Photograph by Gary Crabbe, Alamy Stock Photo
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Mountains glow behind the Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park.

Photograph by Gary Crabbe, Alamy Stock Photo

Yosemite Country: Must-Dos Outside the Park

For outdoor enthusiasts and history buffs, Tuolumne County offers plenty of adventure just outside Yosemite National Park.

About four million people visit Yosemite National Park each year—and over half of them take their trips between June and September (a mere glimpse of the unreal, glacier-cut domes rising from wildflower-covered meadows in summer might make it clear why). But no matter the season, few travelers venture outside seven-square-mile (18-square-kilometer) Yosemite Valley—much less beyond park boundaries.

That’s a mistake.

The greater Yosemite area—including much of Tuolumne County, which is home to a lion’s share of the park and many of its lesser known gems—abounds with worthwhile attractions and offers visitors a glimpse at local life beyond the shadow of Half Dome. Who knows? You might even end up meeting a bearded reenactor or two.

Tour a Gold Mining Town

California’s Highway 49, named for the waves of immigrants that swarmed the Sierra Nevada the year after gold was discovered there in 1848, lies to the west of Yosemite National Park.

A trio of somewhat off-the-radar 19th-century mining towns huddle together among low green hills in Tuolumne (pronounced “To All o’ Me,” with a silent n, and rarely spelled correctly) County. The biggest of these is county seat Sonora, with its lively main street and event-packed social schedule.

More evocative of the state’s gold-boom era are two smaller communities located nearby.

The first, Jamestown, is home to Railtown 1897 State Historic Park and one of America’s last intact and still functioning railroad roundhouses (service stations). It was also a filming location for Back to the Future Part III and, more obscurely, television’s Petticoat Junction. (Anyone remember the water tower? It’s still standing.)

The second, Columbia, is like a historical theme park, sans entry fee. The “living gold rush town” (parts of High Noon were shot here) boasts the largest single collection of existing structures from the era in California. Here you’ll see plenty of hard-scrabble living historians cross your path as you amble between Columbia’s true-to-period bowling alley, saloons, shops, and ice-cream parlors.

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A steam locomotive sits on display at Jamestown's Railroad 1987 State Historic Park.

See a Play

No matter what time of year you visit Yosemite country, make time for some drama.

In addition to staging productions at the East Sonora Theatre, the Sierra Repertory Theatre was chosen to be the resident company at the gold rush-era Fallon House in Columbia State Historic Park. The regional company focuses on plays and musicals that shed light on United States history and California’s unique place in its evolving narrative.

During my visit, I attended a superb 45-minute one-man play about Alexander Hamilton’s life at Stage 3, another standout theater in Sonora, followed by a rousing Q&A session.

Experience the Bizarre

Mark Twain might just have Calaveras County to thank for his career. After all, the 1865 short story he wrote about the California county’s celebrated leaping amphibian was the first work to bring him national attention. Each year in late May, the county pays homage to the great American author and the fictional story that put it on the map by hosting a frog jump at Angels Camp, about a 20-minute drive northwest of Sonora.

Travel beyond Yosemite’s eastern boundary lines to witness another oddity: Mono Lake. The immense desert lake—located 13 miles from the park, in Mono County, just off Highway 395—is filled with calcified tufa towers that made me feel as though I had stepped onto the set of the latest Jurassic Park film.

Take a Hike

A bit less challenging than Yosemite’s Half Dome, Dragoon Gulch Trail nevertheless criss-crosses a tight valley hidden less than a mile from Sonora’s main drag, Washington Street. The 2.5-mile urban loop wends along a creek bed and through a thicket of red-barked manzanita, culminating at a lookout that offers stunning views of downtown Sonora and the mountains that surround it.

Along its northern border, Yosemite gives way to Stanislaus National Forest and a series of unheralded hiking opportunities in virtually untouched wilderness. Though the Trail of the Gargoyles and Column of the Giants capture the imagination, locals prefer the longer trails that begin at Kennedy Meadows resort and lead to relatively nearby alpine lakes. (Tip: Stop by one of the forest’s ranger stations to get maps; there are few signs, and some roads require four-wheel-drive vehicles.)

Oh, and did I mention that the largest known juniper tree in North America can be found in Stanislaus National Forest? And there’s a guy camped out there who’s been its “guardian” for more than a quarter century? More on him to come as I explore Yosemite country over the next few weeks.

Robert Reid is National Geographic Travel’s Digital Nomad, exploring the world with passion and purpose. Follow his adventures on Twitter and Instagram.

This article was originally published on November 2, 2015.