Tuolumne County

Uncrowded adventures in Yosemite and beyond

Welcome to Tuolumne

In the midst of the Sierra Nevada, Tuolumne County is a mosaic of lakes, forests and Gold Rush towns. Just two-and-a-half hours’ drive east from the San Francisco Bay Area, this is outdoorsy California as the locals experience it. More than half of Yosemite National Park is here, but most tourists flock to photo-ops further south – leaving Tuolumne blissfully free from the crowds. Highway 120 carves a sinuous route through these lesser-explored wilds, but don’t rush to Yosemite before feeling the flush of gold fever, and hiking, biking or horse-riding the High Sierra. Read on for three ways to explore, but before you do, be sure to hit play on our Tuolumne playlist...

Step into history in Gold Country’s boom towns

From hissing steam engines to ornate 19th-century shopfronts, Tuolumne’s Gold Country has preserved the atmosphere of California’s old prospecting days.

The land had long been inhabited by the Miwok and Yokut peoples when a chance sighting of gold forever changed its fate. In 1848, word spread that a carpenter toiling in the Sierra foothills had found gold flakes. Fortune-seekers rushed to the Sierra, and their hastily built cabins quickly grew into sizeable towns. Many of them emptied after the Gold Rush but others, like Jamestown, Sonora and Columbia, endured long after the last miner laid down their shovel.

Driving into Gold Country from San Francisco, the first major boom town after Yosemite Junction is Jamestown. It’s a jewellery box of Gold Rush architecture: latticed shopfronts, Victorian-style balconies, and arcades offering shade from the burning California sun. Between restaurants and old-timey inns are stations where children can try their hand at gold panning.

South-east of Jamestown is Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, where you can board steam or diesel locomotives for a huffing, clanking, 45-minute voyage through the Sierra foothills. Look out for Sierra No. 3, which starred as a time-travelling locomotive in Back to the Future Part III, and has featured in over 100 other films.

Further south unfurl vineyards with distinctive Italian flair. Gianelli Vineyards cultivate Italian varietals such as Vermentino and Primitivo, which you can sample at the bar or overlooking views of the Sierra.

Around 15 minutes’ drive north of Jamestown is Columbia State Historic Park. At the height of the Gold Rush, Columbia (then known as ‘the gem of the southern mines’) grew from a straggling cluster of tents into a town of tens of thousands. Its 1850s ambience is proudly preserved – complete with costumed guides, horse-pulled stagecoach and the Matelot Gulch Mining Company, where you can pan for elusive glints of gold.

More historic buildings lie six-and-a-half kilometres south-east in Sonora, along with thirst-quenching detours. At the sustainably managed Indigeny Reserve, shady groves of apple trees produce refreshing ciders and apple brandies. South of Highway 108, apples are stuffed into homemade pies and buttery bubble bread at Cover’s Apple Ranch.

Beyond boom-town history and local produce, there’s a deeper way to connect with Gold Country: in the great outdoors. In Jamestown, the tough inclines of the four kilometre Table Mountain Loop Trail are rewarded by views of New Melones Lake and across the plateau, which is streaked with poppies in summer.

From Sonora, the Dragoon Gulch Trail, made up of multiple routes, winds for a combined five kilometres along ridges and creeks, ever shaded by oaks. Further east near Tuolumne town, the 17km West Side Trail is a memorable foray into mining history: ruts from a former railtrack protrude from the dusty ground. But the river and forest dominate the view; nature has long ago reclaimed the land.

Embrace serene nature in the High Sierra

In search of a hiking paradise, but with a fraction of Yosemite’s footfall? East of Gold Country, the land buckles into toothy peaks and shapely valleys. This is the High Sierra, and its florid meadows and pine-fringed lakes are easy to reach via Highway 108.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, settlers built dams to create lakes, nourishing the High Sierra’s growing mining communities. Today, the lakes are oases for swimming, kayaking and shoreside picnics. Head to Beardsley Reservoir; it’s surrounded by forest covered mountains and its emerald waters teem with trout.

