Tuolumne County: Iconic Yosemite, Gold Rush History, and High Sierra Adventures

We flee our urban environs by way of traffic-laden highways. Just beyond the city life, the landscapes of Tuolumne County are pastoral. We see wide-open spaces neatly hemmed by fences, carefully rowed orchards and vineyards, and cattle lazily munching tender green shoots. Slow rolling valleys lead to seasonally snowcapped peaks and the promise of Yosemite! Just beyond, the road begins to climb into undulating Sierra foothills. The arms of craggy oaks, beside the velvet and golden way seem a welcoming embrace.

Outdoor recreation abounds in Yosemite. Autumn to spring the complement of cyclical activities – fall foliage and wildflower hikes to snowboarding and skiing – is Yosemite at its finest. Ice skating at Curry Village beneath the splendor of Half Dome and Glacier Point followed by the warmth of an outdoor fire ring is a winter dream. Seasonal waterfalls are brought roaring back to life by winter snows and rain. Any visit must include a hike to Yosemite Falls. Stream-fed from high in the desolation wilderness, it is the highest waterfall in the United States.

Seasonally accessible by car, Glacier Point, directly above Camp Curry, is often engulfed by summer tourists. Inspiring views of the Valley are well worth the drive or hike. However, Glacier Point Road will be closed to all traffic in 2022 to rehabilitate and improve the road. There will be 30-minute delays in 2023. The only access to Glacier Point will be via the Four Mile, Panorama, and Pohono trails, which are all strenuous hikes. During the snow season, a one-day out and back excursion is for only the most skilled cross-country skiers.

Millions throng to see the splendor of Yosemite’s granite cliffs, cascading waterfalls, and giant sequoias. During late spring and throughout the summer months, Yosemite is teeming with guests from around the world. After summer, the visitor tide ebbs, and the Park begins an unhurried progression into a recurring hibernation. Off-season, fewer cars on the roads in, out, and around are definitely a big plus. The availability of lodging – throughout the region – is much more attainable.

Lodging possibilities range from grand dame of the Park, The Ahwahnee Hotel, to the family-oriented Yosemite Valley Lodge, and Curry Village which includes motel rooms, cabins with and without baths, and unheated canvas tents. Checking online will provide additional information about accommodations, amenities, and rates, plus the availability of wonderfully priced packages. Plan early to give yourself the best options! Travel updates are available on most regional websites.

The majestic lady of park lodging is The Ahwahnee. This celebrated hotel rests grandly among the pines and by the Royal Arches, a dramatic granite wall popular with climbers. The Ahwahnee’s regal architectural details combine the best of the Art Deco and Arts & Crafts movements with a splash of Native American and Middle Eastern influences and include spacious common areas and 99 elegantly appointed hotel rooms. Surrounded by dogwood trees, 24 cottages provide a private showing of dazzling red foliage during autumn. Hotel rooms have stunning views of Half Dome, Glacier Point, and Lower Yosemite Falls (which can be dry depending on the time of year). Yosemite Village is an easy walk or shuttle ride from the hotel. The Ahwahnee will be closed from January 2, 2023 to March 2, 2023 for renovations.

Yosemite Valley Lodge is ideal for families. There are 245 rooms including four family rooms, which include one double bed, three single beds, a sofa bed, and a dining table. After registering, be sure to check out the tour desk for upcoming activities. Inquire about rooms with views of nearby Yosemite Falls and enjoy a peaceful stroll along the Merced River.

Within easy striking distance of Yosemite Valley Lodge are the Food Court and Mountain Room Lounge. The Food Court offers a cafeteria-style selection of dining options. Kids will be happy to pick and choose their food favorites, and pre-packaged items are perfect for backpacking or hiking. After a day of sightseeing, unwind next to the Swedish-style fireplace at the Mountain Room Lounge where libations and late-fare are currently available for dinner. Denegan’s Deli and the Village Store provide a wide selection of sandwiches, beverages, and supplies to get you through the day.

Yosemite Valley offers a variety of dining opportunities. The Village has the largest collection of fast foods from tacos and burritos to deli sandwiches, burgers, and drinks. Picnic lunches can also be arranged through your hotel. Some places are open intermittently, so check online or ask at your front desk before heading out. With the ongoing staffing issues, some venues are open on a limited basis or closed entirely. So, again, plan ahead. Your hunger satiated, tour Yosemite Museum where numerous displays focus on the heritage and culture of the Ahwahnechee people who lived in the valley.

In Tuolumne County, country roads and winding lanes traverse the region. Easy access to Yosemite is via Highway 120, historic Highway 49, and California State Route 108. These picturesque byways pass by historic towns and untold scenic wonders. Enjoy the sights and an occasional stop along the way for sightseeing and shopping – antiques, art galleries, museums, state parks, trendy boutiques, farm stands, and wineries – California’s past and present lives on in these Gold Rush-era gems. Discover your pioneer spirit and choose to overnight in Sonora, Groveland, or Jamestown.

