Ride the Sugar Pine Railroad, then savor an extraordinary meal

Amy McConnell

Tell someone you're going to Fish Camp, Sugar Pine, orOakhurst, and chances are you'll get a blank stare. Say they're thetowns strung along State 41, south of Yosemite National Park, andsuddenly 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 dayor two, anyway, forget about Yosemite and explore the three townsjust south of the park boundary and the surrounding portion ofEastern Madera County. Your rewards: A train ride powered by a rarelogging locomotive, an eyeful of some of the world's most massivegiant sequoias (minus the crowds), and one of the most memorablemeals anywhere in California.

Ride the rails, revel in romance

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

So, for the past 20 years, Stauffer has been inviting visitorsto experience that history firsthand. On narrated rides aboard theSugar Pine Railroad, you sit in a passenger car carved from hugelogs, connected to one of the last intact Shay locomotivesremaining in the world. As you listen to the whistle scream andwatch steam shoot up through the trees, parting the branches with aflurry of wind, you will understand what draws rail fans here fromall over the world. The locomotive's ability to climb steep gradesand negotiate rugged terrain still stands out as one of thetechnological marvels of the 19th century.

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

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

"People all have the same question: 'Why here?'" Kubin-Claninsays. "I don't think it's that unusual. You have Yosemite righthere. You have this wonderful combination of wilderness andelegance."

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

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Southern Yosemite travel planner