This pocket of California marries Gold Rush towns, stirring High Sierra landscapes and some of Yosemite National Park’s most underrated pockets. Adventurous travellers will be sated with hikes through mountain-clad meadows, while history buffs will enjoy being whisked back to the Old West. The best way to unpack the region is on a road trip: trailheads to mirror-clear alpine lakes unfurl along pine-studded highways, which tail off into quaint mountain outposts. Follow this 10-day itinerary to discover the best of Tuolumne County from the road.
Make your base in Gold Rush town Groveland, which springs from the pines along Highway 120. It’s the perfect primer for the Old West history to come: prospectors struck gold here in the mid-19th century and the main street seems to have been plucked from a Western film, with its classic false-front architecture and faded swinging signs. Make time for a sundowner at Iron Door Saloon; the storied watering hole is said to be the oldest of its kind in the state. History also awaits at the Groveland Hotel, which was built in 1849.
Offbeat Yosemite — Tuolumne Grove and Hetch Hetchy Reservoir
Tuolumne County lays claim to a great swathe of Yosemite National Park. Beyond county borders, headliners like El Capitan and Bridalveil Fall draw crowds to Yosemite Valley — but there’s a rawer, quieter beauty in Tuolumne. Push east from Groveland along Highway 120, then north on Tioga Road, and you’ll reach the Tuolumne Grove trailhead. The 2.5-mile round-trip route beats a path through firs and pines to a copse of cloud-scraping sequoias. Spend ample time in the park’s Hetch Hetchy Valley area, an hour’s drive north. Here, granite peaks thrust skyward around a vast reservoir and paths snake through rugged terrain. Wapama Falls — a soaring cascade reached via a five-mile round-trip hike — is the star act. Ease back west down Evergreen Road and along Highway 120 each night, checking in at Evergreen Lodge, rustic log cabin-style huts.
Offbeat Yosemite — Tuolumne Meadows
Savour the hour-and-a-half drive eastward to Tuolumne Meadows, with pinch-yourself views along Tioga Road. Tuolumne Meadows is Yosemite’s most underrated region, open seasonally from May-November before the snow sets in. The Tuolumne River carves up subalpine meadows, which are hemmed in by a forest of granite peaks. Get to the region’s heart on a day hike: the two-mile Gaylor Lakes trail rewards trekkers with glittering high country vistas. Rest your head at nearby Groveland Hotel, with its plush, old world charm.
Retrace your steps with a 40-minute drive west towards Jamestown, the first place gold was found in Tuolumne County. Now, its 19th-century buildings house restaurants and atmospheric lodgings. The town’s big-ticket attraction is the Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, where you can chug through Jamestown’s surrounding wilderness on a steam locomotive. Next, set your sights on the Jamestown Walk of Fame, which highlights the 200-plus movies and TV shows that have been filmed here with a series of bronze medallions.
Sonora and Columbia State Historic Park
Take a quick jaunt along Highway 49 for more Gold Rush history. Sonora is Tuolumne’s county seat and the region’s buzziest city, packed with art galleries and one-off shops. It’s known for its top-notch tipples, too. Sip craft beers at the Sonora Tap Room, or take the short trip out to the Indigeny Reserve cidery. Set aside the best part of a day to visit Columbia State Historic Park, just out of town. A collection of Gold Rush-era buildings have been spruced up and brought back to life, with shops filled with candy and curios and living history demos from people in period costume. Don’t miss the working blacksmith shop, as well as a traditional stagecoach ride.
Twain Harte and Pinecrest Lake
Go north on Highway 108 for the promise of High Sierra adventures. Make a pitstop in cute-as-a-pin mountain town Twain Harte before settling in at Pinecrest Lake in the Stanislaus National Forest. A four-mile hiking trail wiggles around the 300-acre lake, but the best way to see it is by swimming, fishing or boating. Campsites abound here.
Trail of the Gargoyles and Donnell Vista
More jewels of the High Sierra await as you head north along Highway 108. The 1.5-mile Trail of the Gargoyles reveals fascinating, twisted rock formations and, in summer, wildflowers like lupins and mariposa lilies also join the show. Another must is Donnell Vista, farther north on Highway 108. This trail and lookout offers some of the region’s finest views, over a tree-flecked canyon and the mighty Donnell Reservoir.
Kennedy Meadows makes for a dazzling finale. This place is sheer unfettered wilderness, with pancake-flat meadows ringed by craggy granite peaks. Plenty of hiking trails route through the landscapes, but there’s no better way to experience them than on horseback. Stay at the rustic Kennedy Meadows Resort & Pack Station and join one of their guided rides.
Plan your trip
Visitors should fly into San Francisco International Airport, where car rental companies are easy to find. It’s then a two-and-a-half-hour drive east on Interstate 580 and Highway 120 to reach Groveland.
For more information, visit VisitTuolumne.com
Follow National Geographic Traveller (UK) on social media