Want to Walk in the Footsteps of Hollywood’s Epic Western Stars? Explore Yosemite Gold Country’s Tuolumne County in Northern California
From these classic movies –High Noon, The Great Race, Back to the Future III and Big Valley, to television series that brought the big outdoors into American living rooms such as Bonanza,
Little House on the Prairie and Lassie, a small area in Northern California has played a big role: creating lifelike settings and story lines to recreate early America. For Tuolumne County, set against the backdrop of Yosemite National Park in Northern California, the job was easy. As early as 1919, filmmakers recognized the area as a valuable and convenient source for location filming. Gold rush era buildings with wood plank sidewalks and slamming screen doors, Main Street with a Wells Fargo Express office, white picket fences, and grand hotels stood ready for their close-up. The area is still rich in natural features and vintage architectural styles, big sky landscape, rushing rivers and lakes, and one key ingredient – abundant California light.
Producers and directors discovered that almost any type of scenery in the United States and beyond could be replicated on film in Tuolumne County.
Along with film crews, came movie stars who stayed in local inns, bed and breakfast nooks, city mansions and sprawling ranches. Some accommodations had their own starring role. The Wilson-McConnell house in Columbia, circa 1878, is where Marshall Will Kane (Gary Cooper) tried to recruit Sam Fuller (Henry Morgan.) Columbia State Historic Park has been transformed into the far away cities of turn-of-the-century New York and Chicago. In the television series, Little House on the Prairie, the historic town became Sleepy Eye, Minnesota, and in the classic western, High Noon, it was known as Hadleyville.
Today, Columbia State Historic Park is free to visit, with businesses like fifth-generation Nelson’s Candy Store, blacksmith, candle-maker and other merchants conducting their crafts, in period clothes. Visitors may choose rare accommodations in two hotels within the state park, and enjoy numerous festivals and parades, take a stroll along Main Street or catch a ride on an authentic stagecoach.
Possibly the biggest star in Tuolumne County movies, television series, and commercials is Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, also known as “The Movie Railroad.” The state park is home to one of the most photographed locomotives in the world, Sierra #3.
While featured in almost every film using steam engine locomotives, and a weekly television show Petticoat Junction, perhaps its most famous scene was pushing a DeLorean time machine down the track in Back to the Future III with Michael J. Fox.
Today visitors to the park can view movie memorabilia and clips of the engine’s roles, and see Sierra #3 up close while touring one of the last remaining working roundhouses in America.
Self-guided tours of other filming locations are easy with the county’s Movie Map, available at both Visitor Center locations: downtown Sonora and Chinese Camp. There are two key dates to visit for classic movie buffs. The ITSA Film Festival, in November, is one of the most popular short film festivals in California. Festival-goers may attend panels and workshops, watch films and meet industry professionals in historic downtown Sonora venues.
The Film Fest Twain Hart convenes over Labor Day weekend, featuring western-inspired productions. The Tuolumne County Film Commission aids production crews with accommodations, scouting needs and permits. Contact the Visitors Bureau at 209-533-4420 for more information.