If you have ever watched a movie or television show set in the Old West, you have probably unknowingly “visited” California’s Tuolumne County. This gorgeous country encompasses many square miles which remain uninhabited and natural because they are preserved by the federal, state and county governments for all to enjoy, whether in person or through film and video.
Tuolumne County’s Visitors’ Bureau uses the slogan “One Destination, Three Vacations: Gold Country, High Sierra and Yosemite” to convey the wide range of sights and experiences available to those who might otherwise visit the world-famous Yosemite National Park and then immediately leave for San Francisco or Lake Tahoe, missing the many other experiences available nearby, explained Jennifer Lopez, Marketing Director for the Visitors Bureau.
“We are the front door to Yosemite but we also want to encourage visitors to visit our historic gold towns, the High Sierra, including Sonora Pass and The Emigrant Wilderness, and our many other parks including Railtown 1897 State Historical Park and the Stanislaus National Forest,” she explained.
“We are an easy drive from the San Francisco Bay Area and Sacramento, so Tuolumne County is perfect for a weekend getaway if you live in those areas. For visitors from elsewhere in the nation or who are visiting from overseas, we encourage you to extend your Yosemite excursion by a few days to see everything the area has to offer like the Gold Country and High Sierra while you are here,” Lopez said.
Tuolumne County offers lodging for all tastes and budgets – from campgrounds and RV parks to historic inns, bed and breakfasts, and modern resorts. In fact, Rush Creek Lodge is currently under construction and will open soon near the north entrance to Yosemite. It is the first modern resort with on-site dining and activities to be built in the County in 25 years.
You can soak up the atmosphere of the Old West in a variety of places.
There are three Gold Rush-era towns which you can visit – Jamestown, Sonora and Columbia.
A walk down Main Street in historic Jamestown is a step back in time. You’ll see the restored 1898 Jamestown Branch Jail, as well as a mixture of historic wood and stone buildings from different eras, ranging from the Gold Rush and the start of the 20th century, and Rocca Park where the recently installed Walk of Fame features several of the movies that have been filmed in the County over the years, Lopez said.
There are also plenty of dining options, including an 1864 steakhouse where the builders of the Sierra Railway once hung out in the bar. Gift shops and antique and collectible stores, featuring many locally-made items, also abound.
A few blocks east of the historic downtown area is the Railtown 1897 State Park. This park has preserved much of the Sierra Railway, built in 1897. The line carried lumber from local sawmills and quartz ore from local mines to the world. You can explore the grounds and take a tour of the roundhouse. On weekends between April and October you can also take a 40-minute steam train ride to the Rock Quarry and back.
Columbia State Historic Park contains the best-preserved gold rush town in the state. Visiting downtown Columbia today is much like walking into a prosperous California Gold Rush mining town, circa 1857. You can visit the Wells Fargo Express building where they weighed the gold; ride a horse-drawn stagecoach; visit the Matelot Gulch mining supply store; pan for gold; and even climb around the limestone rocks. Everything is staffed by docents in 1850s garb to allow visitors the sensation of time travel.
Columbia is also known for its special events like Diggins 1852 during which visitors step back in time to 1852 and discover what life was like in a gold diggings encampment. Over 150 volunteers help recreate this time in history by living the life of a miner, merchant, actor/actress and many more.
Many historic buildings from those times also remain in Sonora, Tuolumne County’s only city. The Gunn House, now a hotel, was once the office of the Sonora Herald newspaper, established in 1854. There is also the county jail, now a museum, with a few jail cells still intact and a tiny park nearby which has early gold mining equipment—an arastra, a stamping machine, and a Pelton water wheel – on display. Visitors can also enjoy seeing the 1898 yellow brick County Courthouse and the renowned 1860 Red Church.
If hiking, camping, fishing, river rafting and enjoying the natural world are more your style than stepping back in time, there are plenty of places in Tuolumne County for you to go. Keep in mind that the elevation of Tuolumne County ranges from 300 to more than 10,000 feet so that you can literally play golf or mountain bike one day and snow ski the next.
Over half of Yosemite National Park is in Tuolumne County and includes spectacular areas such as Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and Tuolumne Meadows. In fact, the National Park Service (NPS), which is celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2016, has incorporated a “Find Your Park” campaign into its website: www.nps.gov/yose.
Created in 1890 and overseen by the Army before the NPS was founded 26 years later, Yosemite National Park is best known for its waterfalls. But its nearly 1200 square miles also includes ancient giant sequoias, deep valleys, majestic meadows and some of the best scenery in the world. It offers several lodges, campgrounds, snack bars and restaurants within the park.
Yosemite has numerous special events planned in conjunction with the NPS Centennial this year. To find out which events you might be able to participate in, visit the Yosemite website and click on the Centennial portion at the top of the home page. The actual NPS anniversary is being celebrated on August 25.
A Yosemite experience isn’t complete without a stay in Highway 120’s Groveland. Once named “Garrotte,” after the community’s swift and hard justice from a large oak tree in what is now Big Oak Flat, Groveland offered miners exceptional gold discoveries. Once the Gold Rush was over, Groveland was selected in 1914 to be the construction headquarters for the Hetch Hetchy Water Project – the water supply for San Francisco and much of the Bay Area.
Today Groveland is a must-stop town where visitors find respite in historic hotels, B&Bs and vacation rentals. Pine Mountain Lake offers golfing, dining, horseback riding, camping and, of course, water sports.
Within the nearby Stanislaus National Forest you can fish in over 800 miles of rivers and streams; stay in a campground; or hike into the backcountry for solitude. If water is your preference, you can swim near a sandy beach or wade into cold clear streams, engage in whitewater rafting on the Tuolumne River, or canoe or kayak a gorgeous lake, but if you want to keep dry, you can ride a horse or a mountain bike or even a snowmobile.
The Emigrant Wilderness within Stanislaus National Forest is a wilderness area in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, bordered by Yosemite National Park on the south. The Emigrant Wilderness is a glaciated landscape of scenic beauty. The northeastern third consists of volcanic ridges and peaks, while the remaining areas feature sparsely vegetated, granite ridges along with numerous lakes and meadows.
Kennedy Meadows Resort and Pack Station, located 60 miles east of Sonora, can provide cabin accommodations and supplies for those wanting to explore remote regions of Yosemite or the Emigrant Wilderness (where cars are not permitted). They also offer guided rides on horseback and even horseback pack trips into the vast national forest.
Hikers of all skill levels can warm up for treks into more remote areas by practicing on the City of Sonora’s Dragoon Gulch Trail through the oak woodlands above that city. Hikers can do up to a 2.5 mile loop and those who make it to the top are rewarded with a fantastic view of Sonora. Along the way they can enjoy seeing the creek, local flora and fauna, water insects, wild flowers and mine tailings left over from Sonora’s mining past, or they can relax under Manzanita canopies.