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7 Reasons you Need to visit Tuolumne County California


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large flat lake with mountains and pine forest on the far side reflected in the lake under a clear blue sky - Pinecrest Lake in Tuolumne County California

Gold rush towns, epic nature, and easy access to Yosemite… there are a LOT of great reasons to visit Tuolumne County when you’re in California.

I have to be honest: before I went there, I’d never even heard of Tuolumne County! Although it’s home to over half of the famous Yosemite National Park – and has plenty of its own incredible attractions – this small but varied corner of California isn’t necessarily on the radar of many British tourists.

And that’s a big shame, because this is definitely one of the best parts of the USA I’ve ever visited. It was easily the highlight of my recent California road trip (and that included driving the famous Route 1 coastal highway)!

So, I’m here to share a few of the top reasons to add a visit to Tuolumne County to your California travel plans!

DISCLAIMER: My trip was supported by Visit Tuolumne County – but all words, photos and opinions are my own and unbiased.

Where is Tuolumne County?

First off – let’s get that pronunciation right! Tuolumne is said “to-luh-me”, to rhyme (kinda) with “follow me”.

Tuolumne County is directly east of San Francisco in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. The main town, Sonora, is roughly a 2.5-hour drive from San Francisco.

The county is divided into three main regions: Yosemite, the mountainous High Sierra region, and the historic towns and Old-West vibes of Gold Country.

7 Reasons to Visit Tuolumne County in California

1. It’s RIGHT on the way to Yosemite National Park

Highway 120 through Tuolumne County is the most direct route into the National Park for those coming from the San Francisco Bay Area, Sacramento and Northern California.

large granite peak with a tall waterfall plummeting down one side and a small green forest in front under clear blue sky in Yosemite National Park
The Yosemite Valley Loop is within easy reach of Tuolumne County

Tuolumne is also home to some of the least crowded parts of Yosemite, including:

  • Hetch Hetchy Reservoir – a stunning blue lake surrounded by imposing granite peaks. A trail leads around the reservoir to waterfalls – but it’s far less busy than the more famous falls in Yosemite.
  • Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias – a walking trail leads up to and around this grove of towering trees.
  • Tuolumne Meadows – a large, subalpine meadow on the Tuolumne River surrounded by distant mountain peaks.

2. But it also has plenty of its own amazing nature

wooden jetty on a large flat lake with mountains and pine forest on the far side reflected in the lake under a clear blue sky - Pinecrest Lake in Tuolumne County California

It’s not ALL about Yosemite National Park: Tuolumne County has some seriously stunning nature to explore.

From the gently rolling countryside and farmland of the Gold Country region to the peaks, waterfalls and glittering lakes of the High Sierra – there are a LOT of epic landscapes, providing stunning backdrops for road trips and other adventures.

Head up to Pinecrest Lake for boating and hiking, Hetch Hetchy Reservoir for waterfalls and views, or delve into the Stanislaus National Forest on an off-road jeep experience with Miller’s Off-Road Adventures. There’s so much to discover!

3. You can explore Gold Rush Country

two historic white clapboard buildings on a street with several trees in front, the closest building says Columbia Gazette on the sign, under a clear blue sky at Columbia State Historic Park

All that epic nature has a tendency to steal the show, but this little corner of California is also packing a lot of history – especially around the southwestern Gold Country region.

Many of the historic towns in this area were founded (or popularised) during the famous California Gold Rush in the 1800s. There’s still a real “Old West” vibe around here: expect lots of beautiful old buildings, historic saloons, and even a restored steam railroad.

closeup of the front of the Jamestown Hotel, a brick building with a verandah on the ground floor and a wooden balcony on the top floor. Large white letters saying HOTEL are on the roof.

Gold Country Highlights:

  • Downtown Sonora – the historic high street still has a classic, gold rush feel – but today it’s packed with fab independent art galleries, boutiques, restaurants and bars.
  • Columbia State Historic Park – a former gold-rush town that’s been preserved as a living museum. You can pan for gold, visit a working blacksmith shop, and browse shops – including an old-fashioned sweet shop.
  • Jamestown – another beautifully preserved Gold Rush town with a number of striking buildings. Nearby Railtown is a must-visit (more on that below).

4. The High Sierras are hiking heaven!

view from the top of a large granite cliff of a large pine forest alongside a grey rocky peak under a clear blue sky
The view from the hike to Cleo’s Bath

Less than an hour’s drive from Sonora, Tuolumne County’s High Sierra region is a land of sweeping vistas and fresh mountain air. In summer, this area is hiking heaven, with epic waterfalls, glittering lakes and some excellent trails.

