California's Dreamy Gold Country Is So Much More Than Yosemite
Plus, a way to beat Yosemite's new reservation policy.
Theodore Roosevelt was onto something when he declared, “There can be nothing in the world more beautiful than the Yosemite.” Now, the Old Bull Moose's spot is completely blown up to the tune of 4 million annual visitors in normal times. With the pandemic forcing the park to limit access on a reservations-only basis, Yosemite is one of the hottest tickets in the country for road trippers. Yet despite demand, the chances of scoring entry are pretty slim.
But if you find yourself denied access to Half Dome, don't fret. Just outside of the park in the Sierra Nevada Mountains is a historic part of California most tourists don’t even realize exists. In Southern Gold Country, the nature's just as stunning, the Old West charm is abundant, and the options for adventure are endless.
Established during the gold rush of 1849 -- and still complete with remarkably preserved boom towns -- this mostly rural expanse is a place where waterfall cut a swath through dense forests of giant sequoias. Here, Yosemite's most iconic sights can still be spied from a distance, either from the road or at the end of a brisk peak. Craft beer can be enjoyed in crystal mountain lakes, and there's even an overlooked wine country to be explored.
Gold Country is prime road-trip territory. Each spot on this list is worthy of a trip. Taken together, they point to a destination everybody seems to be sleeping on. Here's what you're missing.
Explore giant sequoias and a mini Lake Tahoe
Bass Lake and Oakhurst
For the first leg of your trip, spend a day or two relaxing at Bass Lake, a 4.5 x .5-mile mini Tahoe surrounded by thick forests and mountain views. There are a number of campgrounds in the area, but if you’re into things like beds and hot showers, hunker down at The Pines Resort, the only lakeside hotel in the area. The hotel also offers up cabins and lakeside suites, but regardless of your lodging you’ll have access to boat rentals, watersports, fishing, waterfall hikes, two restaurants with outdoor dining, a market, and more.
If you rent a boat -- and you should -- take it across the lake and grab lunch on the patio at Miller’s Landing, where you can feast on a charbroiled burger and sundaes served in buckets. You should also grab lunch on your way in or out of town at South Gate Brewing Company in Oakhurst: The Philly cheesesteak with house made beer cheese is a showstopper, and is perfect for soaking up a flight of beer.
This is also a region extremely famous for its titanic trees. Getting to the most famous cluster, Yosemite’s Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoia, is a tough prospect with free shuttles on hold and park access restricted. But Yosemite doesn’t have a monopoly on the world’s most massive trees (and longest-lived organisms on earth). Head to the almost secret Sequoia Grove instead to experience these ancient wonders without bumping into crowds.
Sierra Nevada Motorsports will help make that all happen with guide-focused 4x4 tours or self-guided UTV adventures; either way you’ll have a knowledgeable guide to give you the lowdown, which includes a hike to the 22nd largest giant sequoia in the world, as well as get an up close view of what the logging industry did to these trees in the late 1800s. You have to see the downed trees and how little of them were used in person to fully understand the tragedy.
Jump off of waterfalls and ride a horse through a creek
Just a short 15-mile drive from Bass Lake, the small town of Fish Camp is known for the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad, a historic railroad in the Sierra National Forest (steam-train tours are still running!), and its proximity to Yosemite.
If you want to visit the park while you’re in the area, the gorgeous Tenaya Lodge offers a loophole thanks to its daily Yosemite Tours. This is especially enticing right now, since park reservations -- capped at 1,999 visitors a day -- are nearly impossible to score. The tour takes place in a roll-top bus, and hits a ton of the “greatest hits,” including Tunnel View, Bridalveil, Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, and Valley View. You’re not going to be able to go on any long hikes or linger anywhere too long, but you’ll still have plenty of time to be amazed by the scenery.
Frankly, even if you aren’t planning to go to Yosemite, Tenaya is a great base camp or even a destination unto itself: There’s an outdoor pool, stunning mountain-bike trails through the Sierra National Forest, horseback rides in river canyons, and access to sprawling trailheads.
Outside the park, you can also explore the local waterfalls via an easy 5.5-mile hike along a tranquil stream that ends at a waterfall you can jump off of and/or just hang out by (pack a lunch). Usually this is a guided hike offered by Tenaya Lodge, but right now just ask the front desk for directions. Even though the waterfall is not frequented by many people, it’s still super easy to find.
