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11 Awesome Stops for your Tuolumne County Road Trip


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rushing river with grey rocks and pine trees on either side in 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

Tuolumne County makes the PERFECT stopover on a road trip from San Francisco to Yosemite.

Packed with history and heritage, epic landscapes and lots of easily accessible nature, Tuolumne County is a fantastic road trip destination all on its own.

But it also happens to be the gateway to Yosemite: home to more than half of the National Park – including one of the main entrances. So it’s a great destination to visit for a few days on your way to explore Yosemite.

Tuolumne County can be divided into three main areas. First is Gold Rush Country, full of historic, Old-West towns founded during the famous California Gold Rush. Next, the mountainous High Sierras – perfect for hiking and nature days – and finally the Yosemite area.

Short on time? There’s a short overview of the road trip itinerary and all the stops at the very bottom of the page. Otherwise, keep reading for all the details you need to plan the perfect Tuolumne County Road Trip. Happy travels…

READ MORE: 7 Reasons to Visit Tuolumne County California

Why Visit Tuolumne County on your San Francisco to Yosemite Road Trip

Yosemite National Park has 5 entrances to choose from, depending on where you’re approaching from and where you want to visit.

Two of these are in Tuolumne County, including the popular Big Oak Flat Entrance on Highway 120, which provides easy access to the Yosemite Valley loop. So driving through Tuolumne County on your San Francisco to Yosemite road trip just makes sense!

Plus, more than half of the National Park falls into Tuolumne County, including many lesser-known areas. So it’s easy to escape the crowds and have a slice of nature all to yourself. Read more in my post about why you should visit Tuolumne County.

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 in easy reach of Tuolumne County

4 Day Tuolumne County Road Trip

Below is my recommended itinerary for driving through Tuolumne County on the way to Yosemite. I recommend spending at least two days in San Francisco first, since that’s such a cool city (I’ll be publishing a separate guide soon).

  • Day 1 – San Francisco to Sonora
  • Day 2 – Explore Gold Country: Jamestown, Columbia State Park and more
  • Day 3 – Explore the High Sierras: Pinecrest Lake and Stanislaus National Forest
  • Day 4 – Explore the Yosemite area: Groveland, Hetch Hetchy, and surrounds.
  • Day 5 – Drive into Yosemite National Park

Tuolumne County Road Trip: Gold Country

Your Tuolumne County road trip starts in Gold County. Discover historic towns, Old West architecture, vintage railroads, and more….

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. Covered bridge at Indigeny Reserve in Tuolumne County California
Covered bridge at Indigeny Reserve (Stop 5)

1. Sonora

The largest town in Tuolumne County, Sonora makes a great base for exploring Gold Country. It was founded in 1850 by miners who hailed from the Mexican state of Sonora and retains much of its Old West charm.

The historic downtown area, in particular, is full of beautiful old buildings like the stunning Red Church (St. James Anglican Church). Built in 1859, it’s one of the oldest in the state.

exterior of a red painted saloon in Sonora Califoria with a wooden awning over the sidewalk and pot plants in front. the wooden hanging sign reads "Servente, grocery, liquor since 1926 & Saloon."

Today, many of these attractive old buildings are home to independent restaurants, bars, and cute boutiques. For drinks, don’t miss the trendy new Sonora Brewing Company for craft beers, or the historic Servente’s Saloon where the ceiling is covered in crumpled dollar bills (an old mining tradition).

I was also a big fan of The Armory, a super cool bar and restaurant with amazing cocktails, great food (especially the tacos), and a mix of indoor and outdoor seating.

Top tip: Sonora makes a great base for exploring the rest of Gold Country and the High Sierras. You could spend 1-2 nights in town and take day trips to the places mentioned below.

2. Columbia State Historic Park

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

For a more historic side of Gold Country, don’t miss a trip to Columbia State Historic Park. This is an actual town, dating from the 1850s, which was declared a state park in 1945 and has been preserved as a kind of “living museum”.

