California has so many phenomenal destinations that some get overshadowed. Although I have spent extensive time in California, Tuolumne County has flown under my radar. Now, I’m daydreaming about all the things I want to do on my next visit.
For many days I struggled to properly pronounce Tuolumne. “Two-oh-lum-knee? Too-loom-nuh? Tao-lomb?” You try it! A local friend, Katie, finally made it easy for me when she said, with that inviting-soft-smoky Northern California accent: “Follow me to Tuolumne.” It rhymes! “Two-all-oh-me.” Once you get it, it’s such a pleasure to say. Try it! “Follow me to Tuolumne.”
And, indeed, I encourage you to follow me to Tuolumne because it is a destination full of beauty, adventure, and the nicest folks you could ever meet.
An easy three-hour drive from San Francisco, Tuolumne County sits firmly in the middle of the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. Even if you haven’t heard the name Tuolumne, you will have heard of Yosemite National Park, which receives about four million visitors a year. Over half of the 3000 km2 of the park is within Tuolumne County, but the VAST majority of those four million visitors stay within an 18 km2 section of Yosemite Valley in the neighbouring county to the South. So, if you want to experience the natural glory of Yosemite without battling crowds, the North Entrance in Tuolumne County is what you are looking for. However, to sell Tuolumne County only as a gateway to Yosemite would be selling it short. In addition, Tuolumne has the beauty and adventure of the High Sierra, including Stanislaus National Forest, the intriguing history of the Gold Rush, and a collection of charming communities filled with excellent food and drink and fun.
A common theme tying Tuolumne County together is the loveliness of its inhabitants. Everywhere we went, the people were welcoming, engaging, inquisitive, and excited to share their home turf. There is a generally good mood that runs through the area, probably because it’s such a fabulous place to live, and they know it. In Sonora, as we grabbed drinks at The Amory, Katie was wearing a shirt emblazoned with Life is Better in The Mountains. “Where did you get that shirt??!” exclaimed our bartender. “I NEED one! Because it’s so true.” He went on to explain how he had grown up in the Sierra Nevada and moved to several major cities before realizing, yes, life is, indeed, much better in the mountains. His sentiment was shared by most folks we met. But, existing within the chilled-out mountain vibe is an entrepreneurial spirit, can-do attitude, attention to detail, and discerning taste, which comes through in the many excellent restaurants, shops, and other businesses throughout the county. Here, there is a focus on quality without any of the pretentiousness that often comes with the finer things in life.
There’s so much to see and do here, and it can be hard to know where to start. It might help to think of the county as three main destinations, Yosemite, The High Sierra, and Goldrush Country, and then you can discover the nuances of each. Visit Tuolumne County has an excellent website with ample resources and suggestions. And now, we will share some of our favourite experiences to give you a head start in planning your own adventure.
Hike Hetch Hetchy
Highway 120 is the main thoroughfare of Yosemite. If you stray off 120 and wind your way up Cherry Lake Road, you come to the Hetch Hetchy reservoir, tucked into the quiet Northwest corner of Yosemite National Park. Compared to more common areas of the park, Hetch Hetchy has a we-had-the-place-to-ourselves kinda vibe. The reservoir itself is intriguing. The waters of the Tuolumne River fill the Hetch Hetchy Valley, held in by towering, sheer rock faces. The O’Shaughnessy Dam was built, with much controversy, in the 1920s, and the water has travelled 269km west to supply the San Francisco Bay Area ever since. The reservoir is also the trailhead to some of Yosemite’s best hiking. If you want to chill, walk across the dam to view the serene waters framed by the mountains, and look down the other side, 500 ft into the valley below. Then, make your way through a tunnel carved into the base of the mountain and wander around the reservoir. If you want an easy adventure, continue your hike to the spectacular Wapama Falls, cascading 1100 feet down the granite walls of the valley. If you are hardcore, spend a few days going deep into the mountains along challenging trails with a loaded backpack and camp under the stars by remote alpine lakes.
