The San Francisco Chronicle’s Eric Gustafson writes of his Folsom experience:
Johnny Cash may have made Folsom famous with his 1955 song “Folsom Prison Blues” and live performances at the prison in 1968, but there is more to this city than incarceration.
Nestled against the El Dorado Hills, 22 miles east of Sacramento, Folsom is a scenic stepping-off point for Gold Country adventures. As with so many cities in this region, gold is what put it on the map. A railroad connection to Sacramento — part of the very first railroad in the West — and a hydroelectric power station helped keep it there.
But what makes Folsom truly unique is its lovingly preserved old city center, which benefited from a major revitalization in 2011. Quaint storefronts set against the rugged Sierra foothills make a visit to this tree-shrouded village a bit like stepping back in time.
Explore the town
Sutter Street is the heart of Folsom’s historic district, and that is where you’ll find Sutter Street Grill. Locals say it makes the best breakfast in town. Known for its biscuits and gravy, this understated and informal spot has no less than 20 omelet options on its menu. Get there early; the place fills up fast. Karen’s Bakery is a good alternative. As with everything in this compact, four-block-long area, it is just a short walk away.
After fueling up, take a walk along the Jedediah Smith Memorial Trail, which begins just below the Sacramento Regional Transit Light Rail stop. (The ride from Sacramento takes 40 minutes.) It winds its way southwest along the shore of Lake Natoma. Paved with a soft gravel shoulder, the trail is both pedestrian- and bike-friendly. Cyclists will be better equipped to take advantage of its full 32 miles of length. Either way, you’ll want to exercise in the morning hours during the summer. On our July visit, the temperature hit 99 degrees by late afternoon.
A less strenuous and more historically edifying experience is visiting the Folsom Powerhouse, off Greenback Lane as you enter town. When it opened in 1895, it was one of the first hydroelectric stations in the nation to use alternating current. This new technology allowed the American River-powered plant to send electricity all the way to Sacramento. Though small, the free museum does a nice job of explaining what was then an engineering feat. Plus, the 12-acre grounds of this state park are picnic friendly, with a great, rock-lined swimming spot at water’s edge, which just happens to be where native Southern Maidu ground their acorns; the telltale holes are easy to spot.
The Powerhouse was superseded by the creation of the Folsom Dam, which in turn gave rise to Folsom Lake and Lake Natoma. Fed by both the North and South Forks of the American River, Folsom Lake fairly dwarfs its sibling to the south and offers loads of recreation opportunities. Not a true lake, Natoma is still fed by the American River as it squeezes through the dam, explaining its river-like appearance.
Folsom State Prison is situated at the base of the dam. Built in 1880 to ease overcrowding at San Quentin, it houses 5,500 inmates. Visiting the Folsom Prison Museum costs two bucks, but don’t let Johnny Cash guilt you into feeling you must. This ain’t no Alcatraz.
The town slows down as the temperature goes up during the summer. This is a good time to break for lunch, and there are plenty of options in the historic district. Locals pointed us to the Sutter Street Taqueria, where the carnitas tacos seem to be the most popular item. There is also a full sit-down menu, as well as beer and wine on offer. If the kids demand pizza, head to Pizzeria Classico.
After lunch, browse the antique and curio stores along Sutter Street and pop into the Folsom History Museum. Cool off with an ice cream cone, shake or float at Snooks Chocolate Factory, a family operation since 1963.
For a more active afternoon, rent a kayak and paddle on the Natoma. You can put in at the Negro Bar Picnic Area, across the lake from the historic district. Adventure Sports Rentals rents tandems there for $25 an hour. If you don’t feel like kayaking, just walk down to the aforementioned spot near the Powerhouse and at least get your feet in the water while you soak up the scenery.
The Folsom historic district comes alive in the evening, as the temperature comes down. By 7 p.m., there’s usually a good-size crowd at the Folsom Hotel Saloon, which has a bit of a Wild West feel to it. In the summer, you’ll find a lively music scene, including Folsom Live, featuring performers on five stages on Sept. 26.
For dinner, head to Hop Sing Palace. Its funky interior, with a dizzying assortment of Asian artwork and bric-a-brac, mounted fish and cozy lamps, makes this Chinese restaurant a memorable destination (the food makes less of a lasting impression, but it is a great alternative to pub grub). If you’re hankering for a burger and a craft brew, Samuel Hornes Tavern has got you covered.
The party crowd, especially those looking to dance and hear live music, often end the night (and begin the next day) at the Powerhouse Pub.
Sutter Street Grill: 811 Sutter St. (916) 985-4323.www.sutterstreetgrill.info. Breakfast and brunch 6 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday, 7 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday.
Folsom Powerhouse: 9980 Greenback Lane. (916) 988-0205. Noon-4 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday.
Folsom Prison Museum: 312 Third St., Represa, (916) 985-2561.www.folsomprisonmuseum.org. 10 a.m.-4 p.m daily.
Sutter Street Taqueria: 727 Sutter St. (916) 293-8952. 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Sunday-Monday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday.
Pizzeria Classico: 702 Sutter St. (916) 351-1430. 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday.
Snooks Chocolate Factory: 731 Sutter St., Folsom, (916) 985-0620.www.snookscandies.com.
Adventure Sports Rentals: Negro Bar Picnic Area,http://adventuresports.rentals. (916) 622-0489. 10 a.m.-4 p.m. daily.
Folsom Hotel Saloon: 703 Sutter St. (916) 985-2530. 11 a.m.-2 a.m. daily.
Hop Sing Palace: 805 Sutter St. (916) 985-7309. 11 a.m.- 9:30 p.m. daily.
Samuel Hornes Tavern: 719 Sutter St. (916) 293-8207.www.samhornes.com.
Powerhouse Pub: 614 Sutter St. (916) 355-8586.www.powerhousepub.com.