Sacramento, Folsom, El Dorado, Tuolumne County, San Francisco
Total approximate miles: 934 miles (1,503 km)
Total fuel: US$347.84
Total groceries: $291.12
California is epic. In so many ways.
We barely skimmed the surface of the Golden State with our brief encounter in the Redwoods on our #motherofallroadtrips last year, and our kids’ first taste of the Bear Republic in December 2012 and June 2013. So when Visit California invited us back to search for buried riches, well, my arm didn’t need twisting.
We were hot off the heels of our very first RV trip around Arizona, finishing with a brief entertainment break in Las Vegas. A 1.5-hour non-stop flight later, we touched down in Sacramento, ready to embark on our next intrepid road trip... Sacramento to San Francisco in 6 days.
If you love California (or haven’t been yet), follow along for a generous dose of road trip inspiration.
Accommodation: Embassy Suites Sacramento (check latest prices...)
Our rental car pickup from Enterprise at Sacramento International Airport was unexpectedly quick and easy. If you are looking for coupons, click here. Back in the driver’s seat, we drove downtown. Arriving a bit earlier than anticipated at our hotel, we found our room was not yet ready, so we just dropped off our bags and headed out to explore Sacramento.
First stop was the Crocker Art Museum. While I wouldn’t consider myself an art aficionado, my kids adored the hands-on Andy Warhol exhibit on the top floor. Here we created numerous types of art, from Taylor Swift pop art to shadow puppets to stencils and more. Our kids loved it so much they didn’t want to leave. While this temporary exhibit isn’t online anymore, there’s still regular rotating hands-on exhibits that your family will enjoy.
Tip: The Crocker Café offers delicious, healthy light meals as well as a free water dispenser. Just keep in mind that food and drinks are not allowed on the 2nd & 3rd floors. Museum admission isn’t required if you just wish to access the café.
After the museum we stopped in for lunch at Mayahuel. Delicious fine Mexican cuisine, with authentic flavours. Absolutely loved it!
Next we stopped at the California State Railroad Museum. First opened in 1976, it’s one of Sacramento’s most popular tourist attractions.
This huge warehouse, spread over 250,000 square feet, holds a 100,000-square-foot Railroad History Museum filled with beautifully restored railroad cars and locomotives, bringing to life California’s fascinating railroad history.
21 trains are on showcase, from the oldest locomotives to modern vehicles that travel at mind-bending speeds. One of my favourites was an exhibit highlighting the different types of flatware used through the last century-and-a-half of on-train dining. It was much more fascinating than it sounds.
My kids loved being able to explore in and around the trains. But none of that mattered when they found the Thomas The Tank Engine kids’ corner on the top floor. Here they played endlessly with wooden trains on tracks. Only when the museum’s lights were being turned off, were we able to drag them out, under the threat of being locked inside the closed museum overnight.
Tip: If you have time check out the regular shows in the train theatre and also try your hand at driving a high-speed train in the simulator!
Finally, we were able to check into Embassy Suites, but we didn’t hang around long – it was dinner time! Old Sacramento is an historic 8-block section of Downtown featuring over 100 independently operated businesses. An easy, pleasant walk from the hotel.
Our chosen dining destination was Fat City Bar & Café. Delicious and hearty meals at reasonable prices. You must try their famous Banana Cream Pie. Yummo!
With full tummies we walked down the cobbled streets, and a lady handed us a brochure for the nearby candy store, Candy Heaven.
They were offering a free taste test for each guest – 2 candies marked with an orange label. When we walked in the shop, it had a slightly creepy circus feel thanks to grinning, slightly-evil-looking clowns perched high above. But that didn’t deter the kids since there were mountains of open barrels overflowing with candy.
Everyone took their time to choose their free candy and we all thanked the staff. No sales from us that day unfortunately, two candies were plenty. But it sure made for a joyful, sugar-high walk back to the hotel.
Accommodation: Staybridge Suites Sacramento – Folsom (check latest prices...)
After a delicious buffet breakfast at the Embassy Suites we made our final stop in California’s capital at Sacramento Zoo.
