Mention California and the mind inevitably drifts to palm-fringed beaches, Beverley Hills mansions and the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. Los Angeles and San Francisco might be the gateways to the USA’s third largest state, but like any great destination there’s more to the sunshine state than the well-trodden tourist trails and the dazzling lights of Hollywood.
The lure of a Pacific Coast Highway road trip may be strong, but if you’re planning on a Thelma & Louise trek across the state, consider throwing in a detour from the CA-1. A mere two and half hours east of San Francisco, Tuolumne County might just be Cali’s best-kept secret. It’s a different world to the California of The OC and La La Land; with breathtaking scenery, endless pine forests and some of the purest air you’ll ever breathe, this is the California of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, the land of Yosemite, Gold Country and the High Sierra and the ideal destination for a life-affirming solo adventure to clear the mind.
What do you pack for your Californian adventure? Lisa gives us the must-pack items.
What to do?
This is a county of outdoor adventures and exploration. While the area comes alive with the first signs of spring and throughout the scorching summer months all the way through Fall, the snow capped mountains and frozen waterfalls of the winter months provide a dazzling show of nature.
Tick Yosemite National Park off the Bucket List
With over half of Yosemite National Park (and we should mention it’s the less crowded half…) located in Tuolumne County, it’s no surprise that it’s known as the gateway to this US wonder. Highway 120 through Tuolumne Country is the most direct route into the park from the San Francisco Bay Area, Sacramento and all of Northern California and takes you right into Yosemite’s heart. While the valley floor might be the main draw, spend your time discovering some of the lesser crowded areas. Hike the stunning Hetch Hetchy reservoir and discover its waterfalls, pay a visit to the staggering Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias or stop by the subalpine Tuolumne Meadows, ringed by imposing granite cliffs and domes. In summer, the YARTS bus heads straight into the park from Jamestown to the Yosemite Visitor Center, a starting point for some incredible hikes including the famous Half Dome, if you’re up for the challenge.
Sharpen your ski skills
California isn’t synonymous with skiing, yet Tuolumne County’s Dodge Ski Resort offers 862 skiable acres with 61 runs, 12 lifts and an all mountain winter sports area with downhill skiing, snowboarding, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing within a family-owned resort that’s been a favourite since 1950. Website
Take in the High Sierra on horseback
When it comes to once in a lifetime experiences, horseback riding through the rugged pine forests of the High Sierra has to be among the best. Kennedy Meadows Resort & Packstation offers a dose of the cowboy life with hour and a quarter long meadow rides, half day treks or a full day on horseback, taking in alpine scenery and mountain views, where all you’ll here are the gushing river and the sounds of the forest. Blissful. Rides from $25 from April to October. Website
Live out your Dirty Dancing dreams at Pinecrest Lake
Pay a visit to Pinecrest Lake in the summer months and you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d stepped through the gates of Kellerman’s. This picture postcard scene, fringed with pine trees, is the kind of location dreams are made of. Spend your days lounging on the shore, catching an outdoor movie from the Pinecrest Theatre, kayaking the crystal clear waters or exploring the surrounding Stanislaus National Forest. Website
What To See
Looking at Sonora’s high street it’s no surprise this adorable Gold Rush-era town has been the set of many a movie. Stop by the Saturday morning farmer’s market for delicious local produce, trawl the town’s thrift stores for vintage cowboy boots and make time to visit the stunning Indigeny Reserve ranch (www.indigenyreserve.com) to sample their crisp hand-crafted cider. Unwind at the Amala Detox & Tea Lounge (www.amaladetox.com) downtown with their signature detoxifying foot soak or unleash your creativity under the tutelage of local artist Judy Grossman, who runs painting workshops at her Brush & Cork studio (www.brushandcork.com).
The site of California’s first Gold Rush, Columbia State Historic Park has stayed preserved as it was in 1850; what it lacks in modern must-haves it more than makes up for in charm, with a saddlery packed to the rafters with authentic leather jackets, an original saloon and quite possibly the best chicken pot pie you’ll ever taste, courtesy of Columbia Kate’s Teahouse. Website
Where to Stay
Tuolumne County may not have the razzmatazz and five star luxe of LA or San Fran, but its quaint guesthouses and forest escapes more than make up for it.
McCaffrey House House Bed & Breakfast
Just outside Twain Harte, a 15 minute drive from Sonora, this inn is famed for its hearty breakfasts. Rooms, some with balconies overlooking the forest, feature black iron stoves for added cosiness and the added bonus of a massage menu. Website
The Lazy Z Resort
Escape to one of Lazy Z’s private cottages for some R&R, set amongst 40 acres of peaceful mountain hideaway. Website
The Sonora Inn
This historic stalwart of downtown Sonora has been in town since 1896, luring many a celebrity over the years from Grace Kelly to Drew Barrymore. Recently under new ownership, they’re about to undertake and extensive renovation to include a farm to table restaurant, craft cocktail lounge, spa and fitness centre and a library, so expect big things from its next chapter. Website
A beautifully quaint Groveland getaway opened in 1921, request room 12 for its open plan bathroom and spa tub, an essential after a day’s hiking in Yosemite. Website
For more information visit https://www.visittuolumne.com/