Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park contains within its gates the only remains of the once bustling gold rush town of New Helvetia. The state park is located smack in the middle of California’s state Capitol, Sacramento, surrounded by businesses, hospitals, and a modern day midtown environment. Yet as you step into Sutter’s Fort and past the gates you are given a rare opportunity to step back in time to the days of the Wild West and the colorful yet rustic times of the settlers in the 1840s. Have I piqued your interest yet? Here is all you must see, do, and explore at Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park!
History of Sutter’s Fort
A little history of the area. The location of what is now the Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park was first settled by the German-born yet Swiss-identifying Johann Augustus Sutter. Starting in Switzerland, he was not the most honest man and found himself largely in debt from his dry goods establishment. Johann’s solution? Well, he decided to leave behind his wife and kids and set out on his own for the great American dream across the sea. Through swindling and trading, Johann eventually made his way out west to stake his claim on the American River in 1839. His plan was to start his agricultural empire and set to work building his homestead and mills. It was a relatively honest idea which all changed dramatically on January 24, 1848. That was the day when James Marshall, while inspecting the sawmill, discovered shining flecks of metal in the mill’s trailrace. But this was no simple metal. This was gold!
By spring of that very same year, news of the riches found in California made it to the east coast. This sparked the largest gold rush in American history and brought about 90,000, non- native people to Mexican California in one year. And by the end of 1852 Sutter’s Fort was in ruins after another 150,000 settlers decided to try their hands at striking it rich and overtaking Johann’s property as he fell once again back into debt. In 1891 Native Sons of the Golden West purchased this now vacant land and handed it over to the people of California for reconstruction. For the next couple years the fort was repaired to as it stands today and became part of the California State Park System in 1947.
Tours and Programs
There are several ways to enjoy Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park. If you really want to learn more about California history and deep dive into impacts of the vastly changing times, you can opt to join the Sutter’s Fort or Bust program. These guided tours are available on Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the months of February through June. Between July and August the tours do not run. But guided tours start up again in September and run through November. The tours start at 9:20am, running every 20 minutes until the final tour starts at 2:20pm. The Sutter’s Fort or Bust program is really great for families with children in grades 3rd through 5th. They will enjoy the experience as historical guides show Mexican California in a new and fascinating way. The cost is $5 per person for the tour.
For elementary aged kids who really want to fully immerse into the lives of those from the 1840s the Environmental Living Program is created just for them! This program gives students the opportunity to spend an entire 24 hours at Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park. During this overnight adventure, participants will be given their own era character to portray as they partake in skills such as wood carpentry, old fashioned baking and lovely candle-making.
If your kids are not wanting to have a sleepover or if they are middle school or high school age, the Environmental Studies Program is a better suited program to check out. In this modified program participants spend 8 hours in the state park and do similar period activities as in the Environmental Living Program. Although not overnight, it is an entire day living the life of an 1840s settler.
On Your Own
If you are not into guided tours or programs you can visit Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park all on your own. The park is open for self guided tours without the need for reservations. You can also opt to walk the nice easy half a mile loop around the gates of the park to stretch your legs.
The State Indian Museum is located within Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park and contains many exhibits reflecting the California past. The museum sticks to three major themes in all its artifacts and photos: Nature, Spirit, and Family. Opened in 1940 the exhibits are full of California Indian cultural items in the museum such traditional weaved baskets, a preserved redwood dugout canoe, beautifully created beadwork for ceremonies and trading, plus twenty four hundred year old hunting spears and arrowheads! A unique exhibit is focused on the last survivor of the once prominent Yahi tribe. It is an educational and impactful tribute to the life of Ishi.
Before you head out from Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park make sure you check out the Sutter’s Fort Museum Store. Here you can find a great souvenir rich in history. There is a selection of historical mixers and tonics, iconic toys of the era, and beautiful earthenware and time period soaps. Another bonus? The store is operated by the Friends of Sutter’s Fort in cooperation with California State Parks which means all proceeds go back to restoring the park, creating fun and interactive educational programs as well as keeping Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park open for future generations.
- Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park is open from 10am to 5pm; seven days a week. In the summer months of July and August, on Friday and Saturday the park stays open until 8pm.
- You can bring your best furry friend in the park that surrounds Sutter’s Fort. Unfortunately they can not enter the gated or exhibit areas.
- One neat thing about this state park is you can get married right in the fort! The park is available to be rented for events, gatherings and more! Just inquire for a permit and fees.
- The state park is not free but it is really affordable at only $5 for adults and ages 5-17 are $3. Young ones under the age of five are free.
What once was a 19th-century agricultural and trade colony in the Mexican Alta California province is now a glimpse into the past in the middle of an urban landscape. I hope you enjoy your visit to Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park.
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Kaitlin is a former ballerina who now travels around the country in an 18-foot converted school bus. Her and her husband have welcomed 34 sweet children into their home the past eleven years. Although they would not be a forever home for all of them, they adopted their daughter buckets and are legal guardians to their son monkey. Follow their crazy adventures on Instagram @runawaymusbus