California is known for its big cities, beautiful beaches and national parks, but there’s another reason to bring your family to the Golden State: it’s a great place to learn about American history. From the pioneers and immigrants to the Spanish missions and the Gold Rush, there is plenty of interesting California history to learn about during your travels.
Gold rush town
1. Columbia State Historic Park
Located in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, Columbia was once at the center of the California Gold Rush. In the 1850s, pioneers eagerly worked this land in search of gold, giving birth to the town of Columbia. The historic center has been preserved and now serves as a living history park. The downtown streets are closed to traffic and remain unpaved; lined with plank sidewalks and original shops, blacksmiths and even saloons.
The dusty atmosphere of these historic streets is brought to life with gold panning, rides on a 100-year-old stagecoach, a historic saloon complete with an old man playing the piano and people dressed in 19th-century-style clothing. Your kids will love going back in time.
A creepy cannibal park
2. Donner Memorial State Park
The famous Donner Party set out from Illinois to California in 1846 but got stuck in the Sierra Nevada mountains just outside Lake Tahoe, California. As snow levels reached twenty-two feet, the pioneers were unable to continue trekking across the mountains and instead spent the winter there. About half of the party died, and the others famously resorted to cannibalism to survive.
The Donner Memorial State Park contains a small museum about the pioneers and the circumstances they faced in that fateful winter. However, learning about the challenges pioneers faced as they moved west is not the only reason to visit. The park itself is beautiful. Your family can enjoy seasonal outdoor recreation in a peaceful lakeside setting, from picnics and hiking on warm days, to snowshoeing or cross-country skiing in winter.
A little slice of elsewhere
3. Monterey & Carmel
One of California’s best-known destinations, the Monterey Bay Area, also has a great deal of history. Monterey was the capital of California until 1849 and today historic Monterey includes Cannery Row, where Chinese immigrants first worked in the 1850s, and the Monterey Historic State Park, with some of the state’s oldest adobe buildings. The outdoor park extends along the ocean for two miles and includes plazas, gardens, and the location where whalers first landed in 1602.
Photo by Kristina D.C. Hoeppner
Nearby Carmel is worth a stop for history lovers because of its stunning mission. Spanish settlers set up missions along California’s coast, and Mission San Carlos Borroméo del río Carmelo (or Carmel Mission) was the second, established in 1771. The architecture is dramatic, reminding visitors more of Europe than of the U.S., and the interior of the church is filled with beautiful design and art. The gardens, cemetery of gravestones marked with abalone shells and courtyard are also not to be missed.
The center of the gold rush
Sacramento was one of the centers of the California Gold Rush, and the city retains a historic center perfect for exploring with curious kids. The Old Sacramento State Historic Park includes more than 50 period buildings from the 1850s. Besides being a bustling business district during the Gold Rush, this was also the location of the first transcontinental railroad and the western end of the Pony Express postal system. Kids will also enjoy the scenic ride on vintage trains and the old train cars in the California Railroad Museum.
Near Old Sacramento is the Capitol Building. The grand Neo-Classical exterior provides the opportunity to show kids some features of architecture, such as the dome and types of columns. Inside the Capitol, the historic rooms show authentic government officials’ workspaces, but visitors can also see where the state government works today.
Truly giant trees
5. Calaveras Big Trees State Park
Both kids and adults love the Calaveras Big Trees State Park for some easy walks amongst giant sequoias, the largest trees in the world. But the park also provides opportunities to learn about the history of exploitation in 19th century California when impressed pioneers felled the mighty trees. An eerie reminder of this history is a tree called the Mother of the Forest, now a black, dead tree that was once the largest in the grove with a height of about 325 feet and width of 90 feet at the bottom. In 1854 the tree’s bark was removed in sections so that it could be reconstructed and displayed across the country. The destruction of this 2,500- year-old tree actually helped change mindsets and led to the protection of the Calaveras redwoods.