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Low-Key Mother Lode Getaway Experience: Half A Dozen Ski Resorts, Plenty Of History
nevada country
Broad Street in downtown Nevada City.

Nevada County’s biggest claim to fame is considered one of the most fascinating tragedies in the history of California as well as the American westward migration.

That tragedy — the Donner Party — unfolded in the winter of 1846-1847.

The wagon train departing Springfield, Illinois took a newer route that proved extremely difficult. It caused their westward journey to the Central Valley of California to fall behind, missing the window needed to cross the Sierra before snow became a major factor.

Long story short for those unfamiliar with the history, only 48 of the 89 people in the Donner Party survived. Some of those became food via cannibalism after they were trapped in heavy snow in December 1847 at what is now the eastern shore of Donner Lake.

The bodies of those that succumbed to extreme cold, sickness, and starvation were eaten by some of the remaining migrants in their struggle to stay alive until they could be rescued.

Today, tens of thousands of people daily cross the 7,957-foot Donner Pass with ease as they travel at 55 mph and above as Interstate 80 weaves back and forth over the border separating Nevada County from Placer County.

As a place to visit, Nevada County has its charms.

Six of the state’s 34 ski resorts are clustered around Truckee and Donner Summit in the eastern end of the county. The list includes Boreal, Tahoe Donner, Royal Gorge, Sugar Bowl, Donner Ski Ranch, and Soda Springs.

The abundance of ski resorts is apropos given Nevada means “snow covered” in Spanish.

On the county’s western flank, you’ll find the Empire Mine State Historic Park in Grass Valley.

It is the oldest, deepest, and richest gold mine in California. The mine operated for more than 100 years, extracting 5.8 million ounces of gold before it closed in 1956.

The park contains many of the mine’s buildings, the owner’s home and restored gardens, as well as the entrance to 367 miles of abandoned and flooded mine shafts.

The park encompasses 856 acres of forested backcountry and 14 miles of trails. That includes easy-to-navigate trails for hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding in the park.

In between is a Mother Lode of recreation opportunities in the Tahoe National Forest.

When combined with the low-key shops, dining options and Gold Rush Country ambiance in storied Nevada City with its step streets along with the cities of Truckee and Grass Valley, it can be a pleasant day or a weekend excursion.

It is in Nevada City and Grass Valley where you can take in two of the Mother Lode’s biggest gems. Nevada Theatre, also known as the Cedar Theatre, located in downtown Nevada City is California’s oldest existing theater building.

It is actually the oldest, continuously operated theater venue on the West Coast. You can check its website at for current and upcoming productions.

Among those that have graced its stage are Mötley Crüe, Jack London, Mark Twain, and The Second City comedy troupe.

In Grass Valley the historic Holbrooke Hotel opened in 1851 and housed Mark Twain, Bret Harte, and four U.S. presidents (Ulysses S. Grant, Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, and James A. Garfield).

It is notable as the oldest hotel that has been in continuous operation in the Mother Lode.

The hotel has 28 rooms. The interior includes copper clad walls, mahogany wood, Italian alabaster, and marble. It is furnished with globe chandeliers, green library lamps, and clawfoot bathtubs.

Prices depend upon the room and date, ranging from $155 to $340.

The experience of staying in one of the rooms coupled with spending a leisurely day in Nevada City and Grass Valley is worth an overnight getaway.

While Nevada County is worthy of a low-key getaway, it has served as a county that provides me personally with a lot of perspective.

The 974-square miles of the County of Nevada resembles a 19th century Deringer handgun in terms of its shape. The handle brushes up against edge of the Sacramento Valley while its barrel abuts the Nevada state line.

In its western end I learned firsthand that my mom Verna wasn’t exaggerating when she said she used to walk just over three miles one-way to school — and it was uphill.

It’s a trip she made with her twin sister Verlie by taking turns riding a horse.

The trip I made with her and a brother in 2005 required the use of a four-wheel drive vehicle to access an abandoned road on the part of the ranch the government incorporated into the Spencerville Area along Beale Air Force Base’s eastern border.

She was born on April 15, 1922 on a working ranch near Spenceville.

Siblings, when they went to high school, were boarders in Nevada City to do so.

It wasn’t until she was 14 after her mother who was left with three of seven children to raise after her husband deserted her during the Depression forcing her to sell the ranch and move to Lincoln in Placer County, did my mom live in a house with running water or a flush toilet.

That was in 1936.

Less than 30 years later the ranch — which was incorporated into the eventual Beale Air Force Base — was to the east of runways where the fastest plane ever flown — the SR71 — regularly took off and landed as part of intelligence gathering missions around the globe.

Near the western edge of Nevada County is where my uncle Pershing and aunt Anna May had a cabin just up a few hundred yards from the northern shore of Donner Lake.

It was barely a half mile from the entrance to the Donner Party State Memorial Park where the migrant tragedy unfolded.

Our last visit to the cabin was in 1963.

We spent seven hours snaking our way up and over the old summit via Highway 40 in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

Construction of Interstate 80 that literally passed behind the cabin — although it was a good 80 feet or so higher elevation — was nearing completion.

When I-80 was completed a year or so later, people could zoom over the same summit that — along with heavy snow — trapped the Donner Party less than 120 years earlier.

How rapidly the world has changed in what even isn’t as long as a blink of an eye when measured against the yardstick of mankind is stunning.

At the same time, we’ve never had it so good.

nevada country
The bar in the Holbrooke Hotel.
nevada country
Donner Lake looking east from Doner Pass.
nevada country
A view of a mine tunnel at Empire Mine State Historical Park.