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California Gold Rush Lizard's Mouth

The Ultimate California Road Trip – Our Historic Wild West Adventure Begins

There’s gold in them thar hills.

I still can’t believe it. A professional travel writer at thirty-four years of age and I still had not crossed ‘road trip through California’ from my bucket list. I wouldn’t allow myself to enter my mid-thirties facing this reality. So I set out in 2014 with one main goal in mind. Get to California.

I wanted to take a road trip. Just me and the Little exploring the great outdoors, the American Wild West, and a few things in between. I didn’t want this to be that ordinary run-of-the-mill California road trip. No way, no how. It had to be full of adventure and oozing with wide-eyed legends. Sure, we could have hit all the main highlights, seen all the national parks, and wrote yet another boring blog post about the same trip that’s been done by a bazillion people, but that’s not Fairytale Traveler form.

We needed an adventure. We wanted more. We wanted to explore the last frontier. The gun-slinging, gold rushing, good-guy vs. bad guy. The Wild West. And what better way to do it than with the Kia Sorento! Lucky for us my best friend owns one and let us use it for the entire trip!

California Gold Rush
The “Mission Era” comes to an end in 1850 when California is made a state in 1851 just after the mass migration of the 49’ers.

My Wild West

Ever since I was a kid I pictured the ‘Wild West’ to be this impossible desert land enveloped in majestic mountains where good guys and bad guys held gunfights, and the good guys always won. There were wild horses, dust, cacti, and big cigars. It was an ‘anything goes’ world painted in Technicolor with the sound of cap guns ringing in the street.

The Real Wild West

I wasn’t too far off with the impossible desert mountain thing. There were certainly cacti, bad guys, and dust, but there was a lot more than that. More than John Wayne or Clint Eastwood could ever transcend through a camera. There was poverty, illness, death, crime, greed, hope, opportunity, and the promise of a better life during what was one of the biggest migrations of all time, the California Gold Rush. That’s the stuff dreams are made of kids, shattered dreams, and I wanted to explore every part of it.


California Gold Rush
Gold miners during the California Gold Rush public domain.

The Truth About the California Gold Rush

You had the rape of a landscape, exploitation of Mexicans, extermination of tribes, mistreatment of Asians, loss of life and impoverishment of diggers” –

Richard Slotkin, Wesleyan University

Picture a massive migration of people in a short amount of time who all had a common denominator, hope, failure, and luck. These three things will make people crazy when combined with poverty, illness, theft, murder, and a blurry picture of families left behind. All for the chance at financial stability. Truth be told very few actually made a fortune from gold itself. In fact, more money was made from where gold was spent than by the hand of a digger.

Fun Facts from

  • The 49’ers traveled in 1849 by land and sea for the California Gold Rush
  • In March of 1848 California’s population was an estimated 800. At the end of 1849, it was estimated at 100,000
  • $2 Billion in money made from the California Gold Rush
  • 3/4 of the male population in San Francisco left to mine for gold within five months of its discovery
  • Within seven months of the discovery of gold, 4,000 men migrated from San Francisco to Coloma
  • The peak of the California Gold Rush was in 1852
  • In 1853 hydraulic mining destroyed the landscape
California Gold Rush Lizard's Mouth
Looking out into Santa Barbara from Lizard’s Mouth. An easy trek for the Kia Sorento (but one that can be made in any car).

People from all over the globe migrated from every direction to California in search of their fortune. By sea, they came to San Francisco, by land they crossed the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Mojave Desert. Hopeful diggers made their way into the Sacramento Valley from Helena all the way to Julian.

Here’s a pretty sweet list (and map) of Gold Mining Towns both active and ghost towns in California.

Fun Fact: Death Valley actually got its name from the California Gold Rush in 1849 when people swore death would come to them by crossing the desert. In reality, only one death was reported in Death Valley during the rush.

About the Places and why I Chose Them

I would like to say there are far more places to explore than what we saw in one week. I’m in no way done with you California. 

California Gold Rush Lizard's Mouth
Lizard’s Mouth is a great hike and perfect for kids (most family cars can make it up the mountain to this spot).

Since I only had a week to explore, I started with San Francisco (by way of Santa Barbara) because it held such an important role in the migration of miners to California. It also reaped many of the rewards of the fortunes. From there I had to head east.

I wanted to experience the Sierra Nevada Mountains the way the 49’ers had so, camping a night at Lake Tahoe and driving through Yosemite National Park was a must. I also wanted to spend a night in an active historic ‘Gold Mining Town’ and see real historic artifacts from the California Gold Rush. This led me to Placerville (miles from the discovery of gold that started the California Gold Rush), and Columbia where there’s a working heritage park complete with operative stores, panning, saloons, candy shops, and even a hotel. Workers at the Columbia State Historic Park dress in period clothing. The only difference between the 2014 Columbia and the 1850 Columbia is the paved street.

Here’s a great link for state museums related to the California Gold Rush.

The Adventure Begins in Santa Barbara

Before I start telling you about our trip I want to share why this was so meaningful for us. It was not just in part because I had always dreamed of exploring the west as it once was, but because I was finally getting the chance to visit my best guy friend Justin in the place he calls ‘home’.

California Gold Rush Lizard's Mouth
Cool rock formations at Lizard’s Mouth make for a fun day of hiking with kids (an easy journey into the mountains with Ford family cars).

