Getting to Yosemite can add a lot to your trip—if you take time to explore the historic towns on your way to the park. Many of these Gold Rush–era communities have seen a jolt of new energy, thanks in part to booming wine country, a new focus on farm-to-table dining and food products, and a growing interest in leaving big cities to create new lives in smaller, rural communities with strong bonds and wide-open spaces and opportunities. Here are a few worthwhile stops on the major routes into the park:
Highways 49 and 120: Visit Sonora and nearby Columbia State Historic Park, with outstanding recreations of Gold Rush-era life and a chance to try your hand at gold-panning. Continue south to Jamestown to board an antique steam locomotive for a ride around Railtown 1897 State Historic Park. At Highway 120, climb to the alpine town of Groveland and the Iron Door Saloon, a onetime post office building that has welcomed folks on their way to and from Yosemite since 1896.
Highway 120 (Tioga Pass): This spectacular drive over the Eastern Sierra and 9,945-foot Tioga Pass leads to the trails, granite domes and wildflowers of Tuolumne Meadows. Before you start the climb east from Lee Vining, or if you are heading to the park from Mammoth Lakes (about 25 miles south on U.S. 395), visit Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve and its otherworldly limestone formations, then tuck into a meal at one-of-a-kind Whoa Nellie Deli. Note: Highway 120 (and the deli) close for winter, typically November to May).
Highway 41: Climb from Fresno and into rolling foothills and the Madera Wine Trail, with more than a dozen vineyards and friendly tasting rooms. Next up is Oakhurst and the remarkable Château du Sureau luxury lodging and companion restaurant, Erna’s Elderberry House Restaurant. Nearby, justly popular Bass Lake feels a bit like a mini Lake Tahoe, with boating, fishing, and lakeside lodging and camping. Beyond Oakhurst, Highway 41 winds and climbs nearly 3,000 feet to tiny Fish Camp, (population 59), where you can ride the scenic Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad. Less than a mile away, at Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite, take in a “cabineering” experience at one of their 50 well-appointed, two-bedroom Explorer Cabins. From Wawona, eight miles further along Highway 41, continue to El Portal and the legendary Tunnel View, a panoramic vista of Yosemite Valley that takes the breathe away of even the most seasoned Sierra traveler.
Highway 140: From Merced, Highway 140 leads to the wineries of the Sierra Foothill appellation, known for rich, chocolate-y Zinfandels. In the town of Mariposa, see a nearly 14-pound crystalline gold nugget at the California State Mining and Mineral Museum. The route then follows the wild and scenic Merced River before reaching El Portal on the national park boundary.