At a glance
5 things to love:
Nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, the Holbrooke Hotel is about as historic as they come in California. It’s Golden Gate Saloon was born during the booming times of the Gold Rush Era in the 1850’s when Grass Valley was just one of many mining camp settlements in the area flush with gold-veined quartz and hopes to strike it rich.
The bar back of the Golden Gate Saloon, which is still there today, was shipped from Italy in the 1870’s and arrived by carriage from the East Coast, which must have been quite the adventure. The Golden Gate Saloon has greeted its share of infamous bar patrons over the years, from outlaws and generals to treasured writers and American Presidents.
If bars could talk, this one would speak volumes.
The Holbrooke itself is the longest continuously-operated hotel in California and a California Landmark. It has been the centerpiece of the quaint town of Grass Valley for the past 150 years, making it one of the oldest continuously running establishments west of the Mississippi.
With such a long history, it is perhaps no surprise that legions of past visitors have spoken of witnessing ghosts and other paranormal phenomena within its old brick walls.
Needless to say, there are so many things to love about the Holbrooke Hotel. Coming off a recent 18 month restoration effort and reopening in November 2020, The Holbrooke presents a delightful and classy mix of old and new.
The interior decor has been fully modernized, while original wood floors and brick walls have been uncovered and restored to their 19th century glory. The ambiance is warm, comfortable, chic and thoroughly inviting.
The Holbrooke features a lovely on-site restaurant with a warm fireplace that flows seamlessly into the Golden Gate Saloon’s bar area. Downstairs you will find the Iron Door, a chic bar and lounge hidden behind iron doors that once led to a series of underground tunnels.
The rooms are comfortable and well-appointed with brand new beds and linens and handsomely decorated with antique furniture. True to its roots, each room is unique with a private bathroom featuring original clawfoot tubs that have been beautifully refinished.
A stay at The Holbrooke is a relaxing way to step back in time and savor history while enjoying modern comforts.
Did you know?
As one of the finest early hotels of the West, The Holbrooke was visited by American Presidents Grant, Harrison, Garfield, and Cleveland. Incredibly, the notorious American writer Mark Twain also spent some time at The Holbrooke as a young man in 1866.
A bit of history
In 1852 the Golden Gate Saloon first opened its doors to local miners and early settlers of Grass Valley, CA. Soon after, the Exchange Hotel was built behind the saloon, named as such because of its proximity to the city’s Gold Exchange. However, a fire in 1855 swept through Grass Valley and destroyed over 300 buildings including the saloon and hotel.
The structures were quickly rebuilt, but the hotel eventually succumbed to another fire in 1862. The two story building we see today was built shortly thereafter. There were actually several other fires that swept through Grass Valley over the next several decades, but the Holbrooke managed to miraculously survive them all.
In 1879 the saloon and hotel were purchased by Ellen and Daniel Holbrooke and renamed The Holbrooke Hotel.
In 1974 The Holbrooke was declared a California State Landmark due to its historic significance as the oldest continuously-operated hotel in California. As this placard on the building indicates, a number of notable guests have been found in the Holbrooke’s archives including four Presidents, Mark Twain, Bret Harte, boxers Corbett and Fitzsimmons, and actor Gilbert Barry, among many others.
Empire State Mine
The prime reason that people decided to settle Grass Valley in the 1850’s was, of course, due to the discovery of significant amounts of gold in the surrounding foothills. Grass Valley was just one of many mining settlements in the area.
The Empire State Mine was founded in Grass Valley in 1850 and become one of the deepest and richest gold mines in California history. It unearthed 5.8 million ounces of gold, which in today’s market would be worth over 10 billion dollars (at $1,800 per ounce).
Many early settlers to the area came from Cornwall, England because the tin mining techniques used in that area found great success in extracting gold from the hard rock quartz in California. Thus Cornish culture had a strong influence on the settlements in Grass Valley and the surrounding foothills.
In fact, Cornish people provided the bulk of the labor force to operate the mine from 1870 until the 1950’s when the mine closed due to rising inflation and operational costs. In the early years, children were often employed to work in the mine starting at a very young age, as shown below in a photo from 1908.
In 1974, California State Parks purchased the surface rights to the Empire State Mine and created a historic State Park. Today visitors can explore the beautiful property and see the old English manor cottage, designed in 1897 by architect Willis Polk, that was the mine owner’s home.