Miller’s Off-Road Adventures Jeep Tours
Okay, so you want to get deep into the wilderness, but you’re all hiked out. Or, you just want to have a ton of fun! Miller’s Off-Road Adventures is what you need. You can take the adventure into your own hands and drive the Jeep yourself! The terrain is easy enough for most people to handle but rugged enough to give you a true off-road experience. Miller’s tours take you up into the backcountry of Stanislaus National Forest, where it’s just you and the deer (maybe a bear, if you’re very lucky). Besides stunning views and the thrill of driving through a river, a highlight of the tour is Craig and Kim Miller themselves. Kim is charming and quick-witted. Craig is a stoic and comforting presence who could be a character from your favourite Western film. Both are a wealth of information on the area and enrich the tour by sharing their personal history with the land you are exploring. Some of it is heartbreaking, though, as you pass through the charred landscapes where the wildfires have wreaked havoc. As difficult as it is to see, it adds a complexity to the experience that gives you an even greater appreciation for the beauty that the Sierras hold. There are several different options for tours based on your timeframe and the size of your party. We did a sunset tour, which brought us back along a heart-stopping road that ran along the edge of the earth (but totally safe!) as the sky filled with hues of gold, orange, pink and purple.
If you are a car enthusiast or motorcyclist who delights in an exciting and scenic drive, Tuolumne is your playground. The pavement is generally in excellent shape, and the roads go from long, sweeping corners to tight and twisty, taking you up through the endlessly beautiful Sierra Nevada. Highway 108 is a stunning drive through the High Sierra, with abundant viewpoints and places to hike, picnic, camp, or just breath in the mountain air. If you are looking for places to stop, check out Pinecrest Lake, Donnell Vista, Columns of the Giants, and Kennedy Meadows. If you want an adrenaline rush, do a loop of New and Old Priest Grade Road, which climb sharply up into the mountains between Moccasin and Big Oak Flat. You don’t need to drive fast to get your heart rate up. The views are epic, but if you are behind the wheel, keep your eyes on the road; these are among the steepest roads in California, with mind-bending curves and sheer drop-offs into oblivion. Not for the faint of heart.
Hatchet’s Throw House
Twain Harte is as delightful a town as the name would suggest. Hatchet’s Throw House is the type of place I can only imagine existing in Twain Harte. Yes, there is axe-throwing. But there is also VR Gaming, video games, stand-up comedy, live music, movie nights, oversize Jenga, drinks and food like loaded tater-tots, chicken wings, and nachos. It sounds like a lot. Somehow it all works. It’s all about the owner, Lloyd Templeton, who is a perfect example of how awesome folks from Tuolumne are. Lloyd is an entrepreneur, real estate agent, comedian, and the guy who will always be fun to hang out with. With Hatchet’s Throw House, it feels like Llyod has created the perfect man cave, where everyone is invited, packed with all the most fun things to do. It’s also a blast to hear him talk about the genuine Big Foot sightings in the area and his encounters with ghosts.
Craft Beverage Trail
If you are a connoisseur of fine adult beverages, take advantage of Tuolumne County’s Craft Beverage Trail. Taste the region’s wine, beer, cider and even kombucha across nine different locations throughout the county. Or, like us, choose a couple. We visited Indigeny Reserve, a beautiful cidery nestled amongst sprawling apple orchards with a fantastic tasting room. In addition to their excellent cider, we got to sample citrus liqueurs and sip apple brandy in the cozy, sweet-smelling barrel room where it was being aged. We also visited Gianelli Vineyards and sipped wine on a patio with breathtaking views of the vineyards and the surrounding hills.
Tuolumne County History Museum
Look, I’m not one to seek out small-town museums, but this place got me. The history of the Goldrush is fascinating and very much in the fabric of Tuolumne County. This museum, laid out within Sonora’s historic jail, gives you an in-depth look through artifacts, images, and exhibits that bring the Gold Rush era to life. A further example of the wonderful people of Tuolumne is the museum’s staff of volunteers, friendly and informative, adding a personal touch to the historical archives. If you are historically curious, it’s easy to breeze through quickly to get a taste. If you love history, you could spend hours taking in each carefully curated detail.
Columbia State Historic Park
Columbia is one of the few Gold Rush-era towns that have survived. Entering Columbia feels like time travelling to the 1850s, as today it is a bustling community with fantastic local businesses, all of which ascribe to the Gold Rush aesthetic. Staff are wearing 1850s-style clothes; a stagecoach rumbles through town, a blacksmith hammers away at an open forge, and drinks are had at a saloon. It feels like a genuine town, not-at-all like a theme park. A highlight for our group was definitely Nelson’s Columbia Candy Kitchen. Wow, this place was awesome. Most all the confections are made onsite using techniques and equipment from the 1800s. Barks and brittles, caramels and creams, lollies and licorice, fudges, chocolates, honeycombs, drops, jellies and more. It’s the type of place that, if you took a nine-year-old kid, they would dream about it for the rest of their life.
