SECRET FINDS ON THE WAY TO YOSEMITE
Each of the routes to the famed national park is a vacation adventure in itself
Granite monoliths, waterfalls, alpine meadows—we all know (and love) the breath-taking sights of Yosemite National Park . But here’s something you might not know: getting to the park can add unexpected fun—like panning for gold, wine tasting, and dining and shopping. You can also stay in historic inns and other lodgings—many offering affordable rates and better availability than the park’s limited offerings.
Each of the four Yosemite gateway routes offers its own charms: Gold Rush history, epic high-country landscapes, wine tasting, and the simple pleasures of small-town life. Look for special events in the gateway communities during 2014 celebrating the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the act that first protected Yosemite.
• Northern Gateway: Highways 49 & 120
• Eastern Gateway: Highway 120
• Southern Gateway: Highway 41
• Western Gateway: Highway 140
Highways 49 and 120: Sarsaparilla, gold-panning, and historic saloons
This route leads in from the north, providing the shortest route from the San Francisco Bay Area and Sacramento. On Highway 49 in Tuolumne County, visit Sonora , where history and modern life blend easily, thanks to spots like the Diamondback Grill , which serves New American cuisine in a Gold Rush-era building of exposed stone walls. Just outside Sonora, pan for gold and cool off with a sarsaparilla at Columbia State Historic Park . Continue south to Jamestown to board an antique steam locomotive for a ride around Railtown 1897 State Historic Park . After reaching Highway 120, follow the edge of Don Pedro Reservoir (and drop a line in summer or fall if you like to fish) before twisting up, up, up toward the surprisingly alpine town of Groveland . Dig into biscuits and gravy for breakfast or burgers at lunch and dinner in the Iron Door Saloon , a onetime post office building that has welcomed folks on their way to and from Yosemite since 1896. While The Groveland Hotel building has been a gambling house, and a ranger station, today’s it’s known for Victorian-style rooms and the extensive wine list and California cuisine at The Cellar Door restaurant. Also visit Mountain Sage nursery with lovely gardens with hummingbirds buzzing among native plants, a performance space for local musicians, a small café, and local crafts for sale.
Highway 120: climbing the Eastern Sierra via Tioga Pass
For many Californians this drive over 9,945-foot Tioga Pass, with quick access to the trails, granite domes and blankets of summertime wildflowers of Tuolumne Meadows , is their favorite Yosemite approach. That said, it travels through serious high country, and closes for winter (typically November to May; check with Caltrans for current road conditions). But when it is open, so is one of the oddest destinations en route to Yosemite: the Whoa Nellie Deli , housed in a sprawling Mobil station at the beginning of the route in the sagebrush-scented town of Lee Vining . Order shockingly good plates of lobster taquitos or wild buffalo meatloaf, then settle at an outside table to take in the view of Mono Lake , the remnant of an ancient inland sea and nearly three times saltier than the ocean. The lake’s high-desert setting and unique chemistry draw millions of birds, while its remarkable tufa towers, naturally occurring limestone formations the poke up along the shoreline, draw flocks of photographers to Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve .
Highway 41: Gourmet food, craft beers, and a spa retreat
Climbing from Fresno and into rolling foothills, this route traces a stretch of the Madera Wine Trail , with more than a dozen vineyards and friendly tasting rooms. Next up is Oakhurst , just 15 miles from the park’s south entrance but with a surprising dose of luxury. Château du Sureau is the opulent Old World vision of Austrian-born chef and hotelier Erna Kubin Clanin. And her Erna’s Elderberry House Restaurant , with its haute cuisine, world-class wine list, and French country estate atmosphere, would be worth the drive even if you weren’t on your way to Yosemite. Nearby is South Gate Brewing Company , a must-stop for beer lovers, who can sample small-batch ales and watch them being made from the brewhouse dining area. Beyond Oakhurst, Highway 41 winds its way to tiny Fish Camp (population 59), 2 miles from the park’s southern entrance near Wawona and the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias. Built with beautiful wood and native granite, Fish Camp’s intimate, two-suite Little Ahwahnee Inn lets you enjoy rustic elegance on the edge of the wild. Nearby Tenaya Lodge is a full-service resort complete with spa and dining from pub fare to brick-oven pizzas; there are also extensive children’s activities and miles of trails into alpine beauty. Another worthy detour (especially for kids and train buffs): a narrated steam locomotive trip through mountain forests on the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad .
Highway 140: farmlands, excellent foothill wines, and historic charm
From Merced , Highway 140 travels through rich Central Valley farmlands before reaching the wineries of the Sierra Foothill appellation , known for rich, chocolate-y Zinfandels. Travel into the handsome Mariposa , where locals take great pride in the town’s Gold Rush-era authenticity, down to the nearly 14-pound hunk of crystalline gold in the collection at the California State Mining and Mineral Museum . Stroll the streets to see numerous 19th-century buildings, including the 1854 courthouse (still in use today). For a more contemporary side of Mariposa, Savoury’s Restaurant serves pastas and grilled specialties in a stylish dining room. Or discover Sierra foothill wines and California craft beers at The Alley . After leaving Mariposa, Highway 140 runs along the wild and scenic Merced River before reaching El Portal on the national park boundary. In fact, both the Yosemite View Lodge , with rooms overlooking the Merced, and the Arts and Crafts-style Yosemite Blue Butterfly Inn on the riverfront, are literally only steps from the park.