Folsom, California, family fun and gold rush history beside the cooling waters of the American River!

Author's grandkids and daughter pull their kayak into the Sacramento State Aquatic Center on Lake Natoma.

Family fun and gold rush history beside the cooling waters of the American River; it’s Folsom, CA!

The Sutter Street Historic District, looking east along old Sutter Street.

Recently, we sought a weekend destination to celebrate a daughter and a grandson’s overlapping birthdays. Our criteria took in the wish list of three grandkids, ages 6 to 17, two of their cousins, both our 40-something daughters and my wife and me.

Our checklist included:
• Kid’s activities to beat hot weather
• A walkable, compact destination
• Bicycling options
• Water sports and cooling waters
• Great food, both upscale and family style
• Historic points of interest (OK, that’s mine – not as high on the list of the others!).

Diners enjoy outdoor dining on the covered boardwalk outside the Sutter Street Grill, home to American favorites!

We settled on the lovely gold rush town, Folsom, on the American River and just 70 miles from San Joaquin county. We lived there in the late 1980s, and our kids had memories of the river as well as the old town.

We found much had changed. From a city of about 10,000, Folsom is now built-out with 76,000 residents and has lots of new housing surrounding the old town area. But it remains a quaint, historic city on the banks of the American River, offering scenery, history, water access, bicycling and plenty of kid’s activities.

Here are highlights of our recent visit:

Kid’s activities for hot summer days: The Sacramento State Aquatic Center, just off Hazel Avenue next to the Lake Natoma Dam offers a wonderful variety of water activities. Run by California State University students, the facility is a lovely complex offering shaded picnic areas, sunny beach, rentals of kayaks, small and larger sailboats, standup paddleboards (SUPs) and lessons if needed. Our grandkids delighted in paddling around Lake Natoma on one-person kayaks, larger kayaks and SUPs.

Swimmers and boaters enjoy Lake Natoma near Folsom.

The American River Bike Trail skirts the aquatic center, and circles Lake Natoma on both the north and south shores – both connecting to Folsom, just 3 miles away by bike. The bike trail also continues east to Folsom Lake, a much bigger water impoundment on the scenic American River. Hence, water activities, camping and fishing are available on one or both lakes. The city also offers 32 miles of additional biking trails, and along the American River Parkway and nearby Folsom Lake Recreational Area are miles more of hiking and mountain biking trails to offer lots of exploration options.

Folsom also offers the acclaimed Folsom City Zoo, the Folsom Aquatic Center with pools and water slide and ice-cream parlors sprinkled throughout the historic and enlarged town offer pleasant diversions.

Dining and Shopping: The historic center of old Folsom is the highlight for adults. The Sutter Street Historic District anchors the old city’s downtown; dating to the Gold Rush days it offers a six block-long stretch of historic buildings, shops and boutiques and a wealth of restaurants. From gourmet food to family style, you’ll find it on Sutter Street. Check out the Sutter Street Grill for American favorites, the Hop Sing Palace next-door for Chinese dishes, Snooks Chocolate Factory for killer chocolate concoctions and Pizzeria Classico for family dining.

The old Folsom Powerhouse was a cutting-edge power producer, operating from 1895 to the 1950s, and is now part of a state historic park on edge of old Folsom.

Gold Rush history: For those with an interest in history, you’ll discover Folsom dates to the 1840s, founded as Granite City by Joseph Libbey Folsom. Folsom succeeded in connecting a railroad to the city from Sacramento. The town became a jumping off point to the mines in the Sierra, just east, when Folsom dies in 1855, the city was renamed in his honor. Folsom was also the site of heavy dredge mining in the late 1800s; throughout the city, you’ll find massive piles of old cobblestones, evidence of the dredge mining on the American River flood-plane for elusive gold.

Worth a visit is the Folsom Powerhouse State Historic Park, on the eastern edge of downtown. The powerhouse opened in 1895 and was the first power plant west of the Mississippi. It used water from the American River to power turbines and send electrical power 22 miles into Sacramento – a distance unheard of at that time. The city also boasts the old railroad station, now a museum, with an old locomotive and round table, bordering the Sutter Street Historic District.

The old Folsom rail station is now a museum, just off Sutter Street.

More visitor options: the city boasts several performing arts groups, including New Star Children’s  Theatre, Sutter Street Theatre, Nicolson’s Musicafe and the Palladio Summer Concert Series (every Wednesday, 7 PM through August).

How to get there: From Stockton, go north on I-5 to Sacramento, then east on Hwy. 50 to Folsom; it’s about 70 miles and 1.25 hours.

For more information: Visit Folsom, visitfolsom.com, (916) 985-2698; Folsom Chamber of Commerce, folsomchamber.com, (916) 985-5555; Sacramento State Aquatic Center, sacstateaquaticcenter.com, (916) 278-2842; Folsom Powerhouse State Historic Park, parks.ca.gov, (916) 985-4843.

Read more from Tim Viall’s travel blog, follow him on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter; or, email him at tviall@msn.com. Happy travels in your world!

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  • Blog Author

    Tim Viall

    Viall is a local travel writer who retired in late 2012 after 10 years as executive director of Stockton, CA's, Emergency Food Bank and six years with the Downtown Stockton Alliance. Previously, a 21-year career in daily newspapers helped shape his ... Read Full
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