Justin and I met in 2002 when our paths crossed in the music industry. He continued on in the wild world of music, I in the world of travel. We both grew up, had kids, and the whole nine. Over the years he and I kept in touch and would meet up at shows while he was on the road. In all the years I’ve known him I never had the chance to actually visit the place he calls ‘home’.

Now, after all this time, our kids were finally going to meet each other. I looked forward to uncovering this special side of my dear friend. Home is such an important piece of someone’s life, and now I’d finally be able to experience it with him.

California Gold Rush Lizard's Mouth
Family cars can easily make it into the Los Padres National Forest which stretches from Santa Barbara to the north. Lizard’s Mouth is at GPS: 34.503055, -119.865691

Lizard’s Mouth

It was the eve of our Wild West adventure through California’s Gold Country. I sat perched on a giant boulder somewhere in Lizard’s Mouth. The ‘Little’ tucked in my lap with a hand full of stones he was tenaciously throwing into the rocks below. We sat before an endless view talking about all the things we couldn’t wait to do. He wanted to find gold. I wanted to ride in a stagecoach.

California Gold Rush Lizard's Mouth
Nothing to do but think of all the beautiful places in this world.

It wasn’t long before he bolted off to play, running through the caves and crawling into spaces I could barely fit a foot into. The afternoon was spent collecting dirt on our heels and in the evening we ate and shared fond memories while the kids made new ones.

California Gold Rush Lizard's Mouth
It was so nice to finally have our children playing together after all these years.

Of all the family cars out there, I can honestly say after being an owner myself, Kia family cars are the most comfortable, reliable and versatile of family cars. My favorite of the Kia models is the Kia Sorento, my second favorite the new Niro.

California Gold Rush Lizard's Mouth
Justin totally got stuck here.

Hitting the Gold Rush Trail

Five in the morning always comes too early. Then again, five in the morning usually comes when something awesome is happening.

I popped the trunk to the Sorento and threw our bags beside a two-man tent and camping goods Justin packed for us so we could crash a night at Lake Tahoe. I was pretty stoked, despite the fact it was still dark-in-the morning. I had never been to the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and this would be the Little’s first official night of camping.

We had a pretty stellar itinerary for the next week. It looked like this:

  • Drive the Pacific Coast Highway from Santa Barbara to San Francisco
  • Overnight at the Hotel Union Square Kid’s Suite (Union Square was once a Gold Rush camping ground for miners)
  • Drive east to Placerville the historic Gold Rush town (miles from the first discovery site in Coloma)
  • Spend a night in the Historic Carry House Hotel where Buffalo Bill and even Mark Twain stayed
  • Drive into the Sierra Nevada Mountains and camp at Lake Tahoe for the Little’s first ever camping experience
  • Drive south to Yosemite National Park along the eastern mountain ridge and through the park into Groveland
  • Spend a night at the haunted Groveland Hotel next to California’s oldest working saloon
  • Drive to Columbia State Historic Park, a working heritage village from the Gold Rush Era
  • Head back to Santa Barbara for one last surfer’s sunset before heading home to Florida

To be continued… keep following the adventure! Check back next week for our journey along the Pacific Coast Highway and into San Francisco where we stayed at a special hotel with a kid’s suite and took a night tour to Alcatraz!

If you’re following this adventure and have something to share, please leave a comment in the area below. I love hearing from you, and I love advice! I’ll be back in California this year and would love to know your take on cool places to see. 

Christa Thompson

Christa Thompson is the Founder and Chief Editor of The Fairytale Traveler. She started traveling the world in 2003 when she attended a summer abroad study at the University of Cambridge in England. Since then, her wanderlust has been fierce. Her three passions in life are her son, traveling, and being creative. The Fairytale Traveler brand gives Christa the opportunity to do all of these things and to live intentionally every day. "It's never too late to believe in what you love and to pursue your dreams." -Christa Thompson

9 thoughts on “The Ultimate California Road Trip – Our Historic Wild West Adventure Begins

  1. I can’t believe only one person died crossing Death Valley! It always seems so foreboding. We did a roadtrip through Wyoming this summer and we were fascinated with all the gold mines (and the tales of broken dreams/lives). I can’t imagine the hardships they had to endure (and what was worse for them back home) that they were chasing the dream of gold across a harsh terrain.

    1. It really is unbelievable isn’t it? I’m not sure if only one person died in Death Valley ever, but only one during the Gold Rush. I can’t wait to head back west,I want to explore all of the ghost towns. What route did you take?

    2. I gre up in Groveland Californis . Its a Wonderful place to grow up. Playing in and riding my horses in the mountains. My family has been up here since the 1800s . A ton of gold rush history. Best childhood ever . Im happy you were able to experience Lyle at the Groveland hotel . Rhonda

  2. As a native California, this made me more than a little homesick. I most envy your drive up the coast highway. That is one spectacular drive. Looking forward to future posts in this series.

  3. What nice moments from your trip 🙂 I live in a CA gold rush town (Sacramento) but last year we stayed in a lodge at a campground in Columbia…SO much fun!

  4. My first look at the Gold rush photo’s of yesteryear .fantastic thank you Christina and little traveller .Look fore ward to more
    Thank you. “Hold That Thought And Live Your Dreams”

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