Another beauty spot ideal for dangling a fishing rod lies a 20 minutes’ drive south at Pinecrest Lake. Families splash around in its crystalline shallows and pitch tents in the campground, where pine needles blanket the soft earth. Pathways such as the two-and-a-half kilometre Trail of the Gargoyles access gnome-like rock formations sculpted by foregone volcanoes. Close by is Dodge Ridge, a winter favourite for families who zip down its 67 ski runs and don snowshoes to walk pillowy drifts. 

For solitude-seekers, Pinecrest is only a gateway. East of the lake spreads the Emigrant Wilderness area, part of Stanislaus National Forest. This landscape of deep ridges and granite domes is pure drama, topping out at Leavitt Peak (3,527m). The plains are studded with boulders and streaked with manzanita shrubs. Shaggy glades of white fir are criss-crossed by hundreds of kilometres of streams – at their splashiest in springtime, when they’re turbo-charged by melting snow.

If you’re a hiker, meanwhile, you can lace up your boots for a stiff ascent along the Relief Reservoir Trail (11.5km) or watch the sun set from a tent overlooking Chewing Gum Lake. Gravel and paved mountain biking trails also slice through the Stanislaus National Forest, from gentle inclines to thigh-burning ascents. Just watch out for the black bears that are occasionally spotted lumbering between stands of old-growth pine.

In these untamed surroundings, horseback feels like a suitably Wild West mode of transport. Kennedy Meadows offers full-day horseback excursions to Kennedy Lake, a tranquil beauty spot in the Emigrant Wilderness. Its cowboy-hatted operators can also lead gentler, hour-long horse-riding trips through meadows, always with a mountainous backdrop.

The most invigorating way to experience the High Sierra is through total immersion in nature. Dozens of campgrounds are scattered around Stanislaus National Forest, while comfier log chalets also allow you to fling open your door to pine-furred wilds. Evergreen Lodge, for example, offers cosy cabins in the middle of forest, rivers, meadows and swimming holes.  By staying overnight, you’ll truly understand the Sierras’ nickname, ‘the Range of Light’, bestowed by the naturalist John Muir. Bare granite peaks glow bronze with the sunset, and are awash in peachy light at daybreak. The changing light will make you feel changed, too.

Roam free on Yosemite’s secluded trails

Yosemite National Park dissolves all sense of time and scale. Mountains loom as high as 3,997m, granite domes date back 100 million years, and the giant sequoias are among the largest trees on earth.

It should be easy to find blissful isolation in this 3,028 sq km tapestry of meadows and mirror lakes: despite more than 120 walking trails threading across the park, the overwhelming majority of travellers to Yosemite follow the same itineraries. To travel with a lighter footprint on uncrowded trails, take a hike on the northern side in Tuolumne.

More than half of Yosemite National Park falls within Tuolumne County. This side of the park is also the easiest to reach from the San Francisco Bay Area: just three hours along Highway 120 to Big Oak Flat. This north-western entrance to Yosemite is a gateway to landscapes most travellers never see.

From Big Oak Flat, Highway 120 snakes through sugar pines towards Tuolumne Grove, a forest of two-dozen giant sequoias. Take the four kilometre trail to these stately giants, their colossal trunks blackened by bygone forest fires. Most visitors head straight to Mariposa Grove on the other side of the park; but in Tuolumne, there’s space to breathe. The air is fresh, rays of sunshine pierce the canopy, and only birdsong interrupts your thoughts.

Winter brings a different kind of magic, when snow cushions the trail. Strap on snowshoes and crunch softly along the forest floor.

Further east, you’ll reach Tuolumne Meadows. It’s at its loveliest in spring, when groundwater wells up to nourish fields of fluffy ricegrass and wildflowers such as buttercups. From here, take a two-hour hike to Gaylor Lakes for sweeping views of Dana Meadows and the High Sierra’s primeval valleys.

