Granite monoliths, waterfalls, alpine meadows—it’s no secret that Yosemite delivery some seriously big wow moments. But what is a secret is the bounty of awesome things you can see and do on your way to California’s showstopper national park. Each of the four major routes to Yosemite offers its own worth-a-stop finds: Gold Rush history, epic high-country landscapes, hidden wine country, and charming country towns (some with surprisingly hip food and shops). Many of these near-the-park towns are a great alternative for lodging, with choices ranging from historic country inns and B-and-B’s to uncrowded campgrounds.
Travel back to the Gold Rush era on Highway 49, where charming mining towns dot the route, surrounded by the panoramic vistas and bubbling streams of the western Sierra Nevada foothills. The 4802-plus kilometre road—also known as the Gold Rush Trail and Gold Chain Highway—begins in Oakhurst before heading north to a string of historic towns that have maintained their 1850s charm.
Stop by the California State Mining and Mineral Museum in Mariposa for a quick Gold Rush history lesson, and take a gander at Hotel Jeffrey, a historic spot in Coulterville that claims John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt as past visitors.
Depending on the time of year, just north of Coulterville you can head east on Highway 120, aka Tioga Pass, into Yosemite National Park (weather permitting, check current conditions for road closure information).
Or, if your journey continues north, you can dive deeper into Gold Rush history in Jamestown, either on board an antique steam locomotive at Jamestown’s Railtown 1897 State Historic Park or as you pan for gold. Continue on to Sonora, a classic Mother Lode town. Dine on New American cuisine in a Gold Rush-era building with exposed stone walls at the Diamondback Grill, or sip a sarsaparilla at nearby Columbia State Historic Park, where costumed docents lead historic tours.
Highway 49 passes through multiple counties, including Calaveras County, where a May trip would not be complete without witnessing the frog jumping contest at the Calaveras County Fair and Frog Jump Jubilee, one of the longest running events in California. To break up your drive with a thrill, strap yourself in for a zip line ride into Angels Camp’s Moaning Cavern—a chamber big enough to hold the Statue of Liberty.
For more Gold Country exploration ideas, continue your journey on the California Gold road trip.
Head into the Eastern Sierra as you travel to Yosemite National Park through 3,031-metre Tioga Pass, aka Highway 120—the east gateway into the park. The highway goes into serious high country and closes for winter (typically November to May; check for current conditions). When the road is open, so is Whoa Nellie Deli, a surprisingly good restaurant near the town of Lee Vining at the start of the route. Why so surprising? The deli is in a gas mart, of all places. Order delicious lobster taquitos or wild buffalo meatloaf, then head outside for tables with big views of nearby Mono Lake. This remnant of an ancient inland sea is famous (especially among photographers) for surreal natural formations known as tufa towers (they look a bit like towering, weathered chess pieces lining the lakefront). Drawn by the lake’s high-desert location and unique chemistry (three times saltier than the ocean) millions of birds also flock to the lake, making it a top destination for birdwatchers. Learn more at the visitor center of Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve.
Once you climb Highway 120 from Lee Vining into Yosemite, you’ll find quick access to alpine lakes (such as Tioga Lake and Ellery Lake), granite domes, and summer wildflowers at Tuolumne Meadows. Continuing on, veer north off Highway 120 on Evergreen Road to the serene Hetch Hetchy Valley, a lesser-known area that boasts the park’s longest hiking season. Follow the trails to a waterfall (like Wapama Falls) or an expansive wildflower view at Beehive Meadow Trail.
On the west side of the park, 40 kilometres from the Big Oak Flat entrance, make a stop in the Gold Rush town of Groveland. Dig into biscuits and gravy at the Iron Door Saloon, a onetime post office building. Stay in Victorian-style rooms at The Groveland Hotel, a former gambling house and ranger station, where you can dine on California cuisine at The Cellar Door. And escape into a wonderland of native gardens and whirring hummingbirds at Mountain Sage nursery, where you’ll also find live music and a café. Highway 120 ends after it edges Don Pedro Reservoir, a great summer and fall fishing destination.
This route into Yosemite starts in Fresno. Head north then east through rolling foothills. Take a detour to trace the low-key Madera Wine Trail, with more than a dozen vineyards with friendly tasting rooms.
Just before you enter Yosemite’s south entrance, plan a visit to the luxurious Château du Sureau, the opulent Old World vision of Austrian-born chef and hotelier Erna Kubin Clanin. Splurge with an overnight stay (the inn is 15 miles/24 kilometres south of Yosemite), or simply savor the haute cuisine and French country estate atmosphere at the inn’s Erna’s Elderberry House Restaurant. If suds are more your style, sample small-batch ales and get an informal tour at nearby South Gate Brewing Company.
Beyond Oakhurst, wind your way to tiny Fish Camp (population 59), 2 miles/3 kilometres south of the park’s entrance and the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias. Stay at the elegantly rustic Little Ahwahnee Inn or nearby Tenaya Lodge, a full-service resort with spa and several dining options. And train buffs should definitely take the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad, a narrated steam locomotive ride through rugged pine forests.
Follow Highway 140 from Merced through rich Central Valley farmlands on your way to the wineries of the Sierra Foothill appellation. Sample the region’s rich, chocolate-y Zinfandels before continuing to the authentic Gold Rush town of Mariposa.
Stroll past 19th-century buildings, including the 1854 courthouse (still in use) and see a nearly 14-pound hunk of crystalline gold at the California State Mining and Mineral Museum. For a more contemporary side of Mariposa, Savoury’s Restaurant serves pastas and grilled specialties in a stylish dining room. Or sample local wines and California craft beers at The Alley.
Beyond Mariposa, Highway 140 runs along the wild and scenic Merced River before reaching El Portal on the Yosemite boundary. Stay in rooms overlooking the Merced’s tumbling waters at Yosemite View Lodge, or at the Arts and Crafts-style Yosemite Blue Butterfly along the riverfront.
If you’re not accustomed to driving mountain roads and want to enjoy the scenery on the way to Yosemite National Park, leave the driving to the Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System (YARTS). Not only will you save money on gas and wear-and-tear on your car, you’ll be able to focus on the scenery instead of the road. And you’ll help reduce congestion in the park.
YARTS accesses the park year-round via Highway 140 out of Merced. In summer, buses also lead into the park from the north (service starts in Sonora) and from the east (servicing Mammoth Lakes). Each route has multiple stops, so you can get on or off at appealing gateway towns too. In Yosemite, ride the park’s free shuttles to reach all major destinations, including summer bus service to hiking in Tuolumne Meadows. For a fun car-free way to tour Yosemite Valley, rent bikes at various locations, then follow paved paths to Mirror Lake, Yosemite Falls, and other top spots.