Unmissable Things To Do in Gold Country – A Travel Guide to Tuolumne County, California
From incredible towns frozen in time to delicious cider and wine tasting, to fun steam train rides and Gold Rush era saloons. There is something for everyone in Tuolumne County, California, so here are some of the things to do in Gold Country that you shouldn’t miss.
Table of Contents
- 1 Where is Tuolumne County?
- 2 Things to do in Gold Country
- 2.1 Go back in time in Columbia State Historic Park
- 2.2 Take a historic train ride in Railroad 1897
- 2.3 Taste locally grown wine in Jamestown
- 2.4 Taste and learn about cider with Indigeny Reserve
- 2.5 Buy a book from a bookshop in an old gold mine
- 2.6 Enjoy a drink in the oldest saloon in California
- 2.7 Stay in a haunted Gold Rush era hotel
- 3 Where to eat in Tuolumne County
- 4 Where to Stay in Tuolumne County
- 5 Best time to visit Tuolumne County
- 6 How to get to and around Tuolumne County
- 7 Planning your trip to Tuolumne County
- 8 Check out my other California articles
- 9 Read my other USA articles
- 10 Like this post? Pin and save for later
Where is Tuolumne County?
I have to admit that I hadn’t heard for Tuolumne (pronounced ‘too-WAH-la-me’) County until the local tourism board invited me to discover their Gold Rush historic towns and stunning nature. I’ve always found the California Gold Rush a fascinating topic so, of course, I jumped at the opportunity, and when I found out that over half of Yosemite National Park was located within Tuolumne County I got even more excited about this trip.
And what a surprise it was! I went from not knowing anything about it to being completely obsessed by it, its history, its food, its beauty and the friendliness of its people. But where is Tuolumne County?
Tuolumne County is located at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, around 2.5 hours east from San Francisco Bay area. And it’s the perfect destination for those interested in the history of the largest mass migration in American history, the California Gold Rush, those looking to explore Yosemite away from the crowds, or for those looking for a bit of High Sierra adventure.
Tuolumne County has so much to offer that the more time you spend here the better. So to help you plan your trip, let’s get started with some things to do in Gold Country that anyone visiting shouldn’t miss.
Things to do in Gold Country
Tuolumne County is rich in history, with plenty of historic Gold Rush towns to explore, where you can travel back in time to the Old West. But these towns are not ghosts from the past. They are alive and kicking and you can discover what makes them breathe and thrive nowadays, as well as learn about their fascinating past.
Go back in time in Columbia State Historic Park
Columbia is the best preserved Gold Rush town in California, so it’s probably the best place to start if you’d like to get a good overview of the history of Gold Country.
Gold was discovered here in 1850, and today the town is a State Historic Park where you can find the state’s largest collection of Gold Rush era structures and immerse yourself in authentic California history. Here you will find shops, exhibits and all sorts of activity from the 1850s.
Visit the blacksmith shop, enjoy the aroma of the candle and soap store, shop for leather cowboy boots and jackets, and even take a photo in a Gold Rush era costume. And one of the highlights for me was tasting the delicious treats (especially the marshmallows) of Nelson’s Columbia Candy Kitchen, which has been running for five generations.
Access to the park is free and businesses are open between 10am and 5pm, with restaurants, saloons and the theatre closing later.
Take a historic train ride in Railroad 1897
When the Sierra Railway arrived in Jamestown and Sonora in 1897, linking the ‘Southern Mines’ with Tuolumne City, the area enjoyed its second heyday. Railroad 1897 State Historic Park brings this era back to life, where you can take a tour of the roadhouse complex, with its historic locomotives, including the famous Sierra No 3, which has been featured in more than 300 films and TV shows such as Back to the Future III, Unforgiven, Lassie and Bonanza.
Railtown 1897 is known as ‘The Movie Railroad’ and here you can also find many movie props like smokestacks, headlights and stations signs.
Don’t miss the steam train rides at weekends between April and October. Take a 45-minute ride through the rugged hillsides of California’s Mother Lode country and one of the best things to do in Gold Country.
Admission to the Park is $5 and train rides are $15, which includes access to the Park.
Taste locally grown wine in Jamestown
Everyone knows that California has some of the best wineries in the world, and Tuolumne County and the surrounding region is no exception.
While you are in Jamestown, make sure you stop by Gianelli Vineyards Tasting Room, a local winery that specialises in Italian grape varieties, all grown in their Jamestown estate. A tasting of five wines is only $5, a bargain if you ask me!
If one wine tasting session is not enough, head to Inner Sanctum Cellars, whose wines were voted Best Local Wines in 2017. Their tasting room offers award-winning wines produced with locally grown grapes, which you can enjoy from Thursday to Sunday for $7 for seven wines plus one wine cocktail.
