Okay all you 49er fans, it’s time to start planning your summer road trips, and one of the best in California is the scenic drive along highways 120 and 108 through Yosemite and the Gold Country.
It’s not only the fastest route to Yosemite National Park from Sacramento and the Bay Area, it’s also the most scenic. Stop in Jamestown or Columbia along the way and you’ll swear you’ve stepped back to time to 1849, the start of California’s gold rush era.
To get your road trip started, here are 11 enticing reasons to open your calendar, pick a summer weekend, and plan your local getaway to Yosemite and the Gold Country.
The Best Waterfall Season In 5 Years
With all this snow melting under the early summer sun, Yosemite’s waterfalls are at their screensaver best. My advice: Ditch the crowds in Yosemite Valley and instead take one of my favorite Yosemite waterfall hikes—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.
Private (and crazy-romantic) Yosemite Stargazing Tours
One of my favorite reasons to get out of the city and head up to Yosemite is to lie on a giant granite boulder and stare at the billions of stars in the night sky (Seriously, when’s the last time you did that?). 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 will teach you about the local constellations, planets, and nebulas that are viewable from California (No Uranus jokes please—they’ve heard them all.). Think how many points you’ll score by surprising your sweetie with this little-known gem of a getaway. 209/985-1799
Painting & Wine Tasting With Brush & Cork (again, crazy romantic)
If you’re better at drinking wine than painting, even the score with a trip to Sonora’s Brush & Cork. It’s a genius idea: Using a pre-drawn canvas, you create easy-to-follow, step-by-step paintings while sipping a glass of wine or beverage of your choice, 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 for you. Classes start as low as $25 a person. 209/533-4542
Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Missing Bennett Juniper Tree
If you’re a fan of mysteries and outdoor adventures, have I got a case for you. 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 Ent. (Click here for a hint.)
Score extra points for 1) meeting the tree’s keeper, 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.
The Best Rafting Season In 5 Years
All that snow this winter means all that whitewater this summer. They’re saying it’ll be the best whitewater season in California in half a decade, so why not text some of your thrill-loving friends right now and see if they’re up for a weekend of rafting on the gorgeous Tuolumne River? It’s one of the most scenic whitewater rivers in California and an easy drive from the Bay Area and Sacramento.
While there are lots of reputable rafting companies to choose from, I recommend Sierra Mac River Rafting. They were pioneers in protecting the rivers in the area and are a local outfit based in Groveland. 209/591-8027
Holy Cow! The New Rush Creek Lodge In Yosemite Is Amazing!
The first new resort in the Yosemite area in more than 25 years is about to open, and it’s big news in these parts. The folks that run the Evergreen Lodge in Groveland (my favorite place to stay when visiting Yosemite) are putting the finishing touches on their sister property, the Rush Creek Lodge.
Perched on a 20-acre wooded hillside, the 143-room lodge is a beaut, and loaded with cool features such as a solar-heated saltwater pool with pool bar and hot tubs, gold panning stream, fly-casting pond, and a fun-filled game room for the kids. You definitely want to have the Rush Creek Lodge on your Bay Area/Sacramento getaway radar. 209/379-2373
This New Cider House Rules
If you don’t quite care for hard apple cider, that’s because you’ve never been to Indigeny Reserve, the most modern and beautiful cider house you’ve ever seen. People, I promise you—before you even arrive at the tasting room you’ll be impressed by how beautiful and peaceful it is here. Even dogs, which are welcome to roam free among the 160 acres of apple orchards, love it here.
Spend about an hour at the tasting room and touring the distillery, and be sure to purchase at least one six-pack of the refreshingly dry Extra-Crisp Reserve Hard Cider (your new favorite summer drink). After the tour, enjoy a leisurely lunch at their picnic area shaded by oak trees, then take a stroll through 160 acres of apple trees along self-guided walking trails. (Note: Indigeny Reserve is a bit tricky to find, so be sure to have it mapped out before you leave.) 209/533-9463
Sonora: The Ashland of California
Oregon has Ashland; we have Sonora. Sonorans take great pride in their theater productions. In fact, it’s so good that it’s not hard to find people who visited Tuolumne County to see a show, and ended up moving here to be a part of the local theater scene. More than 45,000 patrons attend the eight main shows that take place each year. Professional actors from around the country are housed by locals, and more than 500 donors and hundreds of volunteers help the staff with sets and costumes.
If you’re a fan of Hank Williams and hot-fingered fiddling, there’s still time to see Hank Williams: Lost Highway, about the life and music of Hank Williams (it’s playing at the Fallon House Theatre until May 17). Before you head up to Sonora, check out the websites of Sierra Repertory Theatre (209/532-3120) and Stage 3 Theatre (209/536-1778) to see what’s playing while you’re in town and purchase tickets. It’ll be one of the highlights of your Gold Country getaway.
Who Knew? 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’s most talented chefs and mixologists leasing historic Sonora buildings for cents on the dollar compared to Oakland and San Francisco.
For example, 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 make you smile. It’s that kinda place. Also enhancing Sonora is The Standard Pour (19040 Standard Road; 209/532-7687), which specializes pairing artisanal cheeses and local foods with craft beers and fine wines. Start with the Artisanal Cheese Plate, then progress to the cumin-coriander totts, followed by bacon-cheddar hush puppies and the Cubano sandwich (yum).
An Easy, Beautiful, Dog-Friendly Hike Around Pinecrest Lake
One of the most scenic hikes in the Gold Country takes you around beautiful Pinecrest 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.
If hiking isn’t your thing, there’s also a small marina where they 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. You can download a map of the trail at www.tuolumnecountytrails.com.
Pan Your Mortgage Payment
It’s called the Gold Country for a reason. Gold is currently selling for $1,238 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. So this here’s the plan, see. Get yerself an $8 plastic gold pan on Amazon, then sign up for panning lessons in Jamestown at California Gold Panning. Once you get the hang of it, your instructor will point you in the right direction to start your new career. 209/916-5166
The activities, attractions, hotels, and restaurants listed above are just a fraction of the fun, romantic, and family-friendly things to do in Yosemite Gold County. For a free vacation planner or information on hotels, wineries, events, spas, attractions, and dining, log onto the Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau website at tcvb.com or call 800/446-1333.