Just two and a half hours east of San Francisco, a landscape removed of digital enterprises and guaranteed WiFi carries on much as it did 150 years ago when John Muir first set eyes on its virtually untouched valleys, two decades after the Gold Rush called to droves of settlers to mine the earth’s veins for precious ore. It’s there that Tuolumne County rests, in the eastern crook of California’s ribcage, smack-dab between Reno to the north and Fresno to the south. Its borders cradle Stanislaus National Forest in the High Sierra and the northern slab of Yosemite National Park, and its history made where the wildest of men met the wildest of nature. Here’s how to get the most out of the northwestern gateway to America’s famous national park.
California’s most pronounced history lives on in the Sierra foothills, where Old West met new promise during the Gold Rush. While the mining towns built around that excitement have long since been picked clean, many have been preserved, serving as beautifully concise vignettes depicting the Golden State’s early history as it began to take shape.
Hitch a ride where the area’s first gold was discovered in 1848 at Railtown 1897 State Historic Park in Jamestown. Here the still-operating roundhouse houses the famous Sierra No. 3 steam engine, which moonlights in more than a hundred TV shows and films, including High Noon, Back to the Future III, and Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. The railway was first put into use at the turn of the 19th century to carry lumber and quartz ore (from which gold would be extracted) from the once-disconnected county to the outside world. Today, vintage passenger coaches pulled by steam and diesel locomotives take weekend warriors on a 45-minute ride along the Sierra foothills between April and October, while a museum educates visitors year-round.
Just seven miles north is Columbia, a mining town twice burned to the ground that yielded hauls of gold valued at $87 million (in 1860’s prices, no less). After falling into disrepair in the decades following the Rush, the town met its second fortune in 1945 when the entire business district became a dedicated state historic park. Local proprietors play the part, dressing in period clothing and transporting visitors back to the mid-19th century via a 100-year-old stagecoach.
For a modern taste of the area’s heritage, stop in nearby Sonora, which takes its name from the Sonoran Mexicans who settled here in 1848, after gold had been discovered in Sacramento but before news of riches in the ground had reached the East Coast. Enter Indigeny Reserve through a covered bridge, wandering the tranquil apple tree-studded grounds after sampling the hard apple cider and brandy made onsite. For a taste of something a little more wild than West, visit the Sportsman, one of the last remaining true frontier bars in California, where you can buy hunting gear and order a beer in the same breath.
As you inch closer to Yosemite along Highway 120, Groveland is your final stop, just 26 miles from the Big Oak Flat park entrance. Warm up by exploring the trails throughout Stanislaus National Forest, which crawls across the western slope of the Sierra Nevada. Before miners, ranchers, loggers, and other immigrants settled its nearly 900,000 acres, Stanislaus Forest was home to the Miwok, an ancestral tribe that roamed the land for thousands of years, leaving behind remnants of their time across archaeological sites throughout the forest. Today, Stanislaus is ripe no matter the season, from rafting the Tuolumne River and canoeing the lakes it forms to hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking, and snowmobiling.
Groveland is also home to classic gateway fuel, be it a hearty meal or a strong pour at the Iron Door Saloon, a historical artifact in itself. Claiming the oldest continuously operating saloon in California, the spot is so named due to the large iron doors that still flank its threshold. They were originally made in England, shipped by sea around the tip of South America and eventually up to Northern California, where they were then hauled by mules across the Tuolumne River to act as means of fire protection for the establishment in the late 1930s.
Alternately, wake up in Groveland with local, organic coffee from Mountain Sage Coffee and Nursery, a sweet little spot tucked behind a layer of daffodils at the historic 1867 Laveroni House. The rustic cafe has a cozy cabin vibe, offering light bites and hot drinks alongside native plants throughout the grounds. Check the stage out back during the summer months, when Mountain Sage hosts a concert series that draws all manner of hoots, hollers, and two-steps.
Ever dramatic, the Sierra Nevada spikes with granite peaks and wildflower-dotted valleys, with deep snowpacks melting into rushing rivers. Get the lay of the land by following Highway 108 up, up, up to Sonora Pass, which, at 9,624 feet, is the second highest highway pass in the Sierras (short of Tioga by only a few hundred feet). Depending on that season’s weather, the pass can open as late as June, when high snow banks still line the roads. Stop along the drive to stretch your legs and toe the Trail of the Gargoyles or Columns of the Giants, taking in the curious ancient rock and lava formations hidden among untouched mountainous silhouettes, high-altitude lakes, and deep canyons.
On the way up, you’ll pass by Pinecrest Lake, a lush recreation and camping area surrounding a large body of water with a recently revamped outdoor amphitheater that shows movies under the stars during warmer months. Don’t forget to look up–hopping across the galaxy-lit sky you’ll see not only shooting stars but also flying squirrels, maneuvering between the treetops.
When inclimate weather shuts Sonora Pass down, stick to the lower end of the High Sierra. Twain Harte proudly boasts more trees than people, with 60-foot pines towering over the town. The resort community was named for authors Mark Twain and Bret Harte, both of whom wrote stories influenced by their time there. Built in the early 20th century, after mining and logging industries had dried up and long after the Miwok called the nearby lake home, the B&B-dotted town serves a quiet retreat from city life, whether time is spent wading into its waters for fishing, catching the summer Concerts in the Pines series, escaping to the nearby wintery wonderlands at Leland High Sierra Snow Play or Dodge Ridge Ski Resort, or merely sitting in silence, feasting on the peace that surrounds you.
For more information on Tuolumne and to start planning your trip, go to visittheusa.com/destination/tuolumne
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