In Northern California’s gold country, the western frontier and gateway to the foothills of the rugged Sierra Nevada Mountains, Tuolumne County came to be in 1850, the same year California achieved statehood. With the arrival of the thousands of prospectors, a few sophisticated but mostly lawless settlements sprung up. These pioneers were later joined by ranchers, loggers and frontier families that swept into the county and transformed the settlements into a more civilized place to live.
Echoes of its colorful past — Victorian homes, one room schoolhouses, historic churches, saloons, mines, mills and barns — depict a living heritage not found in theme parks. With gold nuggets still waiting to be found and frontier adventures to be enjoyed, the area is the top spot for firing the imagination of history buffs, as well as lovers of the outdoors. Here’s a look at the major towns.
Nestled in the foothills of the majestic Sierra Nevada Mountains, Sonora is the southern gateway to California’s gold-rich Mother Lode. The city known as the “Queen of the Southern Mines,” and the epicenter of Tuolumne County was settled by miners emigrating from the State of Sonora, Mexico. Present-day Sonora runs at a slower pace than during its Gold Rush beginnings, but still offers a wealth of rich experiences ranging from historic sites, fine dining and shopping in the many specialty shops along the city’s old fashioned main street.
A visit to the headquarters of the Tuolumne County Historical Society for a glimpse of area’s colorful history is a must. Stop by the Tuolumne County Museum and History Center set in the Tuolumne County Jail where a century of outlaws and desperados served time. Peer into the dismal cell-blocks, view frontier exhibits that let you tap into the hottest adventures of gold mining, and watch a charming Mark Twain vignette. A self-guided tour of Sonora is available here as well. Other downtown points of interest are the Tuolumne County Courthouse from the 1800s, the Sonora Fire Department Museum and the Sierra Repertory Theatre (209/532-3120) where the stage is set for a real taste of professional old time live theater that offers a selection of comedies, dramas and musicals.
The Best Western Sonora Oaks (19551 Hess Avenue, 209/533-4400) is extremely family-friendly with spacious modern connecting guest rooms, whirlpool and fireplace suites. A complimentary continental breakfast with a variety of kid’s options is served.
The Gold Rush might be over, but Columbia, “The Gem of the Southern Mines,” is now California’s best preserved town from the 1850s. Billions of dollars worth of gold was coaxed from the earth here by strong men and gigantic machinery. To get the gold they literally took the hills apart, sifted out the valuable ore, and put what was leftover back where they found it.
Columbia State Historic Park was established back in 1945 “to freeze the frontier days in time.” History follows you as you step off wooden sidewalks into yesteryear where iron implements are forged, perfumed candles and soap are handmade, and shopkeepers conduct business in period dress. You also can pan for gold, ride a stagecoach, sip a sarsaparilla (similar to Root Beer) in one of two ol’ time saloons, or mount a horse and mosey into history.
Follow the spotlight to the 1897 Fallon Theatre in the Park that still showcases wonderful year-round productions. Grandparents, parents and kids will love the authentic old-time Ice Cream Parlor adjoining the theatre. Here everyone gets to lick their lips from the yummy made-from-scratch ice cream that’s scooped onto your choice of homemade sugar or waffle cones. Take a tour of the beautiful City Hotel and Fallon Hotel and you may get to watch Marilyn Elligott spinning yarn in the front parlor. It’s also great place to stop for a special lunch or dinner, and we suggest you leave some time for a tour of this historic, first-rate property.
In this town named for Mark Twain and Bret Harte, the literary buffs in the family will be enchanted with information about the famous authors who fell under the area’s spell. Much of what is known or, at least, believed about the history of the gold country comes from the observations of Mark Twain. His famous tale of “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” came to him in nearby Angels Camp, when he complained of a steady diet of beans and dishwater coffee. Bret Harte, editor of the San Francisco-based Overland Monthly introduced the world to a fictional Wild West through such stories as “The Outcasts of Poker Flat,” and “The Luck of Roaring Camp.”
Modern day gold seekers still come here with dredges to work the sandy bottoms of nearby rivers, and they still pan for gold wherever they can find a place to do so.
Originally known as Jimtown by local residents, everyone will enjoy a stroll to capture a sense of its past. There are still lots of old-time adventures going on in today’s Jamestown, and families can spend an entire day exploring them.
Gold Prospecting Adventures (800/596-0009) are the area’s most experienced teachers, who share the story of the California Gold Rush with all ages. The adventure starts alongside a creek where the original 49ers panned for gold. From there everyone is offered a variety of choices that include Family Sluice Panning, Gold Panning, or sitting in on a Metal Detector class. The attraction’s recreated Jimtown Gold Mining Camp gives the whole family a true sense of life during the Gold Rush.
