The Best River Towns in America: Nevada City, California

Affordable homes. Cosmopolitan verve. Easy access to the outdoors. Locals agree: life is better in these 19 watery burgs.

Yuba Gainer.

Yuba Gainer.     Photo: Ryan Salm

The Stats

Nevada City, California
Population: 3,068
Median Age: 48
Median Annual Salary: $59,440
Median Home Price: $281,800
Unemployment Rate: 11.3 percent
Votes Received: 12 percent

Nevada City was the smallest town in this year’s Facebook competition, but no other city turned out the vote in such a big way. A whopping 2,539 people—83 percent of the populace—cast their ballots for this tiny hamlet on the edge of Tahoe National Forest. The next closest per capita average: Hood River, Oregon, with 40 percent voting. And while Nevada City didn’t win (sorry, guys!), we understand the enthusiasm. Residents can ski at Sugar Bowl (45 minutes away), mountain-bike 120 miles of singletrack within a 20-minute drive into Tahoe National Forest, and visit five vineyards less than 30 minutes from downtown. But readers consistently cited one selling point: the “magical,” “sun-hugged,” “granite-lined” Yuba River. Seven miles north of town, the South Fork of the Yuba offers trout fishing, Class V kayaking, and summer lounging as it flows through a granite gorge in the Sierra foothills. “The most beautiful river I’ve ever seen,” says local Judy Meyers. But there’s culture, too. As Mike Mooers, creative director at Wicked Good Copy and Communications, puts it: “Nevada City has all the outdoorsy stuff but also some seriously rooted heart and soul.” The Nevada Theater, where Mark Twain read in the 1860s, still features monthly plays. In July, the 150-year-old town closes two blocks to cars and lets artisans take over with booths selling wine, craft cheeses, and local veggies. The city also hosts eight annual events, including the acclaimed Wild and Scenic Film Festival and a Mardi Gras parade. There’s even a masquerade ball that has been known to attract police attention. “We’re trying to tame that down,” says George Harper, a former parade organizer. “It’s a family event.” All of which is to say—as Rich Bodine, a clinical support specialist, did—“Nevada City is alive!

BEST SWIMMING HOLE: “Cliff jumps, nudist beaches, family-friendly sandbars—there are oodles
of options” on the South Fork of the Yuba, says Liza Hestbeck, who works at the Outside Inn. But if you want to combine a hike with a swim, Hestbeck recommends the two-mile Independence Trail from Highway 49 to Rush Creek, where you can dive off granite cliffs.

ON THE TOWN: An old mining village, Nevada City has a bar for practically every type of drinker. But if you want to “mingle with the real locals,” according to Vanessa Richardson, a freelance writer, head to the Mineshaft, where you can order up 16-ounce PBRs for $2.50—starting at 7 a.m.

WHAT YOU GET FOR $1: A one-year membership at Polly’s Paladar, a monthly dinner club that brings in prominent chefs from the region to make a seven-course meal with locally sourced ingredients ($50 per dinner for members).

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