One Fine Weekend: Yosemite’s Gateway Towns
Once you step out of the celebrated national park, you’ll find a wonderland of Gold Rush charm and contemporary pleasures to explore.
Hitch a ride on a stagecoach in the Gold Rush town of Columbia.
Photo by Michael Sharps
Upwards of four million people flock to Yosemite National Park each year, the majority beelining to the park’s famous eight-square-mile valley floor. For those who can’t handle a full weekend of outdoor adventures, though, maybe one day there is enough. Spend your remaining time exploring the delightful Gold Country towns of Tuolumne County—Groveland, Columbia, Jamestown, and Sonora—dotting the park’s eastern border. They serve as the perfect staging area for an early-morning excursion to Yosemite while offering a fun, offbeat mix of history, gastronomy, and comfort.
Located 30 minutes from the park’s northern entrance, Groveland makes for a great strategic base. It is home to two historical—and recently renovated—inns. Each of the 15 rooms in the century-old Hotel Charlotte is unique, showcasing both old-timey charm and modern amenities like bamboo floors, comfy mattresses, and free wi-fi. Owners Jenn and Doug Edwards recently took over the landmark Groveland Hotel, too, and this spring completed an extensive face-lift of the 1849-era structure, with wraparound balconies and even a Tesla charging station. The hotel’s new Groveland Provisions offers grab-and-go breakfast items as well as lunch supplies to bring on your adventures.
Get your coffee or tea fix at the quirky Mountain Sage, which combines a cozy labyrinthine interior with an oasislike back garden. Later, grab a nightcap at Iron Door Saloon, claimed to be California’s oldest continually operating tavern—which first swung open its cast-iron doors back in 1852. hotelcharlotte.com, groveland.com, facebook.com/mountainsagecoffee, iron-door-saloon.com.
Want history and fun? Situated about 30 miles north of Groveland, Columbia State Historic Park bridges the divide with a look into the region’s Gold Rush roots. Columbia’s movie set–quality, 150-plus-year-old downtown is filled with period shops, hotels, and saloons—with shopkeepers dressed to match. Guided tours are offered on weekends (and weekdays in the warmer months). You can also poke around on your own: There’s a mother lode of treasures to unearth, including a working blacksmith’s forge, horse-pulled stagecoach rides, gold panning, and a fifth-generation candy shop. visitcolumbiacalifornia.com.
To take in the scenery from a more relaxed perspective, tour the ruggedly handsome Sierra foothills at Railtown 1897 State Historic Park in nearby Jamestown. Forty-five-minute excursions on vintage locomotives are available on weekends from April through October. railtown1897.org.
Third-wave coffee? Wood-fired pizza? Artisan distillery? Check, check, and check. Return to contemporary times in resurgent Sonora, which boasts urban-hip amenities to go with its historic downtown. It’s got your almond milk Gibraltar covered at the sleek Union Hill Coffee. Meanwhile, at Emberz restaurant, everything from the thin-crust Margherita pizza to the thick-cut, 22-ounce tomahawk bone-in rib eye is cooked in the 800-degree wood oven. And the 160-acre, picnic-friendly preserve and apple orchard at Indigeny Reserve cider works and distillery makes for an idyllic spot to while away an afternoon. You may even forget the renowned national park next door. unionhillcoffee.com, emberzzz.com, indigenyreserve.com.