6 Dusty Old California Towns Ideal for a Long Fall Weekend

Forget the hayrides and pumpkin patches. A better fall awaits.

By Tanner Garrity

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27 October 2017

Feeling pressured to chase a pumpkin spice latte with cider from the back of a haunted hayride this weekend?

No need to cave to overrated seasonal demands — instead, trade October gimmicks for a visit to one of Northern California’s oldest towns.

Herewith: six storied hamlets within driving distance, with everything from haunted hotels to waterfall hikes to one of the most scenic coastal drives in America on the itinerary.

Don’t blame us if you run into traffic. Or ghosts.

Auburn

The drive: 2 hours

The vitals: This Greater Sacramento town regularly hosts runs and bike races that hit the triple digit mileage mark, earning its modern day moniker “The Endurance Capital of the World.” Historic Old Town is home to California’s oldest post office and a gauntlet of Gold Rush flair — including antique shops and hearty saloons.

Where you’re staying: The Flower Farm Inn, a high-end Bed and Breakfast 12 miles from Old Town that shares its grounds with a citrus orchard and vegetable gardens.

Essential fall activity: Pack your bike (and endurance), and spin down the nearby American River Bike Trail, a 32-mile paved trail with eateries and lake views along the way. If you’re looking to go rogue, link up with El Dorado, where you’ll follow old railroads and survey a chunk of Gold Rush country from your two-wheeler.  

Dunsmuir

The drive: 4 hours

The vitals: No traffic lights, no parking meters, preserved buildings from the 1920s … and thanks to Mount Shasta, the third-party-verified “Best Water on Earth.”

Where you’re staying: Railroad Park Resort, made up of 23 restored cabooses and four cabins, pays tribute to the town’s close historical ties to the Central and Southern Pacific Railroads. Hop on board.

Essential fall activity: Grapple with the town’s stunning surrounds by hiking to waterfalls like Hedge Creek and Mossbrae in the shadow of Mount Shasta, or fishing for rainbow trout in the Upper Sacramento River.

Ferndale

The drive: 4 hours and “change”...it’s worth it

The vitals: Founded in 1852, the entire town is a State Historical Landmark, replete with gorgeous Victorian homes. Ferndale is also the Northern terminus to California’s Lost Coast, one of the country’s most scenic coastal drives.

Where you’re staying: The Ivanhoe Hotel claims to be the most westerly hotel not in Alaska or Hawaii, and though we can’t prove that for sure, it’s definitely located in the heart of town. If you’re looking for a little more space, the Ferndale Barndominium Airbnb is your spot.

Essential fall activity: Visit the Kinetic Race Sculpture Museum up the coast in Eureka, which houses bizarre machines locals race each year with neighboring towns.

Nevada City

The drive: 2 hours, 30 minutes

The vitals: First settled in 1849, Nevada City is a cultural and historic hub about an hour west of Lake Tahoe that hosts film festivals, creative writing workshops and an annual biking classic.

Where you’re staying: The National Hotel, “the oldest, continuously operating hotel west of the Rockies,” has braved fires and rumored paranormal activity to stay open for over 160 years.

Essential fall activity: Tipple with vinters at Nevada City Winery, located in the Miners Foundry Garage, which has helped restore the region to its 19th century winemaking glory. The site hosts Wine Down Wednesday specials with live music through the end of the year.

Pacific Grove

The drive: 2 hours, 20 minutes

The vitals: For a few months each winter, orange-and-black monarchs arrive and the beach town becomes “Butterfly Town, USA.” The burg also has more than its share of history, tracing its roots to a Methodist campground that ushered in rows of elegant Victorian homes, one of them belonging to John Steinbeck.

Where you’re staying: The Centrella Inn opened in the 1880s and renovated a hundred years later. It still looks a beauty today, with emerald siding and a healthy dose of Victorian swagger.

Essential fall activity: Visit Point Pinos lighthouse and hike along the ocean. Built in 1855, the oldest lighthouse on the West Coast has somehow survived its original design longer than those in the Northeast, even down to the lens.

Placerville

The drive: 2 hours

The vitals: Halfway between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe, Placerville is home to the oldest continuously operating hardware store west of the Mississippi, a bevy of white water rafting options, a Gold Mine … and of course, Hangman’s Tree, where the town hung alleged criminals in the late 1800s and temporarily earned the much-sought-after nickname “Hangtown.”

Where you’re staying: The Gold Country Oasis Airbnb earns points for a excellent piece of house-naming, in addition to being a spacious environs a short walk from the historic district.

Essential fall activity: Visit Gold Bug Park, a well-preserved mine from the Gold Rush days. If you’re hungry, try the “Hangtown Fry” at Buttercup Pantry — a fried mix of bacon, eggs and oysters, first ordered by a rich miner looking to sample the most expensive items on the El Dorado Hotel’s menu.

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