The most direct route to Yosemite National Park from the San Francisco Bay Area takes travelers through the historic “Gold County” where gold was found and fortunes were made and lost along Highway 49.
The county, called Tuolumne and pronounced “To-All-O-Me” includes two state historic parks and landmarks which check all the boxes of authenticity, a mountain pine lake for summer and winter sports, and the beckoning entrance to Yosemite National Park on scenic Highway 120, home to the charming and hospitable Groveland community, with the oldest drinking establishment in California.
The grandeur of Yosemite National Park is reason enough for four million people to visit each year; however, there is more to see and do in the area. Here is a year’s worth of reasons to visit right now, when the area is at its loveliest:
1.The Best Waterfall Season in Memory
With record snowfall melting under the early summer sun, Yosemite’s waterfalls are at their screensaver best. Advice: Ditch the crowds in Yosemite Valley and instead take a favorite Yosemite waterfall hike to Wapama Falls, one of the least-crowded waterfalls in Yosemite. The 3-mile round-trip hike from Hetch Hetchy Reservoir is located much closer to Sacramento and the Bay Area than Yosemite Valley, and a dip in the Rainbow Pool swimming hole off Highway 120 afterwards is heaven. This hike and many more are shown in detail at yosemitehikes.com.
2. Wonderful Waterfalls = Whitewater Rafting
The amount of snowfall in the area this past season has enthusiasts predicting the best whitewater rafting in California in ten years. It’s definitely a once-in-a-decade opportunity to raft the gorgeous Tuolumne River, one of the most scenic rivers in California and an easy drive from the San Francisco Bay Area (133 miles, 200 km). While there are lots of reputable rafting companies to choose from, a pioneer rafting company in the area is Sierra Mac River Rafting. They were one of the first to protect rivers in the area and are a family owned outfitter based in Groveland.sierramac.com; 209/591-8027
3. The New Rush Creek Lodge opens – First New Resort in Yosemite area in 25 years
The company operating Evergreen Lodge, housing visitors since 1921, are putting the finishing touches on their new resort, Rush Creek Lodge, just ½ mile from the Highway 120 entrance to Yosemite National Park. No lodging is closer to park entrance. Perched on a 20-acre wooded hillside, the 143 tastefully appointed rooms, suites and villas each have a deck overlooking nature and the stunning Sierra sunsets. The lodge is loaded with amenities such as a solar-heated saltwater pool with pool bar and hot tubs, gold panning stream, fly-casting pond, an indoor tree house and fun-filled game room, and restaurants serving California lodge cuisine. Opening June, 2016 in Groveland, CA. rushcreeklodge.com; 209/379-2373
4. Private (and crazy-romantic) Yosemite Stargazing Tours
One of best reasons to get out of the influence of big city lights is to experience a true night stay with billions of stars. What’s even better is doing it with your own private astronomer, guiding you around the galaxy with a state-of-the-art tracking telescope.
A company called Yosemite Family Adventures offers private Yosemite stargazing tours that explains local constellations, planets, and nebulas that are viewable from California (No Uranus jokes please—they’ve heard them all). It is especially romantic with TFA’s “proposal picnic” in this little-known gem of a getaway.www.yfaguides.com/stargazing-tours; 209/985-1799
5. Sonora: The Ashland of California
Oregon has Ashland for the local theatre repertory experience, and here it’s found in Sonora. Locals take great pride in their theater productions – so professional that it’s not hard to find people who visited Tuolumne County to see a show, and ended up relocating to be a part of the local theater scene. More than 45,000 patrons each year attend the eight main shows that take place each year. Professional actors from around the county are housed by locals, and more than 500 donors and hundreds of volunteers help the staff with sets and costumes. See the websites for the current schedule to enjoy top-notch theatre in seats better than Broadway. Sierra Repertory Theatre (sierrarep.com; 209/532-3120) and Stage 3 Theatre(stage3.org; 209/536-1778).
6. A different artful expression; Painting & Wine Tasting With Brush & Cork
If you’re better at drinking wine than painting, even the score with a trip to Sonora’sBrush & Cork. It’s a genius idea: Using a pre-drawn canvas, create easy-to-follow, step-by-step paintings while sipping your own libation, all under the encouraging presence of a personal artist guide. There’s no “wrong” way of painting—only one that is the most relaxing and fun. Classes are reasonably priced as low as $25 a person. California poppies and Yosemite landscapes are the most popular and a unique holiday memento. brushandcork.com; 209/533-4542
7. Pan Your Mortgage Payment
It’s called the Gold Country for a reason. Gold is currently selling for more than $1,200 USD an ounce, and they say 70% of it is still in the ground around these parts. Plus, this heavy winter snow runoff is washing a lot of gold downstream. Get into the authentic moment by taking a panning lesson in Jamestown at Gold Prospecting Adventures. Once you get the hang of it, your instructor will point you in the right direction to start a new career, or perhaps just across the street to the Historic National Hotel, where hotel proprietor Stephen Willey recognizes gold and gold dust as legal tender. A gold rush-era scale, and posted daily gold prices facilitate the transaction. The saloon comes complete with adjacent hotel rooms for overnight stays. Gold Prospecting Adventures,www.goldprospecting.com/;800/596-0009; Historic National Hotel;www.national-hotel.com/;800/894-3446
8. Sonora’s Hip New Drinking & Dining Scene
Sonora is quickly becoming the kind of town that makes you think, “Huh. I could see myself moving here someday.” The drinking and dining scene alone is taking off, with some of California most talented chefs and mixologists leasing historic Sonora buildings for cents on the dollar compared to Oakland and San Francisco.