There have been reports of ghost sightings and other paranormal phenomenon at The Holbrooke Hotel for decades. These include hearing sounds of children playing, witnessing chairs and other items being moved, lights turning off and on, and the sight of apparitions like the cowboy ghost and a maid donning Victorian-era clothing.
In fact, when we visited recently (Nov 2020), my mother swears that she felt something touch and move her hair on the back of her head while she was in the middle of conversation. A Holbrooke bartender that night told a similar story of her experience with the “hair-flipping” ghost.
Season 6 of Travel Channel’s “The Dead Files” also featured an investigation of The Holbrooke Hotel (season 6), and over the years the hotel has attracted a fair number of paranormal investigators.
Things to love about The Holbrooke
💜 Historic Golden Gate Saloon
There is something about being in the Golden Gate Saloon – you can just feel the history and the energy of past lives. The 150 year bar back is made of Italian mahogany and marble.
The new owners of The Holbrooke did a tremendous job of maintaining the look and spirit of the bar through the recent renovation of the property.
There is a wide entryway from the saloon into the dining room area where you will experience delicious fare from their updated menu. Many of their dishes incorporate fresh local produce and smoked meats that present a unique mix of California and Mexican-inspired cuisine.
Other dining options
- Downstairs, the Iron Door is a hidden bar that serves appetizers to accompany crafted cocktails
- For a selection of over 100 omelettes and a hearty breakfast menu, try Tofanelli’s right next door.
💜 Antique decor and furnishings
Around every corner of The Holbrooke, and throughout all the guest rooms, you will find lovely antique decor and furnishings that will help transport you to another time.
The local artisans and crew that performed the recent renovation of the hotel did a phenomenal job of exposing and restoring original hardwood floors that had been hidden by carpet, and exposing original brick walls that had also been hidden by past renovations.
The historic Purcell House is a cute Victorian-era home that The Holbrooke purchased in 1983 and renovated it into an 11 room guest house. When you book your visit, you can choose to stay in the Holbrooke or the Purcell House, which is located just steps away from The Holbrooke Hotel and shares the same parking lot in the rear of the building.
💜 The Guest Rooms
We love that each of the 29 guest rooms has exposed red brick walls that date back to the original construction of the hotel. Every room has a unique layout and different pieces of furniture to make each visit special and unique.
The King Suite (room number “1”) is our favorite guest room in the Holbrooke, with vintage and classy decor, a separate living room, two pedestal sinks in the bathroom, and access to a second-floor balcony that overlooks downtown Grass Valley.
The restored clawfoot tubs in every guest room bathroom are truly a sight to behold and a welcome treat for visitors yearning to experience a bit of the past. The components of the shower have been recently upgraded, but they retain an old-timey look and feel.
Our advice is to plan your stay in advance and try to book the King Suite; however, we stayed in rooms 6 and 7 during our visit and these were also lovely rooms.
About Grass Valley, CA
Grass Valley is located in Nevada County, 60 miles northeast of Sacramento, and 140 miles northeast of San Francisco. During our visit, we drove from Orange County and it took a solid 8 hours to drive 480 miles from Southern California.
Grass Valley is situated in California’s notorious “Gold Country” in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. These are slow rolling hills, and you will not encounter any “windy” mountainous roads driving to Grass Valley.
Grass Valley reportedly got its name because cattle at a nearby early settlement wandered to the “grassy valley” to graze. The grassy valley turned out to be suitable place for building and settling due to its proximity to Wolf Creek. In 1893, Grass Valley was incorporated as a charter city in the State of California.
In part because many of the early settlers of Grass Valley were of Cornish decent, Grass Valley has an official sister city – the town of Bodmin in Cornwall County, UK. The twinning of the two similar cities was made official in 1997, promoting mutual understanding, support, and friendly relations between the two cities.
Getting around Grass Valley
Grass Valley is a small town, so you can get around to most places by walking through the downtown area. You will most likely want to drive your car to visit The Holbrooke Hotel if you are visiting locally.
If you are flying into Sacramento to visit the Holbrooke, there are a few options to get from the airport to Grass Valley. The cheapest way is to take an Amtrak bus from the Sacramento Valley Station and connecting through Nevada St in the city of Auburn, which will take you around 3 hours and cost less than $10 per person.
Another option is to take the California Zephyr train from Sacramento Valley Station to the Colfax Amtrak Station, and then taking a taxi the rest of the way to Grass Valley. This will cost around $30 per person for the train ride and then around $40 for the taxi.
