A Gay Goldrush of a Good Time in Nevada City, California

by Jim Gladstone

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Sunday June 6, 2021
Originally published on May 30, 2021

On a glorious 75-degree Saturday in early May, my partner and I came upon an intriguing sculpture in Robinson Plaza, a sun-dappled sitting area in the small town of Nevada City, California. Bare willow branches stood vertically; arranged in a circle, woven together and adorned with small polished rounds of acacia wood, they created a delicate skeletal column, fragile but shot through with light.

Though we're passionate travelers, it had been many pandemic-hampered months since John and I had ventured this far from our San Francisco home. The easy, picturesque three-hour drive into the northern foothills of the Sierra Mountains felt like an appropriate baby-step back toward our globe-hopping habits.

As we approached the sculpture, we noticed tiny slips of paper tied to the branches, inscribed with handwritten names and quotations. And then, at our feet, we saw a chunk of engraved local granite that described the sculpture as "a place to remember and grieve the community members... who have lost their lives to COVID."

The site was the first pandemic memorial we've come across. While sorrowful, it also reminded us of our good fortune, nudging us to savor the pleasures of life's reemergence.

Reimagined Splendor at the National Exchange Hotel

Roaring back to life (which began even before the pandemic) after hibernation, Nevada City's crown jewel, the historic National Exchange Hotel, had just reopened, its vintage splendor rejuvenated in a top-to-bottom three-year overhaul. The three-story landmark has been the region's premier hotel since first opening in 1856, back when Nevada City was a bustling hub of the California gold rush. John and I were excited to check in and explore its reimagined blend of historic charm and boutique indulgence.

Overseen by openly gay general manager Ted Robinson, the hotel (nicknamed the Nat) is quickly becoming a magnet for weekend getaways from the Bay Area and beyond. Today's guests more likely mine cryptocurrency than gold, but the overall vibe of Wild West Luxe still feels altogether appropriate.

Public rooms and hallways flaunt riotous floral wallpapers, meticulously restored furniture—including a fabulous room-consuming yellow velveteen couch — and an endless collection of bordello-chic prints and bric-a-brac. There are eye-popping surprises around every corner.

Broad wooden gallery-style balconies allow guests sipping champagne in the enormous second-story salon to wander outside and survey the main stretch of Broad Street, where traditional false-front buildings house friendly cafés, houseware boutiques and a singular shop that's named Fur Traders but offers steampunk regalia, Hawaiian shirts, and vintage leather jackets along with heaping piles of raccoon and fox pelts.

There's a full platoon of saloons in Nevada City, many of which regularly host live music, from Americana to R&B. And while this gold rush town's Mine Shaft Saloon comes by its name unwinkingly and hosts a friendly mixed crowd, it does serve as a bit of a gathering spot for gay locals and visitors.

For first-rate craft cocktails, though, the Nat's swanky on-site bar is Nevada City's best bet: We sipped a round of memorable Salty Roses (vodka, bergamot liqueur, Campari, grapefruit and salt) while perusing a display cabinet that showcases a collection of several dozen vintage cocktail shakers. Similarly impressive was dinner at the hotel's restaurant, Lola, where the oysters were garnished with strawberry mignonette and fir tips, and the thick-cut steak frites was like a meeting of Paris, Texas and Paris, France.

Wandering around Nevada City's small downtown the next day, we found no shortage of welcoming rainbow flags and Black Lives Matter banners in business windows. We were pleasantly surprised, as we'd been told the general vicinity was among California's redder regions.

Not so, explained National manager Robinson, who grew up in the neighboring town of Grass Valley, then spent much of his hospitality career in San Francisco. He welcomed the chance to move back to his native turf and run the Nat. (Just before the pandemic, Robinson led the opening of the Nat's equally impressive sibling property, the Holbrooke Hotel in Grass Valley ).

"You get a little of everything in the foothills, and the more rural areas can be quite conservative," he said, "But Nevada City, in particular, has been LGBT-friendly as long as I can remember. When I was a teenager in the 90s, this is where you wanted to go have fun on the weekends."

In part, that's due to an exodus of gay men from San Francisco at the height—and in the aftermath —of the AIDS crisis. While Nevada City's population hovers around 3,000 today (less than a third of its Gold Rush peak) and Grass Valley's is only about 12,000, there's a dash of queer-friendly urbanity amid the small-town environs.

We even met an out and proud uniformed ranger at nearby Empire Mine State Historic Park. Recognizing John and me as a couple, he told us about the gay weddings he'd helped organize at this historic site and let us know that, thanks to his efforts, Empire Mine was the only California state park that included a same-sex couple in its brochure photographs.

Even without that unexpected encounter, the park is well worth visiting for its fascinating encapsulation of American class division: The site features the stunning formal gardens and country cottage (Read: Foreboding Stone Mansion) once occupied by the Bourne family, who owned the mine and oversaw the extraction of gold worth billions of present-day dollars; it also encompasses miles of dangerous underground tunnels where immigrant workers manually picked rock in the dark, dusty heat.

John and I capped off our weekend by visiting a bonafide gay watering hole. We drove 15 minutes out of town to a bend in the Yuba River, where cars parked along both shoulders of Route 49 let us know we'd reached the trail to Hoyt's Crossing. After crossing an elevated footbridge that offered spectacular views of the river below, we followed a marked path for about a half-mile, then descended to a secluded rocky beach dotted with beer coolers and naked men.

Blue jays flitted by, lizards darted across the ground, and the cool, clear river flowed around enormous flat-topped rocks where we lay in the sunshine, staring up at clouds adrift in the California sky. At that moment, it felt as if the past year had finally taken a turn for the better. As if we'd truly struck gold.

Jim Gladstone is a San Francisco-based writer and creative strategist.