We’ve seen a lot of zoos around the world, but Sacramento Zoo is amongst the oldest, opened in 1927. It houses over 140 different species across 14.5 acres. Our visit coincided with the welcome of its newest member, an adorable baby Masai Giraffe named Rocket.
Our kids loved Kid’s World with fun hands-on exhibits. The live educational show allowed children to get better acquainted with animals like a bobcat, tortoise, macaw, armadillo, owl, and even a snake.
While we were there, we also crossed the road opposite the zoo to Fairytale Town – a cute play area themed around nursery rhymes and fairytales. Unsurprisingly our kids never wanted to leave.
Next on our road trip plan was a quick drive to Folsom. Folsom Prison is best known as the location where country music legend Johnny Cash performed and recorded a live album, with an audience of prison inmates.
We started our Folsom experience with lunch at a local institution of another kind – Karen’s Bakery. Every dish we tried was delicious, fresh and flavourful.
After tantalising our tastebuds, we needed to burn a few calories and there’s no better way in Folsom than with a scenic trail bike ride - over 95 miles of trails are spread across Folsom. It’s safe to say cycling is big in Folsom. In fact, that particular weekend we visited, the AMGEN Tour of California was coming through.
A wonderful guide led us down the Jedediah Smith Memorial Trail, along the coast of the glittering Lake Natoma and the American River. Mia managed the entire ride by herself, while Caius savoured being carted around in a trailer by Dad like a little prince.
There’s only one thing to do after a bike ride… visit Snook’s Chocolate Factory and indulge in mouth-watering peanut brittle. Drawing in salivating visitors since 1963, the handmade brittle is amongst the best I’ve tasted anywhere in the world.
We stopped at the City Lions Park to ride the Folsom Valley Railway. This cute, to-scale miniature steam engine has been in continuous operation since 1970 and is the only 12-inch gauge railroad remaining in the US. The trip took around 10 minutes, but was a fun ride around the park.
Tip: It usually closes around 2pm during the week (and 4pm on weekends) so get there early. Check the website for latest operating hours.
Also in the City Lions Park is the Folsom Zoo Sanctuary, which is more animal sanctuary than zoo. Each animal has its own incredible rescue story. The first being a bear cub orphaned from a forest fire in 1963.
The Sanctuary does its best to provide a home for animals that are not able to be released back into the wild. They also house exotic “pets” that proved to be too much of a handful, and wild animals that have been injured. None of the animals are bred, sold or traded. A sombre, yet beautiful place to educate your kids about the importance of looking after all creatures, great and small.
Finally, we ended our day with meal at another Fat family restaurant - Fat’s Asia Bistro. Delicious Asian cuisine in a truly gorgeous setting.
Accommodation: Historic Cary House Hotel (check latest prices...)
Back on the road this morning, after our glorious day in Folsom. Next destination, Coloma. And our first stop was taking a step closer to Scrooge McDuck-style wealth. Hello, Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park. Bring on the gold fever!
This is where it all began, the California Gold Rush. We managed to tag along on one of the many tours of the park where our guide introduced us to the backstory of James Marshall’s discovery of gold back in 1848, setting off the largest human migration in the Western Hemisphere.
After our tour we were ready to pan for gold ourselves. We’ve panned before, but doing it in the same location where James Marshall found his famed golden flakes, starting an epic history-changing event, was pretty special. The kids were stoked to be able to keep any flakes they found. Although we found a few, retirement isn’t on the books just yet.
Nearby we grabbed lunch at The Argonaut Farm to Fork Café - a simple, cosy, laid-back café with delicious sandwiches.
Our gold fever was in full swing, so we drove to Gold Bug Park & Mine. Donning an audio guide, we explored an old “neighbourhood” gold mine.
We stayed in Placerville that night. It’s a charming California gold rush town named after the placer gold deposits found in its riverbeds and hills in the late 1840’s. Our gorgeous hotel was just as historic.
Dinner that night was as unique and interesting as the rest of El Dorado. We ate in the cellar of Smith Flat House, which is home to the entrance of an 1800’s goldmine. It was like dining in a cave, surrounded by fine food, mixing in a trendy atmosphere – definitely some of the best food we found on this road trip. My herb-crusted beef tenderloin was a 10 out of 10. I can’t recommend it highly enough!
