With its plunging waterfalls, alpine lakes, stark granite peaks, and verdant meadows, Yosemite National Park is a grand Sierra Nevada masterpiece. You might be in a hurry to get there, but don’t miss these surprising, off-the-radar attractions in the gateway towns surrounding the park. On your next Yosemite trip, linger a while in Fish Camp, Mariposa, Oakhurst, or Groveland and discover these delightful gems.
Yosemite visitors typically travel by car or by foot, but it’s way cooler to ride in a vintage narrow-gauge steam train. The Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad, just three miles beyond the park’s southern entrance in Fish Camp, brings to life memories of long-gone logging camps with its narrow-gauge steam train “The Logger.” Two beautifully restored steam locomotives—one built in 1913 and the other in 1928—pull rail cars with tree-carved bench seats along four miles of track in Sierra National Forest’s scenic woodlands. The narrated ride lasts about an hour and often includes a stop in the forest so riders can stroll and take photos. Keep on the lookout, though. On warm summer evenings, “masked bandits” on horseback stage mock train holdups, their six-shooters blazing.
Erna’s Elderberry House
Try to look away from the elegant furniture and Old World paintings so you can peruse the 725-bottle wine list at Erna’s Elderberry House, the in-house restaurant at Oakhurst’s fabulous five-star hotel, Château du Sureau. Three lavishly furnished dining areas set the scene for a multi-course prix fixe dinner or decadent Sunday brunch, prepared with the freshest local, seasonal, and organic ingredients from nearby Central Valley farms. After one meal here, you’ll be tempted to sign up for the chef’s half-day or three-day cooking classes. Named for the elderberries growing on the estate’s grounds, this haute-cuisine restaurant and adjoining inn were the vision of Austrian-born chef and interior designer Erna Kubin-Clanin. Since 2017, both are owned by hotelier Bernard Rosenson.
Yosemite Ziplines and Adventure Ranch
In Mariposa’s pastoral, oak-covered hills, about 40 miles from Yosemite’s Arch Rock/Highway 140 entrance, Yosemite Ziplines and Adventure Ranch serves up 30-mile-per-hour thrills. Book a spot on the two-hour tour, which includes a ride in a beefed-up Polaris Ranger to the top of the zipline course, followed by a soaring descent on six separate lines. First-timers have nothing to fear; you’re provided with safety gear and taught how to zip by experienced guides. Anyone of any age can go zipping as long as they weigh between 60 and 250 pounds. If you’re hankering for a triceps workout, spend an hour climbing around on the ropes course.
Rush Creek Lodge
Only a half-mile from Yosemite’s Big Oak Flat entrance on Highway 120, Rush Creek Lodge’s 143 woodsy-chic rooms offer a peaceful respite after a day of adventuring in the park. The lodge’s restaurant and tavern serve mountain-style comfort food—burgers, steaks, and seafood—plus a wealth of vegetarian options. In summer, you can dine by the lodge’s huge saltwater pool. There’s plenty to do on the 20-acre property including table tennis, shuffleboard, board games, family movie nights, and fire pits for evening s’more roasting, but the lodge’s biggest selling point is location—you can’t get closer to the Big Oak Flat entrance without being inside the park. An easy, scenic drive leads to either Yosemite Valley or Tuolumne Meadows. If Rush Creek is booked during your travel dates, try its sister property, Evergreen Lodge, about 15 minutes farther north.
Looking for the perfect spot to take your kids swimming in a crystal-clear stream? Head for Rainbow Pool, a 20-foot waterfall and swimming hole on the South Fork of the Tuolumne River, off Highway 120 between Groveland and Yosemite’s Big Oak Flat entrance. In the days of stagecoach travel, Rainbow Pool was the site of a toll bridge over the South Fork. The toll-keeper’s cabin was perched on a rock promontory jutting out above the waterfall. Today, a paved path leads a few hundred feet down to the small beach edging Rainbow Pool. On every summer day, bold teenagers dive, jump, slide, and wade around the falls, while more cautious youngsters wade into the giant pool.