You can wander the streets to admire the historic architecture, visit a working blacksmiths, and even try your hand at panning for gold.

There are also several traditional-style shops to explore, including an old-fashioned sweet shop, a few clothes shops, and a photography studio where you can have a photoshoot in period costumes. I loved Ebler’s Leather & Saddlery Emporium, full of cowboy boots and western attire (I couldn’t resist picking up a Pendleton denim waistcoat!).

emily walking across a road in front of a red brick single storey building with a white sign that says St Cjharles Saloon. Emily is wearing a long red dress and a blue denim waistcoat and has her long hair loose.

For “vittles”, head to St Charles Saloon – an original gold rush saloon with a lovely beer garden. Alongside drinks, they serve the best pizzas in town (maybe in all Tuolumne). And DON’T miss the tater tots, served with a side of  Beer Cheese Fondue.

3. 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. At Railtown in Tuolumne County California

Calling all train and film fans (and anyone who can’t resist a cheesy photo op!). Don’t miss a trip to Railtown 1897 State Historic Park while you’re exploring Tuolumne!

This quirky state park is home to a huge collection of vintage steam trains and old railway buildings. 

It’s also known as “The Movie Railroad” because hundreds of movies and TV shows have been filmed here – most notably, Back to the Future 3 (one of my all-time favourites)!

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.

4. Jamestown

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.

While you’re visiting Railtown, don’t skip Jamestown itself. Like Sonora, this is another beautifully preserved Gold Rush town that’s full of gorgeous old buildings.

Walking down the high street feels a little like stepping back in time – or wandering through an Old West movie set! The historic Jamestown Hotel, dating from 1859, looks like the kind of place you might see the likes of Buffalo Bill or Butch Cassidy wandering out of – although in reality, the hotel was more popular with Spanish miners.

There are lots of cute independent shops and antique stores to explore along the high street – and don’t miss a trip to the Jamestown Frosty. This small retro diner is a local institution, known for its epic shakes and ice creams.

5. Indigeny Reserve

orchard with rows of small apple trees. there is a forest behind and blue sky above.
cellar with 3 rows of wooden cider barrels on either side beneath an arched wooden roof.

One last must-visit stop while you’re exploring Tuolumne’s Gold Rush country… be sure to swing by Indigeny Reserve.

This scenic, 160-acre preserve is home to a fantastic cider distillery. Visit for a tour of the distillery and the chance to taste the latest ciders (usually with some great names like “grannies gone wild”).

Be sure to factor in time to relax on the beautiful grounds overlooking the orchard. There are some great hiking and biking trails on the preserve, too – and the wooden covered bridge at the entrance makes a great photo op!

Tuolumne County Road Trip: High Sierras

6. Pinecrest Lake

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

This was one of my favourite stops on our Tuolumne County road trip. Surrounded by mountain peaks and pine forest, Pinecrest Lake is a dream destination for hiking and water activities.

There’s a hiking trail all around the lake. It’s a relatively flat and pretty easy walk – and crosses the dam and the Stanislaus River en route for some gorgeous views.

During summer, you can hire motorboats and kayaks to explore the lake. This is also a great way to reach the far side, from where you can pick up another great hiking trail: the hike to Cleo’s Bath.

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

This one is more of a challenge – following the river over uneven ground and through the pines. The final half mile involves scrambling over boulders and some pretty steep climbs (follow the blue arrows) – eventually reaching a natural pool at the top of a waterfall. The views back across the forest to Pinecrest Lake from up here are insane – but it’s not for the faint-hearted!

7. Cover’s Apple Ranch

slice of apple pie with the apple chunks spilling out between two scoops of white ice cream in a white china bowl

Swing by Cover’s Apple Ranch for lunch on your way back down from the Sierras. It’s a quaint little bakery and country-style restaurant on a working farm. They’re famous for their apple pies – so you HAVE to make sure you order at least a slice – but all the other food we tried was good too.