To explore the least-visited section of the park, enter Yosemite even further north at Mather. From here you’ll reach the 1,188m-high Hetch Hetchy, where towering conical peaks are reflected in a pristine reservoir. This ancient, glacier-carved valley was flooded by the O’Shaughnessy Dam in 1923. 

Hetch Hetchy enjoys one of the longest hiking seasons and some of the mildest temperatures in Yosemite. Spring snowmelt creates thunderous cascades along the almost nine kilometre Wapama Falls and 21km Rancheria Falls trails. Waterfalls dwindle in glorious midsummer, autumn brings an amber blush to the oak forests, while winter dusts the granite monoliths with snow. It’s a year-round outdoor playground, and you’ll barely share it with another soul.

Make it happen

How to get there

British Airways runs direct flights from London Heathrow to San Francisco that take 10.5 hours. Once you land, hire a car from the airport for the ultimate freedom and flexibility.

Or take the Amtrak San Joaquins train from San Francisco, changing at Emeryville to reach Merced station (less than four hours). Amtrak San Joaquins and the YARTS connection is available into Yosemite Valley all year round, however, the YARTS route from Yosemite Valley to Tuolumne County is only available from May to September, so it is easier to rent a car and drive yourself. 

When to go

Tuolumne County offers year-round adventure. Visit the High Sierra in spring to see the foothills alive with green grass and wildflowers, or go between late November and April to make the most of the snow. Comfortable temperatures make spring and autumn a great time to visit the cities in Gold Country. To see Yosemite in full bloom and for snow-free hiking, visit in June.

Alternatively, go during the winter for downhill and cross-country skiing, along with many other winter sports. Spring is an exciting time to visit Yosemite, when the melting snow means the park’s many waterfalls and creeks are at their fullest, making for dramatic, rushing flows. Be aware that the Hetch Hetchy Entrance Station is often closed due to snow from November to June.

Hit the road with BA Holidays

On a Fly-drive California trip with BA Holidays, you can land at San Francisco International Airport, pick up your car and be out on the road in no time. Spend your first few nights exploring the city by the bay, taking time to walk in the Golden Gate Park. Next, head north-west over the Golden Gate Bridge to Lake Tahoe to take in its 115km shoreline. Afterwards, continue your drive to Tuolumne County to explore the gold rush history of Jamestown and the hiking trails of the High Sierra, before finishing up in the dramatic landscapes of Yosemite National Park.

San Francisco flights and 7 days car hire from £717pp.

Tackle the trails with Exodus

Embark on one of the finest hikes in North America, the John Muir Trail, with Exodus Travels. During the 22-day hike you’ll be joined by an expert guide and will walk over 330km. You will start with a climb of 4,422m-high Mount Whitney before following the spine of California’s High Sierra, passing three national parks, alpine peaks, beautiful meadows and forested river valleys along the way. Eventually, 22 days later, you will arrive at Tuolumne Meadows with the pristine river running through flower-filled fields, backed by undulating peaks making for a fine reward for your efforts.

This 23-day trip includes accommodation, all meals, transport, listed activities and tour leaders from £2,879pp. Flights not included.

Explore Yosemite with Bon Voyage

On Bon Voyage’s 12-day Water, Wine & Wilderness tour you will travel from San Francisco into Sonoma County before heading into Yosemite National Park. As well as the famous Tioga Pass, you will enjoy sights such as Tuolumne Meadows and Hetch Hetchy, where imperious peaks loom over the reservoir. An expert guide will be on hand to show you around and ensure you don’t miss a thing.

This 12-night trip includes return flights, hotels, listed activities and a tour of Yosemite National Park with a local guide. From £2,215pp.

What are you waiting for?

Start planning your perfect trip to Tuolomne County now by heading over to the official website