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.

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

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.”

National Exchange Hotel
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.

Golden Gate Saloon
Photo by Kat Alves

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.

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

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.

Three Forks Bakery & Brewing Company
Photo by Angela Nunnink Photography

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.

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.

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.

Scotts Flat Lake
Bob White/Shutterstock

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.

Nevada Theater
Photo by Akim Aginsky

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.

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