A certain magic happens when the right event is held in a town that embraces it. Setting an environmental film fest in Nevada City is an alchemical pairing that brings out the best in the Gold Country town.
With its rich prospecting history, 19th-century Victorian inns and proximity to the stark yet gorgeous Yuba River, Nevada City is well worth visiting any time of year. Yet for one weekend in mid-January, when the Wild & Scenic Environmental Film Festival takes over this Sierra foothills town, there’s a confluence of community, creativity and inspiration shared among locals and visitors alike.
Dozens of filmmakers from across the country come to Nevada City to screen their documentaries, showing the movies in historic venues such as the Nevada Theater.
Established in 1865, the Nevada Theater, with 200-some seats and a balcony, is one of California’s oldest original-use theaters and a state historic landmark. Jack London appeared here; Mark Twain spoke in the theater about his voyage to the Sandwich Islands, now known as Hawaii.
Film has come a long way since the first motion picture, a silent film, was shown in the Nevada Theater, in 1908. Now, the festival aims to inform and educate viewers about critical issues through movies that tell compelling stories and inspire viewers to get involved.
The venues, such as the Miner’s Foundry, a 19th-century ironworks that fashioned tools for the gold-mining industry, add character to the festival, said festival director Kathy Dotson. Today the foundry is a community center, but its rough-hewn beams and antique fixtures bring the Gold Rush days to life.
“Nevada City prides itself on preserving its authenticity,” Dotson says, noting the town (pop. 3,001) has barred fast-food joints and chain motels. “You can feel the character of the place.”
From Santa Rosa, it’s a three-hour drive if you don’t hit traffic. Turn off Interstate 80 at Auburn onto Highway 49 and head north for a half-hour to Nevada City, where you’ll immediately be enchanted by the small-town ambiance.
For lodging, one option is the Red Castle Inn, an 1860 Gothic revival mansion atop a hillside overlooking the town. The red-brick façade is framed by white, icicle-like latticework; the interior is homey if a bit snug. The owners clearly love cats — feline art, books and figurines populate the inn. It offers a tasty serve-yourself eggs-and-bacon breakfast buffet. There’s no dining area, but carrying your tray back to your room makes for an intimate breakfast with a view of the pine-shrouded town.
The 10-minute walk from the inn to downtown begins on a steep forested path that leads to the street below; then it’s a short hop to restaurants, an expansive gallery, and a local winery, Indian Springs, that holds free tastings and features an excellent syrah.
Parking the car for the weekend was part of the pleasure of staying in this five-block-long town. (Nevada City is a bit larger but the festival, bookshops, galleries and wine tasting were all within the compact downtown center.)
You can walk everywhere, giving a sense of stepping back in time. Many Gold Rush towns are bisected by Highway 49, but the thoroughfare skirts Nevada City, so visitors escape the traffic hubbub. During the festival, you can spend your days walking along Victorian-lined streets, watching documentaries and meeting filmmakers. And meals are top-notch (see listing for restaurants).
Yet here’s what’s most appealing about Nevada City: the 19th-century buildings are not mere facades — they’re as integrated into daily life as they’ve ever been. Which is something you innately feel as you watch films at the Nevada Theater, Miner’s Foundry or other historic buildings used for the festival.
“It’s not a museum,” Dotson said. “It’s a hub of activity.”
IF YOU GO…
WHERE TO STAY
Red Castle Inn offers a vision of Gold Country elegance and is furnished with antiques. $120-$185 per night. 109 Prospect St., (530) 265-5135, redcastleinn.com.
The Outside Inn features themed rooms such as the Winter Room with a view of the snow-capped Sierra Nevada, and the Tour of Nevada City room, named after the bike race and decorated in a cycling theme. $75-$180 per night. 575 E. Broad St., (530) 265-2233, outsideinn.com.
The Emma Nevada House, combines historic ambiance with modern conveniences such as Wi-Fi; named by Frommer’s as one of the finest B&Bs in Gold Country. The seven-room Victorian was once the home of 19th-century opera star Emma Nevada. $149-$249 per night. 528 E. Broad St., (800) 916-3662, emmanevadahouse.com.
The downtown New Moon Cafe follows Alice Waters’ lead, using fresh, seasonal and organic ingredients. The roast beet salad and ravioli are specialties. 203 York St., (530)
Citronee Bistro and Wine Bar is widely considered the finest restaurant in Nevada City; some reviewers say it’s like the French Laundry for a fraction of the price. Choose the casual cafe or the elegant dining room. Insiders recommend the “gastronomique” menu of chef’s selections with wine pairings, about $125 per person including wine.
320 Broad St., (530) 265-5697. citroneebistro.com.
Ike’s Quarter Cafe is ideal for brunch or lunch. The Cajun-influenced dishes are spicy and flavorful, but you may have to wait for a table during the festival. 401 Commercial St., (530) 265-6138.
Posh Nosh, downtown, features dishes like salmon salad with wasabi and ginger glaze and veggie ravioli with pesto sauce. Excellent sandwiches and salads round out the menu. The portions are generous, the atmosphere casual. 318 Broad St., (530)
Sopa Thai Cuisine has a sumptuous coconut chicken soup, tasty spring rolls and curries so good they reminded us of dining in Thailand. 312 Commercial St., (530)
The 8th annual Wild & Scenic Environmental Film Festival will be held in Nevada City, Jan. 15-17. For information, visit
wildandscenicfilmfestival.org or contact SYRCL, 216 Main St., Nevada City 95959. (530) 265-5961.
The Mowen Solinsky Gallery, set in a
historic 1870s building, features artists and craftspeople of the Sierra foothills. 225 Broad St., (530) 265-4682, mowensolinskygallery.com.
Visit a bookstore in this literary town. Nevada City has several bookstores, including Harmony Books (231 Broad St.) and Mountain House Books (418 Broad St.). This is an area that appreciates authors and good writing: Grass Valley, 5 miles away, is home to BookTown, a collective of small bookstores featuring used, rare and collectible books, 107 Bank St., Grass Valley, (530) 272-4655, www.booktownbooks.com.
Visit a museum: Nevada City celebrates its Gold Rush heritage at several museums, including the Firehouse Museum, the Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum, North Star Mining Museum and Searls Library. Some museums are closed during winter; for locations and hours, see nevadacountyhistory.org.
Ski! About 40 miles (an hour’s drive) away are three downhill ski areas: Boreal (borealski.com), Sugar Bowl (sugarbowl.com), and Donner Ski Ranch (donnerskiranch.com). Get a cross-country workout at Tahoe XC, a welcoming, family-friendly resort on Lake Tahoe’s northwest shore, tahoexc.org.