Sweet surprises near Yosemite

Ride the Sugar Pine Railroad, then savor an extraordinary meal

Amy McConnell

Tell someone you're going to Fish Camp, Sugar Pine, or Oakhurst, and chances are you'll get a blank stare. Say they're the towns strung along State 41, south of Yosemite National Park, and suddenly you're no longer speaking Greek.

Yosemite is the brand-name destination in these parts. Still, with all due respect to the park, it's not all there is. For a day or two, anyway, forget about Yosemite and explore the three towns just south of the park boundary and the surrounding portion of Eastern Madera County. Your rewards: A train ride powered by a rare logging locomotive, an eyeful of some of the world's most massive giant sequoias (minus the crowds), and one of the most memorable meals anywhere in California.

Ride the rails, revel in romance

"People don't realize what it took to build America, and the Sugar Pine Railroad was part of it," says Max Stauffer, president of the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad, a narrow-gauge railroad that once played a key role in transporting lumber for the central Sierra's largest, most important logging company. "The need for wood was as much a part of Western history as the Gold Rush."

Southern Yosemite travel planner

So, for the past 20 years, Stauffer has been inviting visitors to experience that history firsthand. On narrated rides aboard the Sugar Pine Railroad, you sit in a passenger car carved from huge logs, connected to one of the last intact Shay locomotives remaining in the world. As you listen to the whistle scream and watch steam shoot up through the trees, parting the branches with a flurry of wind, you will understand what draws rail fans here from all over the world. The locomotive's ability to climb steep grades and negotiate rugged terrain still stands out as one of the technological marvels of the 19th century.

Marvels of a different kind are close at hand: the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees, at the southern tip of Yosemite, and, just outside the park boundary, the Nelder Grove―both home to some of the world's largest giant sequoias. At the Nelder Grove, you're likely to have the enormous trees all to yourself.

Down in Oakhurst, indulge in another wonder―this time at Erna's Elderberry House, a four-star Relais & Chateaux restaurant that's almost as much of an institution as the steam train and the sequoias. In 1983, Erna Kubin-Clanin, a native of Austria, chose to open her restaurant in Oakhurst, of all places, because, as she puts it, "it's almost like Europe, only without the ancient little villages."

"People all have the same question: 'Why here?'" Kubin-Clanin says. "I don't think it's that unusual. You have Yosemite right here. You have this wonderful combination of wilderness and elegance."

A combination that's best experienced if you also spend the night in one of the 10 enchanting guest rooms of her Château du Sureau next door―like a castle in the woods.