In addition, Tuolumne County is also home to two state historic parks. Frozen in time, Gold Rush history survives at Columbia State Historic Park. Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, located in Jamestown, is home to one of America’s last operating railroad roundhouses. Known as “The Movie Railroad,” the park’s locomotives have been featured in more than 200 movies.

Yosemite’s north gateway, Highway 120, passes through the town of Groveland and the warm welcome of the 3-Diamond Groveland Hotel. Greeting guests since 1849, the hotel’s 17 newly renovated rooms provide outstanding lodging for adventures both in and out of the Park. Save some strength to enjoy the nightlife – the Iron Door Saloon (yes, real iron doors) claims to be the California drinking establishment continuously operated for the longest time.

Highway 108 skirts the edges of Sonora before snaking its way to highways 49 and 120. An outstanding jumping-off point to play and stay in Tuolumne County. Filled with local shops, art galleries, taprooms, dining, theater, and museums, Sonora’s historic downtown is truly where it all happens. The newly renovated Hotel Lumberjack is urban chic and within walking distance of all the fun. Relax at Amala Detox & Tea Lounge, a one-of-a-kind experience. Wine and beer tastings feature award-winning Sierra vintages and brews. Not to be missed, Indigeny Reserve, a 160-acre preserve and apple orchard specializes in organic hard ciders, apple brandy, and fruit-infused vodka. Bring a picnic and a designated driver.

Outside of the park boundaries, Evergreen Lodge at Yosemite and Rush Creek Lodge & Spa at Yosemite offer couples and families a rare opportunity to enjoy all of Yosemite, including the little-visited Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. In the early 1920s, damming of the Tuolumne River created the eight-mile-long Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. While surrounding landscapes may be winter white, Hetch Hetchy is frequently spring-like and otherworldly. You’ll delight in fern grottoes, sunlit granite, crashing waterfalls, and tree-frog wetlands. The bonus is that you can hike for hours undisturbed by other day-trippers.

At Evergreen Lodge, a mixture of fully-furnished cabins and cottages accommodate up to six guests. Or if you want something more natural, check-out their “custom camping” rates. It’s the beauty of sleeping under the stars, without any of the hassles of pitching a tent. Rush Creek, Yosemite’s first new lodge in 25 years, opened in June 2016. A variety of accommodations and amenities create superb opportunities to unwind and explore. Playgrounds, indoor and outdoor games, swimming pools, family hikes, luxury spa, disc golf, and S’mores, there’s literally something for everyone. Both lodges provide an assortment of food and libations – indoor and alfresco dining – as well as general stores to fill in the hunger and thirst gaps.

Also known as the Golden Chain Heritage Corridor, Highway 49 passes through charming and historic towns. Highway 49 has more than its share of twists and turns and slow-moving vehicles. Relax and enjoy the ride. Remember, getting there is half the fun. If you’ve never driven to Yosemite via Highway 120 you may want to avoid Old Priest Grade, which is sometimes recommended by GPS apps. This incredibly steep, two-mile stretch of road is not for the weak-of-heart. We love it and wouldn’t think of going any other way, but never with a trailer or motor home! Think about staying on Highway 120 on the west side of the canyon. This will meet Old Priest Grade at the top. About a six-mile trek, the New Priest Grade bypass is longer and somewhat winding, but the easy ascent can accommodate trailers, motor homes, and tour buses. If heading down the “vertical” Old Priest Grade, make sure your brakes are in good working order.

With the continued constraints surrounding Covid and infrastructure closures, you should consider visiting the Park before May 20, 2022, and after September 30, 2022. To reduce traffic congestion and improve the visitor experience, day-use reservations will be required. Reservations are only required for peak-use times between 6 am and 4 pm each day. If you enter the park on a Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System (YARTS) bus or with an authorized tour group, you do not need an additional reservation or permit. Fares vary but include the $35 per car park entrance fee. YARTS operates daily and is an excellent option in Tuolumne County from mid-May through September. Check online for dates and times. Once you reach Yosemite Valley, hybrid electric shuttles provide transportation to valley attractions. Professionally guided trips are available at Evergreen Lodge and Rush Creek Lodge which include park fees and relieve you of the hassle of securing a day-use pass. If you have lodging or camping reservations inside the park, you will NOT need an additional day-use reservation.

For more information, Visit Tuolumne County – www.visittuolumne.com

 

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About
Barbara Steinberg

Barbara Steinberg

Barbara Steinberg is a freelance travel writer and omni-local. Recognized as a California travel authority, she’s been exploring and writing about the Golden State for more than 30 years. She is everywhere you want to be in California – off road and on, urban and rural, 5-star resorts and hidden hot springs, gourmet or dive, but never happier than when she's exploring back roads. Barbara has been a member of California Watchable Wildlife for more than 25 years and serves as their Outreach Coordinator representing the organization at wildlife and nature festivals throughout the state. She graduated cum laude from California State University, Sacramento with a BA in Communications Studies. She is a member of the Outdoor Writers Association of California and California Roundtable on Recreation Parks & Tourism and Subaru Ambassador.

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