Taste and learn about cider with Indigeny Reserve
But it’s not just about the wine in Tuolumne County. Nestled in the hills of historic Sonora you will find a 160 acre preserve and apple orchard. The ciderworks and distillery of Indigeny Reserve have become one of the top things to do in Gold Country, with their sustainability and eco-friendly ethos.
You can visit their award-winning cider and brandy tasting bar, where you can taste four different ciders and one apple brandy. My favourite, and possibly the best cider I’ve ever tasted, was their original hard cider. You can really taste the apple!
If you are interested in the process of making cider and brandy, you can also have a tour of the double-pot distillery, where you can learn about apple fermentation.
Buy a book from a bookshop in an old gold mine
Founded in 1848, Sonora was one of the first mining camps in Gold Country, and it became one of the largest and most prosperous. The town, known as ‘Queen of the Southern Mines’, was built on the wealth generated by mining, and this heritage is still present. Walk along the main street, Washington Street, and you will see buildings from the Gold Rush era as well as other architectural styles – Victorian, Mission and even Art Deco.
But going back to the Gold Rush era, there is one vestige of its mining past which has now become one of the quirky things to do in Gold Country. A visit to Legends is a must for any visitors to Sonora. At first sight, Legends Books, Antiques & Soda Fountain is a charming bar, but it hides a secret underneath. Part of the old gold mine shafts that run below the surface of the town has been converted into a bookshop. Buy a book, grab a coffee or a soda and sit down to enjoy this unique and enchanting place.
Enjoy a drink in the oldest saloon in California
Located in the small Gold Rush town of Groveland, the Iron Door Saloon is the oldest continuously operating saloon in California – since 1852. It still has the original bar and it’s a very popular tourist attraction.
The ceiling is covered in dollar bills and rumour has it that the tradition of sticking your own dollar bill to it was started by miners as an insurance policy. They would write their names on the bill, so when they came back from the mines, they always had enough for their first drink whether they had money or not. You can have a go at adding your own – just throw it up and hope it sticks!
Stay in a haunted Gold Rush era hotel
The Gold Rush era was a lawless and tough time for those who made the long journey to try their luck with the Mother Lode. And there is a certain amount of energy in the area that transports you back to that time.
It’s no surprise then that there are a few haunted hotels in Gold Country, and if you are brave enough, you should try and stay in one of them. After all, how many opportunities does life throw at you where you have the chance to meet a friendly Gold Rush miner or a grieving soul?
The Historic National Hotel in Jamestown was built in 1859, and has survived two damaging fires and gone through a few changes the years. It was a speakeasy through prohibition, a brothel, a gambling parlour and it’s now back to being a hotel with a resident ghost – Flo. Flo is the friendly ghost of a lady who run away to get married with the love of his life. However, the marriage never took place as her fiancé was accidentally shot the day before the wedding. She sadly died in one of the hotel rooms of a broken heart and now enjoys playing pranks on the hotel guests.
The Groveland Hotel is another hotel with a permanent lodger. Lyle was a miner who used to live in Room 15 (now 115), and he liked it so much that he decided to stay after his passing. He is a bit particular about his room, so when the hotel was renovated, his room was left in the original style to avoid upsetting him. If you stay in this room, you might find that he moves anything you place on top of the dresser, he opens and closes the tap, and if you read late at night, he will dim the lights for you.
I was actually given this room when I stayed at The Groveland, but the idea of being woken up in the middle of the night by running water petrified me so I ended up changing rooms! Call me chicken, but it was beyond me!
Where to eat in Tuolumne County
Pickle pizza, apple pies and snickerdoole cookies – Tuolumne County was more of a food revelation than I ever expected. Here are a few of the eateries I visited and highly recommend.
Alicia’s Sugar Shack, Twain Harte
Specialised in pastries and cookies, Alicia has been running her Sugar Shack for over 13 years. Everything is baked and cooked onsite, and as well as serving delicious breakfast and lunch, she also has a full Espresso Bar with excellent coffee from a Portland roaster. Don’t leave without trying her snickerdoodle cookies!
Address: Alicia’s Sugar Shack, 24191 State Highway 108, Twain Harte, CA 95383
The Rock, Twain Harte
Located opposite the famous Mug of Twain Harte landmark, The Rock is a family owned and run pub that specialises in baby back ribs and burgers. I can personally recommend their buffalo gorgonzola burger with sweet potato fries. Indulgent and really tasty!
Address: The Rock, 23068 Fuller Road, Twain Harte, CA 95383
Cover’s Apple Ranch, Tuolumne
When it comes to anything apple related, Cover’s has you covered. In fact, visiting Cover’s was the food highlight of my trip to Tuolumne County. Most of the apple trees in the ranch were planted in 1929 and, after changing hands a few times, it was owned and run by the Cover family between 1959 and 1971, and it’s been back into the family’s hands again since 1989.
Everything is made in-house, even their delicious non-alcoholic apple cider. Their mile-high apple pies are legendary, but the best apple dessert I’ve ever tried has to be their apple dumpling. Truly mouthwatering!
