Just hours from the Bay area, Tuolumne County offers the perfect mix of year-round adventure.

Relaxing in a Tuolumne County Vineyard

Tuolumne County toggles just the right balance of activity and relaxation. Photo by Menka Belgal.

The epic sweep of the Yosemite wilderness, the High Sierra on horseback, a huffing locomotive pulling into a gold rush town. If you had a childhood in America that included rainy Saturdays soaking up classic cartoons and old westerns, Tuolumne County may sound kind of familiar. But the reality is even more magical. Just 2 1/2 hours from the Bay Area, Tuolumne County’s iconic landscape and rich history draws nature lovers, backcountry trekkers, history buffs, family road-trippers, and really anyone who just needs an uncomplicated getaway. 

That’s because it’s easy to put together an itinerary that squeezes in bucket list National Park landmarks, Old West history, and wilderness adventure, all within easy driving distance. Tuolumne County is dotted with historic towns that offer modern comforts (think tastefully appointed lodgings, innovative dining, family activities), and best of all it’s truly a year-round vacation destination. Read on for tips to plan your trip to Tuolumne County. 

Day 1: The Smarter Way to Yosemite 

One of the most celebrated National Parks in America, Yosemite is also one of the most visited. Every day, especially in the summer, thousands funnel into the Oak Flat entrance (this summer a reservation system was back for car visitors). But those in the know head just north to the Hetch Hetchy entrance for a less crowded, perhaps more sublime, Yosemite experience.

Yosemite's Hetch Hetchy
There are many scenic hikes close to Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.

Kim Carroll

The stunningly scenic Hetch Hetchy Reservoir area is a paradise for hikers, birdwatchers, and fishermen. The trail to Wapama Falls is a moderately strenuous five-mile ramble to one of the park’s tallest, most gorgeous waterfalls. A shorter walk will take you to the Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias, the second biggest grove of Sequoias in the world.

This area has hundreds of trails to choose from. The local tourism bureau offers downloadable maps that highlight the best trails to try based on the season. To ensure that our children get to enjoy these same adventures with their kids, it’s critical that everyone adopt a leave-no-trace mindset.  Before setting out, educate yourself about sustainable travel, and be sure to pack out anything that you brought with you. 

If this is your first visit to Yosemite you may want to linger here for an extra day, and visit the Valley Floor to experience the iconic Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, and the Merced River.  

Where to Stay

Where to Eat and Drink

  • Around the Horn Brewery is a family-owned newcomer to the local craft brew scene which is becoming renowned. To find the best wine, cider, and beer tasting rooms, check out the Craft Beverage Trail.
  • The longest continuously running bar in the State of California (est. 1852), The Iron Door Saloon  is an excellent place to eat—and to drink in some local history. 

Day 2: Time Travel to the Gold Rush Era  

Break up your wilderness adventures with a trip back in time to the California Gold Rush. Make Sonora your base as everything is close by. In the morning, head to The Railtown 1897 State Historic Park in Jamestown. First, check out the “movie star” locomotive, Sierra No. 3 ®. If you get a shiver of Déjà vu that’s because you’ve seen this train before. It’s appeared in over a hundred productions—including GunsmokeLittle House on the PrairieThe Unforgiven, and Back to the Future III. Then take a 45-minute train ride into the countryside. Jamestown itself is filled with cute, historic Inns, boutiques, galleries, and even a casino. 

Tuolumne County's Railtown
At Railtown 1897 State Historic Park the past comes alive.

Menka Belgal

In the afternoon head to Columbia State Historic Park, which is like a Gold Rush version of Colonial Williamsburg. Saunter down wooden sidewalks where you’ll encounter friendly townspeople dressed in historical garb. Observe a working blacksmith, hitch a ride on a stagecoach, or try to knock down the wooden pins at an old fashioned bowling alley. Kids will love learning how to pan for gold. 

Where to stay

Where to Eat and Drink

  • The newly opened The Armory has a beer garden and full menu.
  • Or, head to Indigeny Reserve and taste ciders sourced from their 160-acre orchard. Bring a picnic and enjoy the scenery. 

Day 3: Discover the Western Sierra  

Head up highway 108 into the Western Sierra region. This area is a four-season cornucopia of outdoor recreation. Hiking, camping, backpacking, fishing, skiing, and snowmobiling—it’s all happening here amid some of the most pristine wilderness in the West. Get a taste of the backcountry with a guided horseback ride through the Emigrant Wilderness. The Kennedy Meadows Resort and Pack Station is a century-old, family-owned resort with a rustic, 1950’s camp vibe. In addition to overnight mule-pack rides the resort offers a number of day outings, including a simple, scenic loop that lasts a little over an hour, a half-day ride to the incredible vistas at Relief Reservoir, and a day-long excursion to Kennedy Lake where you can enjoy a picnic lunch.

Yosemite Horseback Riding
Some of the High Sierra’s most beautiful sights are best seen from horseback.

Mackenzie Rodgers

If a day of family play time is more in order, head to Dodge Ridge Mountain Resort, a ski resort that offers activities year round. Ride the chairlift to the top of Dodge Ridge and savor the mountain breeze and stunning views at 7,400 feet. Play 18 holes of disc golf down to 6,600 feet, then hike down to the bottom. Then come back in the winter to enjoy skiing and snowboarding.

Where to stay

Where to Eat and Drink

Of course, three days isn’t anywhere near enough time to explore all that Tuolumne has to offer. Which is why you’ll want to spend Day 4 planning your next visit!