Accommodation: Lazy Z Resort in Twain Harte (check latest prices...)
It literally felt like we had taken a time machine back to 1852. This was set up like a genuine gold mining encampment. There were volunteer actors walking around, nearly everyone is dressed up (I felt a little too normal). The kids attended an 1800’s school, we watched a street brawl, tried our hand at a lucky card game and even hand-scrubbed laundry. If you can schedule your northern California road trip to be at this annual event, do so! We had a blast. Read more here!
Within Columbia State Historic Park we stopped for a quick lunch at City Hotel Restaurant before catching the last train out of Railtown 1897. And not just any train. The actual train from Back To The Future III. It’s a 6 mile, 45-minute scenic trip through California’s Mother Lode country. As we took the last trip for the day, we got to see the train return to railyard roundhouse, with the turntable in action.
Our last surprise for the day was the Lazy Z. While it was hard to find at first, we would have gladly spent many more nights in this isolated oasis. If you’re looking for escape, this is the place.
Accommodation: Hotel Griffon (check latest prices...)
It was far too soon to say goodbye to the Lazy Z, but the big city was calling. We arrived in San Francisco just in time for Sunday brunch at Fog City. A modern twist on a historic venue.
We checked in early that afternoon at Hotel Griffon, a luxurious hotel in the centre of the city along the Embarcadero Waterfront. Our stylish, spacious suite featured a large private enclosed balcony – perfect for putting up your feet and relaxing. My favourite aspect was the in-room tablet which was used for everything from a bedside clock, to a hotel guide, city guide and even for calling your car from the concierge. Genius!
That evening we headed to Pier 39 for a relaxing stroll along the boardwalk and dinner at Players Sports Grill & Arcade. Our kids were in heaven with over 85 arcade games to choose from, while we got to chill by the tiki bar sipping cocktails and watching the sunset sky over Alcatraz Island. Our kids loved it so much, they begged to go back the following night.
It’s safe to say Players Sports Grill & Arcade is one of our all-time family-favourite dining venues, not just in San Francisco, but the entire US west coast.
Tip: Save room for the decadent chocolate spoon cake afterwards.
We finished up the evening watching sea lions play on the wharf and a carousel ride under a starry sky.
Accommodation: Hotel Griffon (check latest prices...)
This was our final day in California and we were going to make the most of it.
I enjoyed every minute of my walk through The Hunger Games Exhibit situated in the Palace of Fine Arts Exhibition Hall. Our kids had never heard of the story, but they enjoyed the interactive hands-on exhibits. The costumes were incredible!
While we were in the neighbourhood, we stopped by the Lucasfilm campus for a selfie with Yoda.
Driving west, we went down the iconic Lombard Street – the most crooked street in the world. Free parking is available at the bottom of the hill.
Coit Tower was next on the agenda, which offered the best views of city. Simply stunning!
The kids were ready for their turn of fun after such a classy dining experience so we headed back down to the waterfront for some freaky fun at Ripley’s Believe It or Not.
Tip: Make a real fool of yourself in front of the “funny face mirror” near the start of the exhibits. Your antics will come back to haunt you at the end of your visit!
Crossing the road to Wharf 43 ½, we caught a 60-minute Red And White Golden Gate Bay Cruise. The views of the city skyline, Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge were breathtaking. A free recorded audio guide filled in a lot of interesting city history. But even without it, the cruise was well worth it.
Since the kids were begging to return to Pier 39, we walked back one more time. They had a blast making their way through a laser maze challenge before we all chowed down on a bowl of saucy clam chowder at Chowders.
Phew! That was a big day! Read about all the things to do in San Francisco with kids here.
The Bottom Line
The following morning we were up early to board a flight to Canada. This wonderful 6-day northern California road trip was, sadly, at an end.
Did we strike it lucky and find unimaginable wealth? No. But did our family leave richer after a series of incredible experiences? Yes.
Many people flock to the beaches of California, the theme parks and the Redwoods. But there is so much more to see. Consider a family road trip around Gold Country for a healthy dose of good old fashion outdoor fun, education, natural treasures and delectable food. Like us, you might get addicted… and I’m not talking about gold.