A haunted castle, caves, rock carvings and a camp for gold seekers … near the Bay Area?


Trying to dig up a family-friendly getaway that doesn’t involve Mouse ears, Legos or endless lines? California’s Gold Country landscapes offer plenty of kid-friendly fun and adventure. Trekking to Amador County is like traveling back in time into a sun-drenched realm of golden hills dotted with red barns and windmills.

Many of the Wild West towns that sprang up along historic Highway 49 during the Gold Rush retain their bygone charm and Victorian architecture, so this is the perfect way to expose your kids to some California history. Plus the grown-ups can sip a little Shenandoah Valley wine and browse an antique store or two along the way. Just remember to sprinkle your day with some gold dust. Here are four ways to play.

Cave time

Visitors enjoy a guided tour in the Landmark Room at Black Chasm Cavern.
Visitors enjoy a guided tour in the Landmark Room at Black Chasm Cavern. 

Explore the startling natural wonders of Black Chasm Cavern, which is 10 minutes or so away from the tiny, sleepy town of Volcano. Take a tour and you can venture deep within the earth into the eerie darkness and cool air of this amazing cave, which inspired the cavern sets of the “Matrix” movies. Though local Miwok tribes likely knew about the cave, gold miners first stumbled upon it in 1854. Now beloved by spelunkers, Black Chasm is home to stunning stalagmites and stalactites, as well as rare helictite crystals, beautiful formations which grow out sideways from cave walls in delicate curvy tendrils that look as if they were grown in zero gravity. Climb through the caves via paths and stairs, then check out the National Natural Landmark’s Zen garden nature trail. Tours are $9.50 and up. Details: Open daily at 15701 Pioneer Volcano Road, Volcano; www.blackchasmcavern.com.

Golden nuggets

Grab a pan and hit the river at Roaring Camp — no, not the railroad in the Santa Cruz Mountains. This is an authentic 49er gold camp nestled deep within the bucolic Mokelumne River Canyon. The camp offers prospecting cabins and camping, fishing, swimming and cookout tours ($50) complete with a steak barbecue and live music — plus all-day guided gold panning tours ($40). (If you hit the Mother Lode of the gold stuff, don’t forget who tipped you off to the pleasures of gold fever.) Details: Open through Sept. 30 in Pine Grove; roaringcampgold.com.

Ghost story

If your kiddos love a good spine-tingler, make time for a tour of the 19th-century Preston Castle in Ione, about 10 miles west of Jackson. Once a home for wayward youth, now it’s crammed with ghastly tales of terror, dread and, of course, ghosts. The castle also hosts goosebump-guaranteed flashlight tours and overnight ghost tours, in case you crave a paranormal sleepover. Open for tours on select Saturdays, plus for the Preston Castle Haunt ($25), Oct. 13-14, 20-21 and 27-28. Details: 900 Palm Drive, Ione; www.prestoncastle.com.

Rock play

The largest collection of bedrock mortars in North America, Indian Grinding Rock’s 135-acre park boasts an epic outcropping of marbleized limestone with 1,185 mortar holes decorated with delicate carvings of circles, spoked wheels, wavy lines and animal tracks. A lovely spot to stop and ponder a now-forgotten way of life, this Sierra foothills gem is also a perfect place for a hike and a picnic under the tall trees.

The State Historic Park is located in the Sierra foothills 12 miles east of Jackson, near the town of Volcano. The park is open for day use ($8 per car) from sunrise to sunset daily. The Chaw’se Regional Indian Museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Details: 14881 Pine Grove-Volcano Road,
Pine Grove; www.parks.ca.gov



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