pace than when we travel out of state. We sleep in, stroll aimlessly through downtown, eat leisurely meals, play games and watch movies together, and relax. 

We had two destinations planned for this trip. The first was North Star Mining Museum. The museum does a great job educating visitors about the area's mining heritage and the impact the industry had on the area and its people. 

Outside, you'll find a bunch of large mining equipment and signs to help you understand what you're seeing. 

A fun note about this 20-man skip. It hurled its passenger into the depths of the mine at a 72° decline. I can't imagine being one of twenty people packed into this thing as it flew through a narrow space in the darkness for up to 30 minutes. 

Inside, you'll find just about everything relating to gold mining in Grass Valley and beyond. The exhibits are fascinating and the many interpretative signs are very helpful, as are the docents. 

I enjoyed the minerals and California Gold Rush stamps (affiliate links). 

Steve reluctantly put his toes on the grate for this photo. If the grate failed, it would be a very unpleasant fall. 

The North Star Mining Museum is deceptively large. As you go further back, the space opens up significantly. Here's a Pelton wheel, with me in the righthand photo for scale. 


The museum houses the second-largest collection of Pelton wheels in the world. (We asked the docent where the largest collection is, but he didn't know.)

There is so much to see at this museum. 

This old cash register is fascinating. To use it, you drop the balls into the appropriate slots at the top as you make a sale. At the end of the day, you total up the balls in each slot and that should match the cash you have. 

Wooden pipes. 

I was pleasantly surprised by how many hands-on things there are. 

The North Star Mining Museum is located along Wolf Creek. There are two small bridges (one a former aqueduct) that take you across the creek to the Wolf Creek Trail. It's a lovely place to stroll. 

Our second destination, which we visited on Sunday, was Empire Mine State Historic Park. Empire Mine was the largest gold mine in California. During its 100+ years in operation, it extracted nearly 6 million ounces of gold from 367 miles of underground passages. It has operated as a State Historic Park since 1975.

Steve and I have both been to Empire Mine before, but it’s been around 25 years for me and over 30 years for Steve. It feels strange that I’m old enough to have visited something 25 years ago as an adult, but it is what it is. A lot has changed in 25 years, but my love of history, museums, and state parks has not. 

There is a lot to see at Empire Mine SHP. The visitor center is interesting and informative. 

Hey, look! I found another place to see a moon rock! It's only been a month since the last time I saw a moon rock (two, actually). 

Perhaps most interesting thing at Empire Mine is "The Secret Room." The entire room, named for its blacked-out windows, contains a scale model of the 5 square miles of the mine's workings. The grey and black portions are structural only. The colorful parts are the shafts and workings. The red, orange, and yellows were the richest areas, while the greens and blues were less productive. 

The park has a lot of the original buildings from the mine's operations, including the owner's home and gardens. They're gorgeous. 

Hi, Lizard!

Empire Mine SHP offers three tours: a garden tour, a cottage tour, and a mine tour, all included in the low admission price. We started with a self-guided tour of all three, then took the guided mine tour. While you can get most of the information from the brochure and many interpretative signs, there are definitely some perks with the guided tour. The main one is the chance to climb into this skip...

... and experience a "ride" down into the mine. I put ride into quotation marks because the skip doesn't actually travel, but clever lighting and shaking of the skip makes it feel like you do. It's really neat. 

When we weren’t learning about the mining history of Grass Valley, we were exploring downtown or relaxing in our hotel room. We stayed at Grass Valley Courtyard Suites, which I highly recommend. We had a King Balcony room. 

Our traditional anniversary selfie:

We ate very well during our time in Grass Valley. There are a lot of great options just a few blocks from the hotel. We quite surprised by the enormous portions at Grass Valley Brewing Company

The food at Cirino's was superb. The risotto with brie, grapes, and rosemary was to die for. So, so good. And their bread - I'll be thinking about that warm sourdough for a long time. 

You can't come to Grass Valley without eating their most famous food: the Cornish pasty. We got one to go from Grass Valley Pasty Company and enjoyed it on our balcony. One was enough for the two of us to split. 

We chose the pot roast pasty, but they have a lot of other tempting flavors. I would return there again and again. It was so delicious. 

As is always the case, our anniversary trip went by too quickly. We said goodbye to Grass Valley and went to go pick up Trevor from his grandparents. But we had one more super fun activity to do before the weekend ended. I'll tell you about it tomorrow.