I recently took my family of six on a quick getaway to Gold Country near Sacramento and it was truly so much fun. My city kids (ages 2, 4, 7 & 9) enjoyed this farm-cation way more than expected, feeding the animals and roaming free in the fresh air. We also visited the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park and Museum, where we were able to pan for gold, which was also surprisingly fun for the whole family. So if you’re looking for a road trip within two hours of the East Bay that’ll get your kids outside and even learning a bit of history, this may be just the thing.
Heirloom Acres Farm, Orangevale, CA
I found this home to rent on Airbnb, which is situated on Heirloom Acres Farm, a 10-acre family farm in Orangeville, just twenty minutes outside of Sacramento. My kids, who usually only somewhat enjoy the occasional trip to the Little Farm in Tilden Park, were way more into this Farmcation than I’d expected. They spent hours feeding and interacting with the happy cows, goats, llama, horses, and chickens. The kids loved being able to roam around the property, finding wild turkeys, swinging on the tree swing, and eating meals outside. We only stayed for three days and two nights, but it was just enough for a change of pace and scenery after being stuck at home for so long.
Heirloom Acres Farm is not a working farm as such, but more of an ‘events and cut flowers’ farm. They’d just planted the seeds for their U-Pick flowers, which will be available starting in June. And they’ll host a pumpkin patch and Christmas trees later in the year. The owner Brad was kind enough to give us a tour to meet and feed the animals on the day we arrived. Other than that interaction, we felt like we had the place to ourselves.
Visit Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park
310 Back St, Coloma, CA 95613
Phone: (530) 622-3470
Hours: Park is open 8 am – 6 pm; Museum and Visitor Center open 10 am – 5 pm.
Reservations: Not required for general admission; tours and gold panning lesson reservations made when you get there.
Cost: Parking is $10; Tours are $3 adults, $2 children; Gold Panning Lessons $8 for 45 min
If you have a fourth-grader in California, you know all about the Gold Rush unit they do in the spring. I grew up in California and remember learning about the Oregon Trail and the Gold Rush, mostly because we took a field trip to Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park. Field trips have a way of bringing to life the dry facts on the page. So I decided to recreate a bit of my childhood with a memorable family field trip, minus the nausea-inducing school bus ride.
You can absolutely visit the park as a day trip. It takes about two hours from the East Bay, give or take 15-30 minutes with traffic. But I didn’t want such a full day, so we chose to add on the farm stay close to the park to cut down on consecutive driving time. Heirloom Acres Farm is only about 40 minutes from the park, so our morning was nice and leisurely. You’ll want to show up at 10 am to secure your tour and gold panning lessons (they fill up quickly). Keep in mind that it can get hot in gold country. If it gets over 92F, they will not have tours or gold panning. We did the gold panning first and then the tour after. The tour was most interesting for my fourth grader, while the younger kids got a bit bored and I had to take them to sit for a snack. There are lots of outdoor exhibits to visit, including an actual covered wagon, and a small indoor museum you can quickly peruse. If you have young children, I’d recommend skipping the formal tour and just walking around on a self-guided tour.
Pro Tip: Strollers aren’t always appropriate on the park’s terrain, so plan on bringing a carrier for toddlers if you hope to walk around to all of the buildings and historic sites.
Try Gold Panning with Kids!
This is the best, most memorable part of the trip! The museum set up a bunch of wooden troughs outside near the river full of river rocks, sand, and water. Your group will get their own trough and pans, and then a park ranger will demonstrate how to shake the pan just right to find gold. There’s some real technique to it! So you’ll have a 15-minute lesson and then you get to pan yourself silly for 30 more minutes.
My 2-year-old needed my help, as did my 4-year-old after trying for a bit by himself. But my older boys went full-on prospector, finding several flakes of gold all by themselves. You’ll also get a small vial pre-loaded with a flake of gold, fool’s gold, and garnet to keep. If you find any more gold you can put it in the vial to bring home. We all enjoyed our gold panning lesson and being able to experience how difficult it truly is to find any amount of gold, let alone get rich. It really is a terrific way to bring to life a piece of history!
Pro Tip: If you really catch the gold bug, you can purchase pans from the gift shop and head on down to the river bank to try and strike it rich.
Plan Your Trip to Gold Country
We loved our stay at Heirloom Acres Farm, but there are plenty of other fun rentals on farms or near the river you can check out too. This one in the Sierra Foothills is one that a local 510 family loved too. If you’re up for it, you can add on to your trip with a quick stop in Sacramento (Whitney did that a few years ago). If you have little kids, Fairytale Town looks super cute as a stop for a few hours of playtime on your way to gold country. For older, adventurous kids, Quarry Park Adventures is a thrilling ropes course near Sacramento worth a visit.
The Bottom Line on our Farmcation and Gold Panning Field Trip
If you’re looking for a quick family-friendly getaway near the Bay Area, I’d highly recommend heading to Gold Country. A farmcation makes for a fun twist on a plain old rental home, and gold panning is a memorable historical field trip. It’s affordable and fun with lots of outdoor time for our screen-loving kids.
A Note on Covid-19
Visiting the Marshall Gold Discovery State Park felt very Covid-19 safe. It’s mostly all outdoors, spread out, not crowded, and mask-wearing was near-ubiquitous when we went. Of course, nothing is 100% risk-free, so try and visit during less busy times, wear a mask, and bring hand sanitizer.
Farmcation links from our affiliate VRBO