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From the rolling hills of Gold Country to the highest peaks of the Sierra, Placer County is Northern California’s premier destination for adventure of any kind. It’s a place where you can ski the world-class terrain of the Sierra Nevada, go wine tasting, and catch a live show on any given day. But my favorite thing about living here isn’t just that there are so many things to do—it’s hand down one of the most beautiful places in the world. Known as much for the sparkling blue waters of Lake Tahoe as it is for its excellent farm-to-table foodie scene, there’s not much that Placer County doesn’t offer. Here are five adventures that will help you get started exploring one of the most scenic regions of the country.
While Northern California may be better known nationally for its wineries, the area is also home to a thriving craft beer scene. In the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas, you’ll find a dozen different breweries on the Placer Ale Trail. You don’t have to go far to find a brewery making something unique. A classic standby, Auburn Alehouse started brewing craft beer in 2007, reviving the tradition of beer-making in the area—although the last company to do so had closed its doors more than a century ago. Its Gold Country Pilsner, Hop Donkey, and Old Town Brown Ale have all won awards, but I’d suggest the Gold Digger IPA for the hop heads out there. Located in the heart of historic downtown Auburn, the restaurant is fun for both special occasions and casual outings. The Moonraker Brewing Company offers hoppy beers that are not overly bitter or astringent. It’s best known for its IPAs, both West Coast and New England styles. Moonraker doesn’t serve food, but it often hosts a food truck, giving it a laid back, fun—and most importantly, dog-friendly—atmosphere. Knee Deep is also dog-friendly, located in an industrial warehouse that’s welcoming and open. It has taken home several awards, including a Bronze Medal in the American IPA category a the Great American Beer Festival for its Breaking Bud IPA.
The 15-barrel Crooked Lane Brewing Company is known for its traditional English Ales, German Lagers, and West Coast IPAs, while the Loomis Basin Brewery features the Buxom Blond Pilsner and Golden Eagle Mandarin Wheat year-round. Apart from the brewery, it has a gastropub and smokehouse in Loomis, with an excellent menu of pub favorites done right. It’s one of many top-notch restaurants in the region, where you can find just about any kind of cuisine you’d like.
The Donner area, which also happens to be a waypoint along the Pacific Crest Trail, is a historically rich and jaw-droppingly beautiful part of Placer County. Whether you care to go for a drive and sightsee or get out of the car and hike, there’s plenty to do if you use Old Highway 40/Donner Pass Road as your jumping off point. From Sacramento and heading eastbound on Highway 80, take exit 174. You’ll continue east along this historic route, past the Sugar Bowl and Royal Gorge ski areas to the crest of Donner Ridge. You can park there to hike along the Pacific Crest Trail or continue past the iconic and often photographed Rainbow Bridge.
Pull off on the south side of the road after you begin to descend and walk a short but steep hundred yards to China Wall—built by Chinese railroad laborers in the 1880s—and the now-defunct Donner Train Tunnels. Keep an eye out for a placard that points out the petroglyphs carved into the granite, which are between 1,500 and 4,000 years old. In addition to the excellent hiking, the region is also known for the area’s best rock climbing. You’ll find sport, trad, bouldering, and multi-pitch routes on high-quality granite.
Of course, the region may be best known for Lake Tahoe, the largest alpine lake in North America, which straddles the border between California and Nevada. I like to describe Tahoe as a beach town set in the mountains. It offers the same laid-back vibe of many coastal communities but also allows for unparalleled outdoor recreation. I’ve pursued pretty much every water sport known to humankind here, including power boating, kayaking, water skiing, and stand-up paddleboarding. Though the water is chilly, it’s the perfect temperature on a warm summer day—Lake Tahoe rarely gets over 85 degrees in the summer. The water is clear, crisp, and beautiful, and unlike other lakes or muddy reservoirs, it has a sandy bottom and large boulders to swim out to in several locations.
If you want to stake out a place on the beach, it’s best to arrive early and find that prime location given that Tahoe is one of the most popular destinations in California no matter the season. There are tons of public access points along the lake, and while owners of private properties adjacent to the beach like to post warning signs, in California everything below the high water line is public property.
Skylandia Park and Beach is known for its incredible views and options for family fun. It’s a place to build sandcastles on the beach or take in the views on a nature walk. What sets it apart from the rest are the picnic tables and BBQs available for public use, however. Moon Dunes Beach in Tahoe Vista is the best white-sand beach on the lake, while Commons Beach Park in Tahoe City offers picnic sites and a playground for children.
Speedboat Beach stands out for its large boulder formations and crystal-clear water. If you like to swim out to boulders in the water or jump off small rocks, this is definitely the best beach for that. The Kings Beach State Recreation Area has 979 feet of lakefront beach along the north shore of Lake Tahoe, and a boat rental facility is here if you want to go kayaking. You’ll also find some good spots for fishing here. Finally, the North Tahoe Beach has popular volleyball courts that attract the area’s best players and picnic areas that are perfect for families.
Although it’s known for its world-class ski terrain and for hosting 1960 Olympic Games, the shops, restaurants, and venues that have popped up around Squaw Valley over the years have made it a popular destination in and of itself. While the winter sports are fantastic, charismatic eating and drinking establishments, such as the Dubliner, an Irish bar and restaurant, and the Rocker, a place known for their legendary nachos, draw crowds year-round.
Squaw Valley also hosts several festivals throughout the year, including Winter Wondergrass, a legendary bluegrass festival, each March, and Wanderlust, a yoga retreat for thousands of visitors each summer. While these larger festivals attract huge crowds, my favorite events are the smaller ones that happen throughout the summer. These include brewfests on the weekends, artisan fairs, and Tuesday Bluesdays—free blues concerts that take place on a weekly basis. The Pacific Crest Trail also winds its way through Squaw, which makes it easy to hop on the trail, crush some miles, and then head down into the village for music, food, and fun.
All that snow has to go somewhere once it melts, and that runoff creates some of the best whitewater rafting in the state come spring. The three forks of the American River offers something for everyone—from rugged three-day trips with serious whitewater to more relaxing floats. The Middle Fork of the American River features class IV whitewater through the summer, and outfitters like All-Outdoors can organize a trip for you and your group. Meet your guide in Foresthill and they will provide the transportation and all the equipment you need. Adventurous beginners are welcome to experience the thrilling ride. Other trip organizers include Tributary Whitewater Tours and Whitewater Excitement. For unique rafting experiences, Rise Up River Trips in Auburn offers speciality trips including a float and fly-fish, yoga on the river and an evening “farm-to-riverbank” dinner float.
Written by Jill Sanford for RootsRated Media in partnership with Placer County.
Featured image provided by Placer County