Pinecrest Lake is one of the most accessible spots, as it’s only about a 45-minute drive from Sonora. There are some great hikes here to choose from. A reasonably easy trail leads around the lake, crossing the Stanislaus River and the dam en route.

emily standing in front of rushing river with grey rocsk and pine trees on either side and a bright blue lake beyond with a hill covered in pine forest on the far side. she is wearing black trousers and a grey t shirt and her hair is in bunches.

Alternatively, you could rent a kayak or motor boat at the visitor centre to cross the lake. From the far side, you can pick up the hiking trail and follow the river to Cleo’s Bath, a natural pool at the top of a waterfall with stunning views of the Stanislaus National Forest. Just be aware that the last half mile is pretty tough, with some steep climbs and scrambles over boulders.

5. Film fans will love Railtown 1897 State Historic Park

Emily sanding on the steps of a yellow Diesel engine leaning on one of the rails. Emily is wearing a long red dress and a blue denim waistcoat and has her long hair loose. Taken at Railtown State Historic Park in Tuolumne County California.

I’ve already mentioned the historic towns of Gold Rush Country – but there’s another historical highlight that you absolutely have to check out!

Railtown 1897 State Historic Park is home to a huge collection of vintage steam trains and old railway buildings. It’s also known as “The Movie Railroad”, because it’s been used to film hundreds of movies and TV shows. Including one of my all-time faves, Back to the Future 3!

The park is also home to the Sierra Railway. Hop aboard a train pulled by a historic diesel locomotive for a 6-mile round trip through Gold Country.

6. The local food scene is STRONG

close up of two sticks of bread with a flight of mini beers behind and a bar out of focus behind that

Tuolumne County is home to many farms, ranches and orchards – and all that fresh local produce means a fantastic food scene. Not to mention a great drinks scene, too.

Although other parts of California are better known for wine-making, Tuolumne County has its fair share of wineries – as well as craft breweries, cider distilleries, and more. The tourist board has a free Craft Beverage Trail you can download to discover some of the best local producers.

Don’t miss these foodie highlights:

  • Indigeny Reserve, nr Sonora – A tranquil, 160-acre preserve and apple orchard producing hand-crafted hard ciders and other drinks. Visit for a tour of the distillery and a tasting.
  • Cover’s Apple Ranch, nr Tuolumne – Don’t miss the famous Mile High Apple Pie at this quaint, country-style bakery and restaurant on a working farm.
  • Around the Horn Brewing Company, Groveland – Build your own flight board at this fun craft brewery and taproom.
  • Evergreen Lodge, Groveland – Lunch here was one of the best meals I had in California: lots of fresh, seasonal dishes and locally sourced cuisine. The tavern is over 100 years old and has a charming Old-West feel.

7. You can Avoid the Yosemite crowds at Hetch Hetchy

large blue lake with grey rocky peaks on the far side and clear blue sky above.

There are five entrances to Yosemite National Park, and two are in Tuolumne County. Of these, the Hetch Hetchy Entrance is generally one of the quietest – and leads into one of the Park’s quieter areas.

This part of the park only sees about 1% of the park’s total visitation. So while others are queuing their way around the Yosemite Valley loop, you can easily drive into Hetch Hetchy, park up, and head out for a hike.

As well as being much less crowded, the Hetch Hetchy Valley is also lower than other parts of the park – so the hiking season lasts longer. And this entrance leads to the vast Hetch Hetchy Reservoir (mentioned earlier): a gorgeous spot for a hike.

Ready to Visit Tuolumne County California?

Emily standing with her hands in her pockets in front of a wooden covered bridge with a US flag hanging from the top of it and trees on either side. Emily is wearing a long red dress and a blue denim waistcoat and has her long hair loose. The entrance to Indigeny Reserve in Tuolumne County California.

Getting to Tuolumne County couldn’t be easier. It takes around 2.5 hours to drive here from San Francisco via the I-580 and Highway 120. I’d recommend making Sonora your base for exploring.

If you’re visiting the county as part of a road trip to Yosemite, you could spend a day or two in Sonora and Gold Country, then base yourself in Groveland for 1-2 nights to explore that area before making tracks into the National Park.

Read more in my 4-Day Tuolumne County Road Trip Itinerary (CLICK HERE).

Can you think of any more reasons to visit Tuolumne County? Share in the comments below!



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