Railtown 1897 State Historic Park (209/984-3953) offers another wonderful family adventure. The completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869 did more to make this a nation “from sea to shining sea” than any other single act of engineering exploration. The story of early railroading is told in living detail. Everyone will love “hitching a ride” on the Sierra Railroad steam locomotives that have been featured in productions such as “High Noon,” “Petticoat Junction,” “Back to the Future III”, and “Little House on the Prairie.”
Lake Don Pedro
Hidden coves, a sunken gold mine and 160 miles of oak-studded shoreline are only a few of the items of interest at Lake Don Pedro. Among the sunken treasures beneath the lake’s surface is the famed Eagle/Shawmut Mine. It was still producing considerable amounts of gold during World War II and was one of the few mines allowed to continue operating during the war.
Moccasin Point, the Marina on Lake Don Pedro is serviced by Forever Resorts (480/998-7199). In addition to ski and pontoon boats that can be rented all year long, rental houseboats range from smaller 44’ craft that comfortably sleep 4, to popular mid-sized boats with extra room for 8 to 10. The Millennium houseboat offers room for up to 12 adults and is equipped with everything from a top-deck hot tub and wet bar, to a captain’s flying bridge, comfortable private staterooms and additional conveniences like a dishwasher, trash compactor and satellite T.V.
Founded in 1854 during California’s gold fever days, and appropriate for the times, it was originally named “Eureka.” The real boom came in the late 1800’s however, when timbering was king and lumberjacks were everywhere.
Situated just outside the Stanislaus National Forest, the majesty of the land unfolds in the rugged beauty that has been thousands upon thousands of years in the making. Its riches take the form of outdoor activities that include camping, fishing, hiking, rafting, skiing and biking. The Black Oak Casino (19400 Tuolumne Road North, 877/747-8777) operated by the Mi-Wuk Indians, offers totally different activities for the area. Not just for gamblers, there is an entire floor for family fun centered on 24 lanes of state-of-the art Brunswick Bowling. Also, the Underground Arcade is stocked with arcade games and family-friendly food outlets including Kingpins serving burgers and pizza, and the Mill Sports Bar and Grill offering great casual dining with a large scale video wall and interactive games.
Up until the Gold Rush era, this town was home to Native Americans for several thousand years. It was originally named “Garrotte,” (which translates loosely to “hanging,”) after the deed for which the town was once infamous. Groveland has since settled into more sedate ways, and is now a quirky community and charming gateway to the treasured national icon of Yosemite.
Nearby Pine Mountain Lake and Tuolumne River provide plenty of aquatic adventures, but back on dry land horseback riders, golfers, and campers will not be disappointed. History is still very evident in the town in the form of the unique small shops in historic buildings. The new Groveland Yosemite Gateway Museum (209/962-0300) showcases memorabilia and collections from bygone years.
The Groveland Hotel (18767 Main Street, 800/273-3314) welcomes families with gracious Western hospitality. The larger of the property’s two adobe buildings dates from 1849, and in 1914 a Queen Anne Revival style annex was added to this colorful hotel.
The highlight here is the famous Ironstone Vineyards (209/728-1251) which is much more than just a tasting room. There are exquisite, award-winning gardens dotted with benches where you can while away an hour or two, a beautiful jewelry shop, a museum displaying a 44-pound gold nugget and gourmet deli that all offer enough to occupy an afternoon here.
Yosemite National Park
Surrounded by natural beauty and historic attractions, Tuolumne County is the perfect hub for a visit to Yosemite National Park. Most of the Park, established by an act of Congress in 1890, is located within the county, which is Northern California’s most direct and scenic route to this treasured icon. Nearly 95% of Yosemite is designated as wilderness, thus affording protection to its verdant valley, waterfalls, brilliant blue lakes, giant trees, huge granite domes and timeless geologic history.
Well known for summer and winter sports, the park is open anytime of the year. (Tioga and Glacier Point Roads in the upper elevations are usually the only roads closed in the winter.) Hike, fish, bike, bird and wildlife watch, horseback ride, backpack, camp, rock climb and stargaze or simply enjoy the magnificent beauty of the park on foot, by auto or guided coach tour. Among the many experiences are the Ranger-led naturalist walk, and the Ansel Adams Photography walk.
Trip Planning Details
The county seat of Sonora, 143 miles east of San Francisco, is within easy driving distance to four major airports: Sacramento International Airport (117 miles), Oakland International Airport (120 miles), San Jose International Airport (126 miles) and San Francisco International Airport (133 miles).
For further information visit contact the Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau or call them at 800/446-1333.
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.