There’s also a small petting zoo where you can meet the farm animals and feed the goats. Plus, there’s a cute little miniature railroad which kids (and young-at-heart adults) can ride for views of the ranch and orchards.

Tuolumne County Road Trip: Yosemite Area

8. Groveland

exterior of the Iron Door Saloon in Groveland, a large buildign with a mural showing a cowboy on a horse on a blue background. There is an empty street in front and blue sky above. Groveland high street in Tuolumne County California

Groveland is the main “gateway town” for visiting Yosemite via the popular Big Oak Flat Entrance. It’s another historic Gold Rush town, centred around Main Street, where you’ll find lots of attractive buildings.

close up of two sticks of bread with a flight of mini beers behind and a bar out of focus behind that
Beer tasting at Around the Horn Brewing Company

Groveland highlights:

  • Iron Door Saloon – The oldest continually operating saloon in California, dating back to 1852.
  • Around the Horn Brewing Company – A brilliant microbrewery with a fun range of craft beers sold on tap and in cans. You can create your own flight to try a few different ones – they also serve some tasty, seasonal dishes (I HIGHLY recommend the pretzel sticks – served with Around The Horn Beer Cheese).
  • Mountain Sage Coffee – A super cute little cafe with a lovely garden. A few others in my group headed here for an early breakfast and had only good things to say about it.
  • Groveland Yosemite Gateway Museum – If you’re road-tripping to Yosemite, this little museum in Mary Laveroni Park is a must-visit. Learn about the region’s indigenous peoples, the Gold Rush pioneers, and the development of the nearby Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.

Top Tip: Groveland makes a great base for exploring the Yosemite National Park and the rest of Tuolumne’s Yosemite area. You can spend 1-2 nights in town (or nearby) and take day trips into the National Park or to the places listed below.

9. Miller’s Off-Road Adventures

Emily standing leaning on a bright yellow jeep with pine forest behind and clewar blue sky above. She is wearing black leggings and a dark green jumper and has her hair in plaits.

While you’re in Groveland, don’t miss the awesome off-roading experience with Miller’s Off-Road Adventures. This was easily one of the highlights of my Tuolumne County road trip!

Hop in a jeep and follow your guides into the Stanislaus National Forest. Dirt roads, tight S-bend curves, and incredible views – all miles from the crowds of Yosemite. You might also be lucky enough to see some wildlife. We spotted several deer leaping away through the trees.

If you’re unsure about driving off-road, don’t worry: one of Miller’s experienced drivers can take the wheel for you. I’m a pretty nervous driver, but I gave it a go – and absolutely LOVED it.

10. Hetch Hetchy Reservoir

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

Tuolumne County’s share of Yosemite National Park has many of these lesser-known (and therefore much quieter) areas. Among the highlights is Hetch Hetchy Reservoir: a huge, vivid-blue lake framed by dramatic granite peaks.

The views here are pure Yosemite – with a fraction of the crowds. Hiking trails lead around the lake to thundering waterfalls – or out into the wider Hetch Hetchy Valley to hidden meadows and lakes. Click here for a map.

Don’t miss the O’Shaughnessy Dam, added in 1923. Look over the edge to watch the water thundering out of the spillway (if it’s open).

Although controversial when it was first built, today the Reservoir is the primary water source for the San Francisco Bay Area (some 2.7 million residents). Two plants downstream also provide hydroelectric power.

Of course, you’ll likely want to explore the classic Yosemite Valley loop and see the famous sights first. But I urge you to factor in an extra day for your Yosemite road trip to visit some of these lesser-known spots.

11. Spa at Rush Creek Lodge

large rectangular hot tub set into the ground surroudnedby grey tiles with a rock wall ont he left where a mini waterfall runs into the hot tub. Beyond the tub is a view of pine forest on a sunny day with clear blue sky behind the trees.

Round off your time in Groveland with a trip to the incredible spa at Rush Creek Lodge.