You may also be able to find an Uber or Lyft ride from the airport to Grass Valley, which would likely be much cheaper than a taxi, but still a bit pricey. Prices fluctuate, so it is worth a shot to see what that option will cost when you arrive at the airport.
You can always rent a car when you arrive at the airport and drive about one hour to Grass Valley. The last 20 minutes of the drive are pleasant with lovely scenic views of the Sierra Nevada foothills.
Best time of year to visit Grass Valley
Foothills Celebration – March
Thursday Night Markets – June/July
Cornish Christmas – Fridays from Thanksgiving to Christmas
At an elevation of 2,400 feet, you can expect wider fluctuations in temperature than Sacramento, which sits at just 30 feet above sea level.
It snows on occasion in Grass Valley during the winter months, with an average of 1-3 inches per month from December through March
Weather in winter (Dec-Feb)
Winter is the wettest time of year in Grass Valley, averaging 7-10 inches of rain per month. You can expect daily highs in the low 50’s and nightly lows in the low 30’s.
One great reason to visit Grass Valley during the December holiday season is the Annual Cornish Christmas festivities that run every Friday from Thanksgiving to Christmas.
Weather in spring (Mar-May)
While it rains pretty heavily in March (8 inches), the chance of rainfall drops precipitously (see what I did there!) in April and May to 2-4 inches.
You can expect daily highs in the 60’s to low 70’s and nightly lows in the 40’s. It is pretty much casual jacket weather until nightfall.
Weather in summer (Jun-Aug)
It’s no surprise that summer is the warmest time of year to visit Grass Valley. Rain is infrequent and unlikely to occur during your visit, and you can expect daily highs in the 80’s up to the low 90’s and nightly lows in the 50’s.
Summer is a relatively lively and bustling time in Grass Valley, as this is when many people plan their travels and summer vacations. The Thursday night markets running from late June through July are extremely popular among locals and visitors.
Weather in fall (Sep-Nov)
Fall is a beautiful and quieter time to visit Grass Valley. We visited in early November and the weather was beautiful. You can expect daily highs in the 80’s to 60’s as you get closer to winter, and nightly lows in the 40’s to 50’s.
Day trips from The Holbrooke
Below are some of our favorite day trip recommendations.
💜 Empire Mine State Historic Park (1 mile away)
The Empire Mine is one of two historic mines that supported Grass Valley through it’s early years until the 1950’s. Now a State Historic Park, visitors can tour the property and interact with park staff and docents to learn about the history of the Empire Mines and their impact on the community.
The Empire Mine State Historic Park is a must-see when visiting Grass Valley. Plan to spend 2-4 hours strolling the beautiful gardens and touring the historic English manor cottage.
💜 Nevada City (5 miles away)
Located less than 5 miles north of Grass Valley, Nevada City is another quaint town with history that stretches back to the Gold Mining days. The entire downtown district is a National Historic Landmark with records that stretch back to 1849.
The historic district has been incredibly well-preserved and includes 93 different buildings. U.S. President Herbert Hoover actually lived and worked in Nevada City as a gold miner in his younger years.
💜 Lake Tahoe (75 miles away)
Lake Tahoe is located about 1.5 hours from Grass Valley and would be an excellent day trip or an ideal way to extend your trip a few extra days, as there are many great activities in Lake Tahoe. Think beautiful lake views and mountain scenery, lodges, outdoor activities and casinos. Yes, there are a number of casinos in South Lake Tahoe just across the state border with Nevada.
💜 Sacramento (60 miles)
Sacramento is the capitol city of California with tons of history, culture, museums, and fun things to explore. It would be a perfect day trip during your visit to Grass Valley as it is just over an hour drive away.
No trip would be complete without checking out the California State Capitol museum. We also highly recommend a casual stroll through Old Sacramento, the historic area on Sacramento’s waterfront with wonderfully-restored buildings from the 1850’s, museums, novelty shops, and more.
The Holbrooke is a charming hotel with a unique history that continues to be told to this day. The recent renovations are impressive and add a level of modern chicness, while maintaining the feel and design of the original hotel built 150 years ago. This only elevates the lovely experience of staying at this historic hotel in the heart of California’s Gold Country.
Whether it’s the desire to connect with the past, or even to possibly experience spirits from the past, The Holbrooke is an ideal hotel to visit to experience the best of Old California. That is why we have no doubts that you will find The Holbrooke to be a hotel to love.