Address: Cover’s Apple Ranch, 19211 Cherokee Rd, Tuolumne, CA 95379
St Charles Saloon, Columbia
The St Charles Saloon is an original Gold Rush era saloon located in the town of Columbia, now a Historic State Park. Famous for its pizzas, said to be the best in the County, and its calzones, it’s a great place to stop for lunch on your visit to Columbia. They serve a few quirky dishes too, like pickle pizza, which I was a bit sceptical about but it actually works! Especially when washed down with a glass of Columbia sarsaparilla.
Address: St Charles Saloon, 22801 Main St, Columbia, CA 95310
Mountain Sage Coffee and Nursery, Groveland
Mountain Sage is a combination of a coffee shop, gallery, retail store and garden nursery. Located in a historic 1867 family homestead in the Gold Rush town of Groveland, this quirky cafe serves homemade cakes and interesting coffee combinations, like lavender latte – I’m still deciding whether I liked it or not. The cakes, however, were really yum!
Address: Mountain Sage Coffee and Nursery, 18653 Main Street, Groveland, CA 95321
The Service Station, Jamestown
If you are a fan of craft beer, then The Service Station is for you. The Service Station has 14 on tap for you to try, as well as a selection of local wines. Located in Jamestown’s Main Street, this is a great spot for brunch at weekends. Their Service Station Breakfast Sandwich is a delight and will set you up for the day.
Address: The Service Station, 18242 Main Street, Jamestown CA 95327
Where to Stay in Tuolumne County
Lazy Z Resort, Twain Harte
Think idyllic cabin in the woods but with all the luxury and comfort of a highly rated hotel. Lazy Z Resort gives you that feeling of being in the wilderness without having to compromise. Their cabins come with fully equipped kitchens, baths, fireplaces and cable TV. There’s a natural design pool with waterfalls, a cabana bar and a clubhouse. I stayed in the Sugar Pine cabin, which sleeps 6, but they have cabins of all sizes for 2, 4, 6 or 8 people.
Hotel Charlotte, Groveland
Located in the heart of Groveland, Hotel Charlotte is a boutique Old West hotel that has been sympathetically renovated to bring it up to the demands of the 21st century, while keeping its original charm. I didn’t stay here, but it came highly recommended. And if my experience with its sister hotel, The Groveland, is anything to go by, then you’ll be in good hands.
Jamestown Hotel, Jamestown
Built in 1858, the Jamestown Hotel was rebuilt a few times after a number of fires razed it to the ground. After the Great Depression it became a hospital and it went back to being a hotel in the 1950s. A place full of history, you will be able to relive the by-gone Gold Rush era by staying here but without giving up on modern day comfort.
Evergreen Lodge, Camp Mather
Located on the edge of Yosemite National Park, Evergreen Lodge is perfect to explore both Gold Country and the natural wonders of the park. The Lodge has been running since the early 1920s and offers 88 cabins scattered through 20 acres of pine woods. There are also a lot of recreation activities on offer, so you are guaranteed not to get bored here.
Rush Creek Lodge, Highway 120
The new sister property of Evergreen, Rush Creek Lodge is located within the boundaries of Yosemite National Park. If you stay here, you will very likely want to explore the park, and the Lodge caters for this by offering tours, hikes, whitewater rafting and even stargazing! But it’s also a great base to explore the Gold Country towns. Rush Creek offers Lodge Rooms, Suites and Villas with all the comfort you’d expect from a high quality establishment.
Best time to visit Tuolumne County
Tuolumne County can be visited any time of the year. The diversity of its landscapes is evident throughout the seasons, with the foothills turning a vibrant green in the spring, golden in the summer, and intense red-ish golden in the autumn.
Between late November and end of April you will find snow above 5,000ft (1,500m), with average temperatures as low as -2C. You will need to be prepared for the snow and the cold during this time.
Highway 120, which goes to Yosemite NP and into Yosemite Valley, is open all year. However, other mountain passes such as Tioga Pass and Sonora Pass are closed over winter and on some roads you are advised to use chains in the mountains. Always check for any weather warnings before you set off on your journey.
How to get to and around Tuolumne County
Hiring a car is definitely the best option to get to Tuolumne County, and to explore the area. Sadly, public transport is not really an option here, and California is prime road trip country after all.
You can hire a car your car from Hertz at either San Jose or San Francisco airports, and take the 205 and 120 Highways all the way to Tuolumne County. It takes about 2.5 hours.
Planning your trip to Tuolumne County
I hope this post has given you enough inspiration to visit Tuolumne County and for the best things to do in Gold Country.
Let me know in the comments if you have any questions!
Check out my other California articles
Read my other USA articles
Like this post? Pin and save for later
Disclosure: A big thank you to Visit Tuolumne, who hosted me on this trip. As always, all views are my own.