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Adventure of the week: Dig into this state park for hikes, history

In addition to the natural attractions of 800 acres of forested backcountry, hiking trails and gardens, there is a rich history at Empire Mine State Historic Park, the site of one of the oldest, largest and deepest gold mines in California.

"The mine was in operation for 106 years after gold quartz outcropping was discovered in 1850," says Susan Chase, supervising park ranger. "It eventually developed into one of the richest and most productive hard-rock mines in California."

It's just an hour away from Sacramento and a mile from downtown Grass Valley. Visitors can hike, mountain bike or go horseback riding on 12 miles of forested trails amid historic mining sites. Besides the workout of seeing the park, you can exercise your imagination by contemplating the building foundations, mine shafts and equipment used during its most active period, from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s.

Within a couple of years, Chase says, a horizontal shaft will be open for tours; visitors will get more of a feel for what the underground experience was like for miners. Meanwhile, the visitors center has a model representing five square miles of underground workings.

Marked trails are a boon for hikers, cyclists and equestrians. (Bring your own horses.) And dogs - as long as they are leashed - are welcome at this park, which is open year-round, seven days a week from sunrise to sunset.

The trails are posted and vary from easy to difficult.

The park also offers guided tours and audiovisual presentations. Call or visit the Empire Mine Association's Web site for tour and presentation times at www.empiremine.org. More park information is available at www.parks.ca.gov (and click on "Find a Park").

On Mother's Day weekend, May 13-14, park rangers host their annual spring open house.

"For our open house, volunteers will be in historic dress from the Edwardian period around the turn of the century," Chase says. "There will be music, food and living history.

"Spring is a beautiful time to not only experience mines and mine history, but you can also take a walk through the 13-acre gardens of historic roses and other plants that come from all over the world that you would not see anywhere else."

Empire Mine State Historic Park

Who: All ages; guided tours, easy hikes, mountain biking and horseback riding

What: 12 miles of forested trails, historic gardens and old mining buildings

When: Open sunrise to sunset all year

Where: Near Grass Valley

What to wear: Layered clothing advised

Entrance fee: $3 for ages 17 and older, $1 for ages 6-16

Directions: Take Interstate 80 to Auburn. Take Highway 49 north to Grass Valley and turn off at the Empire Street exit.

Information: 10791 E. Empire Street, Grass Valley; (530) 273-8522, www.empiremine.org or www.parks.ca.gov

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