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Escape to Folsom for Family Fun in a Gold Rush Town

By Carole Terwilliger Meyers
Friday April 21, 2006

Mention Folsom and most folks think of the prison. That connection has become even stronger since the Academy Award-nominated movie Walk the Line brought the town’s famous, scenically situated Folsom Prison to prominence once again.  

Anyone with an interest in Johnny Cash or the penitentiary can walk a line into the prison’s tiny museum. Outfitted with an intriguing collection of confiscated weapons, it also displays a vintage copy of Cash’s famous record album.  

But many travelers don’t realize historic Folsom is also a worthy overnight destination. Located off Highway 50 just 22 miles east of Sacramento, the town makes a great stop on the way to or from South Lake Tahoe. I spent two nights there recently and left with many places still unexplored.  



The first railroad west of the Mississippi originated in the town’s historic depot. Now a new rapid transit light rail service runs along that original route, connecting Folsom with Sacramento.  

The Folsom History Museum tells the town’s Gold Rush story. You can weigh in on an old-fashioned balance scale and, on Sundays, watch gold-panning demonstrations. The historic Railroad Turntable, which rests on its original granite pivot stone, is nearby.  

Also, the first and largest hydroelectric generating plant west of the Mississippi was built here in 1895. It operated until 1952, when the Folsom Dam hydroelectric plant began operating. Now known as Folsom Powerhouse State Historic Park, it is a great spot for kids to explore, with a “busy table” holding enticing experiments inside and a large park with sheltered picnic tables overlooking Lake Natoma outside.  



Two of the town’s best tours are right in the historic downtown.  

You can tour a studio used by a collective of artists at Cloud’s Porcelain and learn how various kinds of pottery are made. A gift shop sells the wares.  

Or drop into Snooks Chocolate Factory for free samples and to observe a candy-making demonstration. If you’re lucky, they’ll be operating their candy machine that spits out hand-made chocolates just like that one in the famous “I Love Lucy” episode. Though everything is yummy, the fresh peanut brittle and the old-fashioned fudge are spectacular.  



The tiny Folsom City Zoo Sanctuary provides refuge for non-releasable injured, orphaned, and “troubled” native North American animals. A few exotics and the largest captive wolf pack in Northern California are among them, and two new enclosures hold American black bears and mountain lions. 

In the park outside the zoo gates, the Folsom Valley Railway—a small 12-inch narrow gauge steam train that formerly ran in Berkeley’s Tilden Park—now takes riders here on a happy 10-minute ride.  

Something fishy is always happening at the Nimbus Fish Hatchery, where kazillions of fingerlings are busy growing in the tanks. In the fall, when the Chinook salmon return from the ocean, a fish ladder is opened; steelhead trout show up in the winter. Fish food can be purchased for a nickel, and a Visitor Center has educational exhibits.  


Among the area’s myriad outdoor activities are bicycling and river kayaking. As the third-best cycling city in the state, Folsom offers “a spider web of bike trails”—including the 32-mile-long American River Parkway Jedediah Smith Memorial Trail, which runs off-road all the way from Sacramento to Folsom Lake. Bicycle rentals are easily available.  

Kayaking on the river is also popular. 

Negro Bar—the historic name for the area within Folsom Lake State Recreation Area where African-Americans struck gold in 1849—is a super-scenic bend in the river and a prime put-in spot. Kayak rentals are available on-site on weekends May through mid-October. You can also swim here and picnic at tables sheltered by mature trees, and a bike trail is nearby.  

Overnighting as I did, at the Lake Natoma Inn, positioned just a few blocks from the historical downtown and the Jedediah Smith Memorial Trail, makes it possible to keep your car parked and walk to many sights and a plethora of antique shops and restaurants.  

Good food is easy to find. The informal Balcony Bistro features a warm, open dining room with original art hung on its brick walls and serves up some tasty, well-priced fare. Fresh fish, creative pastas (anyone for a pear-and-walnut version?), and classics such as roasted duck confit are sometimes options on the always-changing menu. Tea is served daily at Partea Time, and kids can choose from tutti fruiti and bubblegum flavored tea.  

Can’t get away now? Plan your trip for the fall, when you can tie it in with an annual event. Two particularly exciting ones happen each October. Folsom Live! features an assortment of live jazz and rock in downtown bars and restaurants, plus a large outdoor stage for the bigger names. 

Last year The Guess Who performed. More live music plus a barbecued salmon bake occurs at the hatchery’s annual Salmon Festival. Both are family-friendly and very popular with locals.  

Mayor Bob Holderness says, “Folsom has always been a one-horse town—first mining, then farming, then the prison. Hi-tech arrived with Intel in 1982.” 

Lucky for us, perhaps the newest horse is tourism.  


Carole Terwilliger Meyers is the author of Weekend Adventures in San Francisco & Northern California (www.carousel-press.com) and is the editor of Dream Sleeps: Castle & Palace Hotels of Europe. 

Photo Credit: Carole Terwilliger Meyers