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Travel Bug: Grandeur of the Gold Rush at Columbia State Historic Park

Main Street in Columbia State Historic Park is a designated for only horse-drawn vehicles. The state park is California’s version of Colonial Williamsburg, a living history museum with docents in period costume. (Marybeth Bond-Sheppard / For The Ark)

California has the nation’s largest state park system, with 280 parks that encompass stunning rivers, waterfalls, sprawling forests, more than a million acres of wildlife reserves, and historic towns. Recently, my husband, Gary, and I rediscovered Columbia State Historic Park, a 2½-hour drive from the Bay Area in Tuolumne County.

As we drove through the almond orchards of the Central Valley toward the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, I was wowed from the get-go: a brilliant landscape of golden-hued hills, fruit orchards, a bounty of vineyards and postcard-perfect historic towns.

Columbia State Historic Park is the California version of Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. It is a living-history museum where docents in period costume depict Gold Rush life on free walking tours in the streets, stores and workshops.

Over $1 billion in gold at today’s rate was mined there between the 1850s and 1870s. For a brief time during the gold boom, Columbia was the second largest city in the state. Many other towns disappeared due to fire, but Columbia survived. Columbia preserves one of the most colorful historic periods in California.

The park is a mecca in the spring for field trips by students studying California history. In the summer, families, tourists and visitors stop in Columbia on their way to Yosemite National Park.

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