If it’s been a while since you’ve taken a road trip to Gold County and Yosemite, now is the time to open your calendar and find the right weekend for a four-day Gold Country and Yosemite getaway. You don’t even have to plan it — I’ve already found all the best things to see and do.
Featured Photo: Evergreen Lodge Yosemite
Day 1: This Cider House Rules (any John Irving fans out there?)
Assuming you’re departing from the Bay Area, it’ll take about three hours to drive here. (The last hour, along the foothills winding roads, is photo-worthy.) Plan on leaving at about 9:30am, pack a picnic lunch, and drive straight to the Indigeny Reserve Organic Apple Ranch and Ciderworks in Sonora. I promise you, before you even arrive at the tasting room you’ll be impressed by how beautiful and peaceful it is here.
Spend about an hour at the tasting room — I highly recommend purchasing at least one six-pack of the Extra-Crisp Hard Cider and a few bottles of the Blackberry Hard Apple Cider. You won’t find them at any store near your home, and you’ll wish you had bought more once your friends drink it all.
Afterwards, 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. Disc golf players can bring their discs and enjoy a round.
When you’re done touring Indigeny Reserve, hop in the car and tell Siri you want to visit Cover’s (rhymes with Dover) Apple Ranch. Your navigation app will take you on a scenic 30-minute drive toward Tuolumne City to another apple orchard.
This stop, you’ll definitely want to stock up on apple pies, apple nut bread, and fresh-pressed cider, which you’ll be noshing on for the rest of your vacation. (Nom, nom, nom.)
The Apple Ranch restaurant is open Tuesday through Saturday from 8am to 4pm. You can never go wrong with apple pie, but the coconut, chocolate, and lemon meringue offerings are pretty tasty too!
Check into the McCaffrey House Bed & Breakfast Inn for two nights. This will take longer than you think, because as soon as you meet Stephanie, the instantly-likable innkeeper, you’ll want to talk with her all evening. She’s a hoot, and my favorite Gold Country innkeeper. She and her husband Michael run McCaffrey House. It’s the kind of place you come back to year after year.
Time for dinner. Rather than drive back to Sonora, let’s stick with the town of Twain Harte and have dinner at The Rock of Twain Harte, a popular pub and restaurant run by Jim and Diane Dunigan. If it’s a warm evening ask for a table on the deck. Start with the cranberry gorgonzola salad, then go for either the smoked pork ribs, or grilled tri-tip. The burgers are great too. If carrot cake is on the dessert menu, you’ll want to save room, or save it for breakfast.
Day 2: Lakeside Hiking
10:30am to 12:30pm, Hike Around Pinecrest Lake
After a delicious breakfast at the McCaffrey House Bed & Breakfast Inn, gear up for a hike around Pinecrest Lake, one of the most scenic hikes in Tuolumne County. Located about 30 miles east of Sonora off Hwy 108, the four-mile, dog-friendly Pinecrest Lake National Recreation Trail takes about two hours to walk, and offers classic alpine lake views.
Just a short distance from the Pinecrest National Recreation Trail is the Steam Donkey Restaurant and Bar at Pinecrest Lake Resort. I always order the juicy Steam Donkey Burger with a side of fries, but I’m sure their other sandwiches are equally good. Be sure to call before going to make sure they’re open for lunch. If not, head to the Diamondback Grill in Sonora for a burger and garlic fries. If you want to be healthy, there are salads on the menu too.
A few miles north of Sonora is Columbia State Historic Park, the best-maintained Gold Rush town in the Mother Lode. (It’s also one of the most popular, so expect crowds in the summer.) At one point, this boisterous mining town was one of the largest cities in California. It’s reported as much as $150 million in gold was mined in Columbia. When gold mining began to dwindle in the late 1860s, many residents departed, leaving much of the mining equipment and buildings in place.
In 1945, the entire town was turned into a historic park. As a result, Columbia has been preserved; there’s Western-style Victorian hotels and saloons, a newspaper office, a blacksmith’s forge, and numerous other relics of California’s early mining days. Cars are banned from its streets, giving the shady town an authentic feel.
Columbia State Historic Park is an easy place to wander, but highlights to keep an eye out for include the Wells Fargo Express Office, a former stagecoach center, the restored Columbia Schoolhouse, (in use until 1937) and the Jack Douglass Saloon, where you can sample homemade sarsaparilla.
