Grass Valley's Empire Mine:
Striking Out For Gold

By Juliane Cortino-Ross

Ask any small child what he expects to find at a gold mine and you’re likely to hear, "As much gold as I want—crystals, diamonds, and treasures!" That’s what four-year-old Christopher Waldvogel and his older brother, Stephen, 6, anticipated on a fall excursion to the Empire Mine State Historic Park.


Located in Grass Valley, the mine is the oldest, richest, and largest in California. Discovered in 1850 by George D. Roberts, it produced 5.8 million ounces of gold from its founding to 1956, when operations ceased.

What's amazing is that 80 percent of the available gold is believed to have been left behind in the abandoned 367 miles of underground tunnels. Extracting it from the surrounding quartz, apparently, remains a tricky business.

The Waldvogel boys enjoyed standing inside the mine’s main shaft, where a guide described what life was like for the Cornish miners, and demonstrated some of their gear. Fun, too, was a visit to the working blacksmith’s shop, and a stroll of the grounds--littered with such equipment as ore carts and rock crushers.

A tour of the summer cottage, built by owner William Bourn Jr. in1897, features costumed docents describing everyday life. This is an excellent activity, a must for all ages. It’s said that Mr. Bourn found the workings of his holdings so noisy, that he visited the "cottage" only two to four weeks out of the year. The rest of the time he and his family lived in their beloved Filoli Mansion, in Woodside, California.

With grandparents Larry and Juli Ross in tow, Stephen and Christopher did find their treasure, inside the park’s visitors center. Here, all manner of raw gems and jewelry are available for purchase. There is also a room-sized model of the workings of the Empire Mine on display.


Tours of the mine, owner’s cottage, and restored gardens are given daily in summer, and on weekends in spring and fall. Fees are nominal, ranging from $1.50 to $3.00. The park includes 845 forested acres and 12 miles of trails for bikers, hikers, and horseback riders. For more information call 530/273-8522.


  • Visitor Center
  • Restrooms
  • Picnic Areas


  • Horseback Riding
  • Hiking
  • Guided Tours
  • Exhibits
  • Bike Trails


From the San Francisco Bay Area, take Highway 80 north to Auburn. At Auburn, take the Highway 49 exit. Follow the signs to Grass Valley. The Empire Mine State Park is in Grass Valley at 10791 East Empire Street. East Empire is the second Grass Valley exit.


  • Be sure to check the weather report. The months of May-September can see Gold Country temperatures soar upwards of 90 degrees. Families touring during these months should be sure all members can tolerate the heat. (It’s also advisable to take along bottled water.) In early spring and late fall, it’s cold enough for jackets.
  • While everyone can find something to enjoy at the Empire Mine State Historic Park, it will likely be of more interest to ages six and older.
  • Dining in Nevada City, just four miles from Grass Valley, is fun and interesting. The quaint, old mining town, which is full of historic restaurants and shops, winds its way up a picturesque hillside. Nevada City’s Old Firehouse is home to a museum the kids will enjoy.
  • If possible, make a weekend of it. The North Star Mine, just down the street from Grass Valley’s Empire Mine, is open for touring. And, at Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park in Coloma, the kids can pan for gold.


  • The Stars for Children Astronomy Class
    Young astronomers and their parents are invited to explore the night sky in a class for ages 6 to 16. After indoor instruction with props and models, participants will go outside to view the moon and stars through binoculars and telescopes. Cost is $5 per person. Pre-registration is required. October 23, 2004. 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. Location: Placer Nature Center. Phone: 530/878-6053. Web: .
  • Music in the Mountains Fall Fest
    Experience great music at Music in the Mountains "Fall Fest." It’s held at the Amaral Family Festival Center located on the Nevada County fairgrounds. Ticket prices for Fall Fest concerts range from $15 to $23 for adults. Tickets for children 17 and under are $5. November 5 to November 14. Location: Nevada County Fairgrounds. Phone: 530-265-6124 or 800-218-2188. Web:
  • 37th annual Cornish Christmas in Grass Valley
    This free-to-the-public event is a filled with entertainment and merriment on Mill and Main Streets in historic downtown Grass Valley. It features a festive atmosphere filled with treats, good food, handmade crafts, open stores, wagon rides and, of course, Santa. Fridays 11/26, 12/3, 12/10, 12/17 from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Phone: 530-272-8315 . Web: .
  • Victorian Christmas 2004 in Historic Nevada City
    Holiday celebrants fill the streets, sampling food and goods offered by downtown restaurants and specialty shops. Victorian singers, bagpipers, a living nativity scene, a walking Christmas tree, and visits with Santa Claus are among the attractions. Taste chestnuts roasted on an open fire and enjoy strolling minstrels, brass bands, and hay wagon rides. Free Admission. Free parking and shuttle bus service. Wednesday nights, 12/8, 12/15, and 12/22, from 6-9 p.m., and on Sunday afternoon, Dec. 19, from 1:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. Phone: (530) 265-2692 or toll-free (800) 655-NJOY. Web: .

* Sierra Nevada Children's Services has events calendars for families with young children in Nevada County.


Dining in Grass Valley and Nevada City:

Accommodations in Grass Valley and Nevada City:


Other Informative Links:

Juliane Cortino-Ross’ twenty-eight-year journalism career includes editorialpositions with ABC-TV, United Press, and Upside Magazine. Juliane enjoys traveling around the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband Larry, and their two grandsons, Christopher and Stephen Waldvogel.

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