Jump out of a plane, then bar crawl through history
If you enjoy the charm of a small town surrounded by natural beauty, plan to spend a day and night of your road trip in Mariposa, the southernmost town on California’s historic Gold Rush Trail and one of the few towns left in the state that doesn’t have a stoplight. Take a stroll around the streets of the Historic Old Town to see the Mariposa County Courthouse, which was built in 1854 and is California’s oldest courthouse still in operation. There’s also St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, a photogenic historic mid-19th century landmark.
Unfortunately, the museums are closed, but you know what’s way more fun than going to a museum? Jumping out of a plane and taking in views of Half Dome and El Capitan unlike anything most people will ever see. Sure, you’ve always known (hopefully?) that Yosemite Valley was carved out by glaciers, but as you ascend to 14,000 feet in Skydive Yosemite's tiny Cessna you’ll be able to truly take in what a feat that was. Celebrate your bravery with loaded fries, one of the best burgers in the county, and locally-brewed beer on 1850’s patio.
Before the night is over, get a drink or three at the Hideout Saloon, a dive bar with outdoor seating and dollar bill-covered 150-year old dry stack rock walls: Be sure to leave one to pay homage to the miners who stapled their money to the ceiling of bars so that they’d be sure to have enough to get home if they didn’t strike gold.
Pan for gold and hike on an inverted valley
Even though this trip is super affordable, you’ve gotta pay for it somehow. May we suggest doing so by panning for gold in the South Fork of the American River in Jamestown, 52 miles from Mariposa? If you forgot to pack your gold pan, don’t stress; you can find them in shops around town.
This town is where gold was first discovered in Tuolumne County, and is now a California Historical Landmark. Book a room with a balcony at the (possibly haunted) very old-timey Jamestown Hotel, then enjoy drinks overlooking Main Street.
You’ll also want to check out Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, which is open for self-guided tours (but not rides). Still, you can check out vintage steam trains, a working roundhouse, and find out why it’s dubbed “the movie-star railroad.” Back to the Future Part III was partially filmed here, and there are some props still on display. (Sadly, none is a Delorean.) The historic downtown, too, was the site of many movies and TV shows -- so much so that it has its own walk of fame.
If you’re looking for a little exercise, Table Mountain is a view-heavy hike (with an abundance of wildflowers in the spring) made even cooler by the fact that it was created by lava filling a river bed that, with a little help from erosion, eventually turned into an inverted valley.
Go wine tasting among the sequoias
Moaning Cavern is the largest single cave chamber in California and comes with a built-in dirty joke. Unfortunately, for now it’s closed. But don’t piss and moan too much, because there’s wine to serve as a balm on your disappointment. Lots of it.
Welcome to the California wine region you didn’t even realize existed, the antithesis of Napa. The town of Murphys is overflowing with the stuff, courtesy of 25+ tasting rooms dotting Main Street -- and thanks to their abundance of patios and converted parking lots, most are open (reservations are highly recommended at the moment). The microclimates in the Sierra Foothills AVA allow for all kinds of grape varieties, but the ones you’ll find the most of are zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon, and chardonnay. There are also a lot of nearby vineyards for those who prefer to taste their vino on the land where the grapes were grown.
Murphys is also a 20 minute drive from Calaveras Big Trees State Park, home to two giant sequoia groves, and the first place their existence was documented in writing, which happened in 1852 after Augustus T. Dowd stumbled upon the “Discovery Tree.” Like many stories about giant sequoias, this one is a little depressing: Soon after the discovery went mainstream, a group of dickheads came and cut the tree down to make a dance floor. Today, you can still see that tree’s stump, as well as the felled Pioneer Cabin Tree. Don't get too sad, though: the grove is thronged with monolithic trees.
And after, there's ice cream. JoMa’s Artisan Ice Cream on Main Street is a family-owned parlor that specializes in cant't miss small-batch artisan scoops. Embrace the theme of the trip and order a scoop or two of Salty River of Gold (dulce de leche caramel with salty ribbons of caramel) in a freshly made waffle cone. Then start plotting your return trip, content to know that even if you can't get into Yosemite, you've found your new vacation spot.