If bourbon makes you happy, just walking through the front door of The Bourbon Barrel bar and restaurant (208 S Green St; 209/288-2644 will bring a smile. They serve 150 different bourbons and creative cuisine. The same owners are soon opening an outdoor beer garden. https://www.facebook.com/SonoraBourbonBarrel 209/288-2644
The Standard Pour specializes in pairing artisanal cheeses and local foods with craft beers and fine wines. Start with the Artisanal Cheese plate, then progress to the Cumin-Coriander tots, followed by Bacon-Cheddar Hush Puppies and the Cubano sandwich. www.standard-pour.com; 209/532-7687
9. This New Cider House Rules on an Organic Apple Farm
Indigeny Reserve, a remarkable cider house production plant and tasting room is set among 160 acres of apple orchards with walking trails and shaded picnic grounds. From the by-products of the cider production, distillers are bottling vodka and brandy, available for purchase. Each spring, enthusiasts are invited to identify an apple blossom they predict will bear fruit and the blossom is bottled and numbered. If they are lucky, Indigeny Reserve will arrange shipment of their bottle of apple brandy, complete with a full grown apple inside. (About $70). Wonderful straight from the “keep cold” aluminum bottle, summer pairing favorites are the Extra-Crisp Reserve Hard Cider with vanilla bean ice cream for an ice cream float, and for an extra kick in lemonade. (Note: Indigeny Reserve is a hidden gem, so be sure to have it mapped out before you leave.) indigenyreserve.com; 209/533-9463
10. An Easy, Beautiful Hike around Pinecrest Lake
One of the most scenic hikes in the Gold Country takes you around beautifulPinecrest Lake. Located about 30 miles east of Sonora off Highway 108, the 4-mile (dog-friendly) Pinecrest National Recreation Trail takes about two hours to walk, offering classic alpine lake views: pine forests, granite cliffs, and the dark-blue Pinecrest Lake.
There’s also a small marina to rent paddle boats, sailboats, and kayaks. Afterward enjoy a leisurely lunch on the back patio at the nearby Steam Donkey Restaurant at Pinecrest Lake Resort (named after the steam-power logging engines that replaced man and horsepower). Maps of the trail are downloadable atwww.tuolumnecountytrails.com (click on “High Country Trails”).
11. Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Missing Bennett Juniper Tree
Here’s a one-of-a-kind scenario for mystery and nature buffs: Somewhere in Tuolumne County is the largest Juniper tree in America. It’s not easy to find or get to, but the reward is being one of the few people on the planet who gazed upon this 4,000-year-old protected oddity (Hint: Google “where is the Bennett juniper tree?”). Score extra points for 1) meeting the tree’s caretaker, Ken Brunges, and his dog, Augie; 2) catching a glimpse of Benny the marmot, and 3) spotting a Townsend’s Solitaire, a rare bird which feeds almost exclusively on juniper berries. Several guide companies can arrange the trip and provide four wheel drive transport.) www.savetheredwoods.org/project/bennett-juniper-stewardship-project; 888/836-0005
12. Christmas Cheer Here with Candy Cane Making Classes and Gold Rush Holiday Festivals – Book Now
Fifth-generation candy makers at Columbia Candy Kitchen inside Columbia State Historic Park offer candy cane making classes to groups up to 15 on weekends between Thanksgiving and the weekend prior to Christmas. The key is timing – requests are granted via a postcard lottery which must be received by Labor Day in September. More than 10,000 postcards are received annually. (Name, Address, Phone #, preferred weekend on postcard to: Columbia Candy Kitchen Box 191 Columbia, CA 95310)
Columbia State Historic Park is a great place to get into the holiday spirit, with a variety of events scheduled, such as the Victorian Feast at the historic City Hotel on December 9, 11, 15 and 16, 2016. For more than 30 years, the hotel has recreated a 120 year-old banquet melodrama with a colorful cast of actors, minstrels, authentic cuisine and paired wines. Guests return year after year to begin the season and stay in one of the state park’s two historic hotels. During A Miner’s Christmas, children can make crafts of the 1850’s and join miners around a campfire as they roast chestnuts, while keeping an eye out for Father Christmas. Weekends December 10-11 and 17-18. See the entire schedule of events athttp://yosemitegoldcountry.com/events/