Alicia’s Sugar Shack
You can NOT drive up Highway 108 without stopping at Alicia’s Sugar Shack. This small shop, tucked under towering evergreens, is bursting with locals and visitors feasting on comforting cuisine and gooey goodies. Solid coffee. The breakfast menu is extensive, with ample options to customize. The smoothie bowls are beautiful and nourishing. And, of course, the case of baked goods filled with cookies, cakes, Danishes, sticky buns, cinnamon rolls, and abundant other choices will have you loading up a box of indulgences to go.
The Armory finds the perfect balance between fun, sophisticated, and relaxed. The beer garden is open and inspiring, mostly outdoors. The food is elevated pub fare, and everything was delicious. Inside is a more intimate bar, The Bourbon Barrel, which you enter by walking through a massive, literal barrel. Here you will find the same good vibes but with craft cocktails and a well-curated selection of fine spirits. Be sure to check the Calendar of Events on their website, as they often have something exciting going on, from live music to salsa dancing, to Taco Tuesday.
Haps Boba and Bites
Another gem in Twain Harte (I think when I move to Tuolumne, I will live in Twain Harte), Haps Boba & Bites, brings bubble tea to the mountains. It may seem like an unlikely place to find excellent boba, but Haps stands with the best you can find in any big city. Fresh, quality ingredients, many made onsite. The menu, with so many options, can be overwhelming, but the family that runs the shop will guide you to customizing your perfect drink. Yes, more lovely people of Tuolumne! The owner, Casie, is a local real estate agent and entrepreneur with her finger on the pulse of the community. She started Haps to give her family a business, and you feel like a guest of the family when you visit. Besides the beverages, the food menu focuses on Japanese crêpes and bubble waffles, stuffed, drizzled, and sprinkled with the most delicious things you can think of, both savoury and sweet.
If you are a coffee snob like me, Revive Coffee has what you need. Revive is an artisanal coffee roaster with two locations in Tuolumne County. I visited their stylish Sonora shop every morning at 7 am for a perfectly poured cappuccino (sometimes two). The shop is nicely designed, with lots of space to lounge or catch up on emails. There is a small, well-thought-out breakfast menu. My favourite was the Brekkie Sandwich.
The Service Station
A crowd pleaser food-stop in former Gold Rush town, Jamestown. There is a nice touch of the historical saloon with The Service Station, But the food is modern, refined pub fare, with options for everybody. A well-thought-out selection of beer and wine. The staff seem to be having a good time and want you to share in the reverie.
The town of Sonora has a pleasant demeanour and is an excellent home base for exploring Tuolumne County. Hotel Lumberjack is no-fuss accommodations, nestled just off the main street of Sonora’s historic downtown, where you will find many options for shopping, food, and drink. With a fresh re-design and renovation to a motel building, Hotel Lumberjack re-imagines the Americana motel experience. The layout is very much a motel, but the rooms are comfortable, nicely appointed, and contemporary. Wood accents and artistic touches add the right amount of lumberjack aesthetic to keep it playful and cozy. If you are looking for a more traditional hotel experience, Lumberjack’s sister property and historic landmark, The Sonora Inn, is also a good option.
Rush Creek Lodge & Spa at Yosemite
If you want your accommodation to be your destination, book some time at Rush Creek Lodge. This resort sits at the Western entrance to Yosemite. They provide a comprehensive menu of guided experiences that give you a “backstage pass” to the national park. But once you get to Rush Creek Lodge, you may be content to just hang out there the whole time! The property is set against the mountainside in the embrace of the woods. You can choose between rooms and suites in the lodge or villas. The ambiance is relaxed, modern, and rustic. Fine without the fuss. Everything is designed to get you enjoying the glory of nature. There are no TVs in the room, so get outside. The pool is open all year. Around every corner is a different game or activity or place to sit by a fire with loved ones. There are playgrounds and tunnels and zip lines for kids (although the adults were having just as much fun on those), nightly s’mores around the fire, wilderness education, and nature trails right at the doorstep. And you must visit the spa, an indoor/outdoor experience inspired by the dynamic nature of Yosemite. Innovative and thoughtful amenities and treatments that make you feel even more connected to the surrounding landscape.