This beautiful mountain resort is just a five-minute drive from the Big Oak Flat Entrance, so it would also make a great stop-off at the end of a day exploring Yosemite (even better – stay at Rush Creek for the easiest access!).

interior of a spa with pine wood walls and cielings with a double bed hanging from the cieling on ropes. There is a light grey mattress on the bed. Spa at Rush Creek Lodge Tuolumne County California

The small-but-mighty spa is tucked into the back of the lodge overlooking the forest. So even though you’re on a busy resort – it feels like you’re in the middle of nowhere! Facilities were inspired by Yosemite’s nature: expect warm waterfall showers, aromatherapy Steam Room, Himalayan Salt Sauna and a cool mist room designed to reflect the mist at the base of Yosemite falls.

Outside, there’s a terrace with gorgeous forest views (wildlife sightings are not uncommon), a large hot tub, and recliners – including a hanging day bed. Pop on some of the complimentary under-eye masks, lay back, and RELAX!

Where to Stay on your Tuolumne County Road Trip

Sonora

interior of the Sonora Inn lounge with whitewashed walls and dark wooden beams on the cieling. there is a grey sofa in the centre of the room and six framed photographs in a grid on the wall
The historic lounge at Sonora Inn

Sonora Inn – This cosy inn on Sonora’s charming high street was built in 1896 – so it’s perfect if you want to immerse yourself in Gold Rush history. There are black and white photos on the walls, and the inn is rumoured to be haunted.

When I stayed at the Sonora Inn, the rooms were currently being refurbished and still felt a bit tired in spots. But when they’re done, this should be a lovely place to stay.

Groveland

interior of a wooden lodge with large windows opening onto a view of a forest. There is a large black leather corner sofa in the lounge in front of a stone fireplace.
Lillaskog Lodge

Lillaskog Lodge – if you’re a big group, this gorgeous Swedish-style lodge a short drive from Groveland could be perfect. It has 7 bedrooms, 7 bathrooms and beds for at least 18 people. Click here to watch my Reel for a full tour of the property.

Rush Creek Lodge and Spa – This has to be one of the best places to stay en route to Yosemite (or even as a base for exploring the National Park). It’s right on Highway 120, a 5-minute drive from the Big Oat Flat entrance. A big outdoor pool, a gorgeous spa, a fantastic restaurant… what more could you possibly need?

Evergreen Lodge – Escape it all at this gorgeous resort on the edge of Yosemite, with 88 spacious cabins scattered amongst the woodlands. There’s a pool, a cosy rec centre, a brilliant restaurant and a historic 100-year-old tavern.

Tuolumne County Road Trip: The Quick Version

First day – Explore Gold Rush Country (stops 1-5)
Second day – Head into the High Sierras for hiking and nature (stops 6 & 7)
Third day – Explore Groveland and the quieter areas of Yosemite National Park (stops 8-11). Although this can be squeezed into one day, two would be better.

  1. Sonora – cute independent shops and eateries (a good base for exploring the area).
  2. Columbia State Historic Park – old-west-style Gold Rush town preserved as a living museum with real shops and streets.
  3. Railtown – historic trains and railway buildings, plus a working steam railway.
  4. Jamestown – pretty town full of classic Gold Rush architecture.
  5. Indigeny Reserve – local cider makers.
  6. Pinecrest Lake – boating, kayaking and hiking.
  7. Cover’s Apple Ranch – a great stop for lunch (don’t miss the apple pie!)
  8. Groveland – historic Gold Rush town in the mountains, a great base for exploring Yosemite National Park.
  9. Miller’s Off-Road Adventures – jeep tours of the Stanislaus National Forest.
  10. Hetch Hetchy Reservoir – pure Yosemite landscapes (with way fewer crowds).
  11. Rush Creek Lodge – unwind at this mountain resort’s stunning spa.

READ MORE: 7 Reasons to Visit Tuolumne County

Are you planning a road trip through Tuolumne County? Scroll down to leave a comment if you have any questions – or any great recommendations of your own.





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