On the way to Yosemite National Park from Sacramento or San Francisco, you'll wind through the curvy byways of Tuolumne County. Ease off the gas and take a look: There's no big-city skyline, but for cultural sites and natural wonders, this county punches well above its weight class. Take time to discover Gold Rush heritage sites, trout-filled rivers, foothill wineries, and a surprisingly sophisticated culinary scene.
Relive the Gold Rush
Follow Highway 108/49 to Sonora, where an 1866 jail has been repurposed as the Tuolumne County Museum and History Center. Ten prisoners' cells are filled with 19th-century firearms, gold nuggets, and Victorian hair wreaths. In neighboring Jamestown, antique shops peddle vintage posters, Gold Rush–period coins, and colored glass bottles. Stop in at Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, home of the world's most photographed locomotive, a shiny black steam engine that has starred in 100-plus films.
Eight miles away, wander the streets of Columbia, a preserved Gold Rush town and home of Columbia State Historic Park. Ride a century-old stagecoach, pan for gold, or shop for sweets at Nelson's Columbia Candy Kitchen. Swagger into the 1856 St. Charles Saloon (aka "The Charlie") to sip sarsaparilla and ogle the menagerie of mounted deer and elk heads before checking out a musical, comedy, or dramatic performance at the Historic Fallon House Theatre, a restored Gold Rush–era venue.
Highway 120 winds up Priest Grade to Groveland and the 1852 Iron Door Saloon, one of California's oldest watering holes. Behind the swinging, cast-iron doors, the tavern's ceiling is covered with wadded-up dollar bills. Next door, the Groveland Hotel gushes Victorian charm with a modern twist: reclaimed wood platform beds, sleek couches, and luxurious linens.
Savor food and wine
Tuolumne County's towns toss in a few surprises—new-wave coffee bars and innovative wineries shake up the old-timey vibes. Get the day started at Sonora's Revive Coffee, where organic beans roasted on a vintage Probat roaster make epic pour-overs and oat-milk lattes. For lunch, spoon tonkotsu-broth ramen with pork belly at Yoshoku, or kick back with a bison burger at Diamondback Grill, where the farm-sourced ingredients and an unpretentious wine bar draw a crowd.
Spend the afternoon sipping the foothills' bounty: For laid-back, jeans-and-fleece wine tasting, head to Inner Sanctum Cellars (featuring Tempranillo and other Spanish varietals) or Gianelli Vineyards (Italian reds). Sample hand-crafted hard cider and organic apple brandy at Indigeny Reserve, or nurse a Hetch Hetchy Haze IPA at Groveland's local brewpub, Around the Horn Brewing Company.
Explore rivers and mountains
Not only does Tuolumne County over-deliver on Gold Rush heritage and culinary gems, it's also rich in wild landscapes. The Tuolumne River offers spring and summer whitewater thrills—more than 40 named rapids in an 18-mile stretch. Join a guided trip with local outfitters Sierra Mac, OARS, All-Outdoors, or ARTA. If you'd rather lift a fly rod than a paddle, stock up on nymphs and caddis at Sonora Fly Company and stalk rainbow trout in the Tuolumne or Stanislaus rivers. Hikers can choose from 800 miles of trails in Stanislaus National Forest.
Want more? More than half of Yosemite National Park lies within Tuolumne County, and the driving is easy from Groveland on Highway 120. Enter the park through the Big Oak Flat station, then walk among the massive sequoias of the Merced and Tuolumne groves. In the summer months, drive through the nonstop forest-and-granite scenery of Tioga Pass Road to Tuolumne Meadows, the Sierra's largest subalpine meadow. Stop at Tenaya Lake for a bracing swim, or sit on the beach and watch rock climbers inch their way up granite cliffs. Hike to the top of Lembert Dome for an unforgettable view of the pristine meadows. You'll always want more time in Yosemite's spectacular high country, so reserve in advance for an overnight stay at Tuolumne Meadows Lodge.