This Californian gold rush town has a hotel that dates back to the 1850s, cute shops and plenty of ghost stories
The first time I saw Nevada City, California, I turned to my sister, Marina, and said, “I can’t believe there’s a place that still looks like this. . I’d driven across the country to visit her in San Francisco, and she’d persuaded me to ride up into the Sierra Nevada foothills to explore the city she’d heard described as “a colder Tahoe.” The trip took 2.5 hours but seemed to take us 160 years into the past. Nevada City was a postcard-worthy former mining town with a rushing river—the Yuba, where Marina says people bathe in the summer—and Scotts Flat Lake, a peaceful spot that on the day we visited reflected the surrounding mountains into its mirror-like surface.
What really surprised me was Broad Street, the main thoroughfare. It looked like a movie set for a western, dominated by two typical examples of the Mother Lode style of architecture: the 1865 Nevada Theater (nevadatheatre.com) — one of California’s oldest, where Mark Twain once spoke — and the 1856 National Exchange Hotel (thenationalexchangehotel.com; doubles from $250)where Twain and all the other bigwigs that came to town slept.
During our first visit, in January 2019, the hotel was under renovation. But although there were fewer tourists in town, Broad Street was buzzing with locals, as well as Bay Area second-home owners; still very much alive hippies who seemed to have wandered from San Francisco for the last century and never left; and the almost palpable ghosts of the miners, gamblers and ladies of the night who populated this place a century and a half ago.
I followed the National’s progress on Instagram as layers of wallpaper and story fell. Last June, when it was finally up and running, Marina and I returned to find that Nevada City isn’t just a gold rush time capsule. It’s a microcosm of American history: the good, the bad, and the funky.
After the discovery of gold at Deer Creek in the summer of 1848, the peaceful home of the native Nisenan people was flooded with miners. Just two years later, some 10,000 people lived in Nevada City (today the city has about 3,100). The footprint of miners is everywhere. At Empire Mine State Historic Park, Marina and I toured the mansion grounds where the owner of the mine once lived, admiring the heritage roses and reflecting pool. At Kitkitdizzi (kitkitdizzi.com), a shop named after a native wildflower, we browsed vintage clothing, organic beauty products and ornate tarot decks as an employee lifted a door in the ground to retrieve boxes from an underground tunnel once used to transport gold to the bank without risking theft. And at the Saturday farmer’s market (ncfarmersmarket.org)gluten-free donuts, wildflowers and local honey were sold in front of parts of abandoned mining machinery that had been reused as sculptures.
A combination of factors led to the slow demise of the mining industry, including land mining, the fall in the price of gold, and the closure of mines by the War Production Board after the United States entered the Second World War. In 1957, when David Osborn and Charles Woods moved to town, the grand Victorian houses were crumbling. To help save them, the visionary couple, who met while studying art history at UC Berkeley, started the area’s historic preservation movement. In 1972, they bought and restored an old forge which now houses the Cultural Center of the Miners’ Foundry.
In the late 1960s, “there was a fallout in the Haight-Ashbury scene, and a lot of artists and hippies started moving into town,” National executive Erin Lewis told us. around a coq au vin and cocktails at Lola, the hotel restaurant. Franco-Californian restaurant. “Musicians who came here in the 60s created basement studios where their children continued to make music, and the town remained very committed to music.”
Lewis, who moved here with her Nevada City native husband 11 years ago, saw bands playing at the old National when the bar was open but the third floor was boarded up. “I would sit on the veranda to watch the sunset,” she recalls. “I liked it so much I started a campaign called Save the National.” His wish came true when ACME Hospitality Group, which owns six restaurants in Santa Barbara, bought the property and offered him a job.
During the renovation of the National, the Holbrooke Hotel (holbrooke.com; doubles from $137), five minutes off the freeway in Grass Valley, went up for sale and ACME jumped on it. (Mark Twain also slept there.) Buying the two hotels was a no-brainer, said Sherry Villanueva, CEO of ACME. “This area is the gateway to the Tahoe National Forest, close to metropolitan areas such as Sacramento and San Francisco, and perfectly located for hiking, biking, and exploring California history.”
Villanueva found the region’s idiosyncratic present to be as vital as its historical past. Not only are both hotels said to be haunted – “the ghosts were a pure bonus,” she told me – but, “Nevada City is said to be home to a karma-clearing vortex, a place where energy comes from the land. There is a strong spiritual community here.”
It’s true that at this point in Nevada City’s history, there are at least as many crystals as there are cowboy hats in storefronts. This dichotomy is part of the appeal. Whether they came for the scene or the scenery, everyone I spoke to described Nevada City as “magical.”
I did not buy a crystal. But when I thought of all the things I’d done in a single day—running down the natural slides of the Yuba River; talk religion with Anthony Jones, the manager of the National Hotel, who was a monk in Greece; watching an aerial burlesque show in a field outside Grass Valley – the idea of otherworldly energy emanating from the mines seemed entirely possible.
A version of this story first appeared in the May 2022 issue of Travel + Leisure under the title After the gold rush.