For a more leisurely view of the park, hop aboard a stagecoach. Quartz Mountain Stage Line operates daily, Memorial Day through Labor Day. You can also learn how to pan for gold at Matelot Gulch Mining Co.
5pm to 6pm, Wine & Beer Tasting
It doesn’t matter whether you are in the mood for beer or wine, because Inner Sanctum Cellars in Sonora has both. Bubbles too! Open Thursday through Sunday, no reservations are needed for wine tasting or the beer tap room.
The Standard Pour is my favorite restaurant in the region. Fun, lively, friendly, with ever-changing specials written on a chalk board near the entrance. Menu must-haves include The Standard Cubano sandwich and the Cumin-Corriander Spiced Totts. On warm days ask to be seated on the patio.
Bonus activity: Theater lovers should check out what’s playing at Sierra Rep before hitting the road on this Gold Country & Yosemite getaway. This is no small-town amateur performance — Sonorans take great pride in their theater productions. More than 45,000 patrons attend shows every year.
Day 3: A Visit to Groveland & Hetch Hetchy Waterfall Hike
After breakfast, dress for hiking and pack a day-pack with snacks and water. After reluctant goodbyes with Stephanie and Michael from McCaffrey House Bed & Breakfast Inn, head to Groveland — the standard route is Highway 49 to Highway 120.
11am to 1pm, Sightseeing & Saloon Stop
When you arrive in Groveland, take some time to stretch your legs and explore town, particularly the Groveland Yosemite Gateway Museum, (open Friday through Sunday) then have lunch at what’s said to be said to be the oldest continuously operating saloon in California, Iron Door Saloon. It’s my all-time favorite California bar, and I’ve been to a lot of bars. Part Wild West museum, part restaurant, part honky-tonk, if the Iron Door could talk it would have more tales of mayhem to tell than Mark Twain could ever pen.
2:30pm to 5pm, Hetch Hetchy Hike
After lunch, drive another 30 miles east toward Yosemite National Park and check in for two nights at Evergreen Lodge. Welcoming folks for more than a century, Evergreen features 88 cozy cabins and a posh camp ground. (When you arrive, a tent will already pitched with inflated air mattresses at the ready.)
If your lodging of choice isn’t ready, drop your bags and make the less than 10-mile drive to Hetch Hetchy reservoir, part of Yosemite National Park. Park at the base of the dam, grab that day pack, and head across the O’Shaughnessy Dam and through the tunnel. (You can’t miss it.)
Swimming and boating are prohibited here; the reservoir supplies drinking water to millions of folks in the San Francisco Bay Area. If you are feeling energetic, there’s a moderate five-mile, round-trip hike that follows the shoreline. Depending on the time of year and winter rain totals, the hike can come with views of Tueeulala and Wapama Falls. If five miles sounds like a bit too much for you, no worries. You can simply hike for a short stretch and turn around when you’ve had enough.
Back at the lodge, after you’ve unpacked, take a swim in the prettiest alpine pool you’ve ever seen. By now you’re famished, and boy howdy will those Evergreen Lodge burgers, steaks, and seafood go well with their fantastic wine list. After dinner, either retire to the bar and lounge, or sit by the fire and roast marshmallows under the starry skies.
Day 4: Tour Yosemite Valley by Bicycle
Yosemite Valley: If you’ve never been, you have to go. If you’ve been, you’ll want to experience it this way anyway — by bicycle. If you didn’t bring your own bikes, you can rent them at the lodge for the day.
After a leisurely breakfast at the lodge, load the bikes on, or in, your car, and take the scenic drive to Yosemite Valley. (Note: If you can’t fit the bikes on or in your car, you can also rent them in Yosemite Valley.) Park in one of the free lots, unload the bikes, then spend the day riding around Yosemite Valley on the more than 12 miles of paved bike trails, free from all that traffic nonsense. Either have lunch at one of the concessionaire stands in the valley, or, better yet, stock up on fresh picnic supplies at the Evergreen Lodge’s General Store. Click here for a map of Yosemite Valley picnic areas.
4pm to 10pm, Ping Pong, Pool, Dinner & S’mores at Evergreen Lodge
After the drive back to Evergreen Lodge, relax poolside, play ping pong or disc golf, and enjoy another evening of dinner and drinks. Toast four fantastic days in Yosemite and the Gold Country, and if you’re anything like me, start planning another getaway!