You’ve already explored Yosemite for a few days, so what else is there to see in the Sierra Nevada area? Well, I’m here to show you what else this beautiful region holds! Mountains, lakes, and Gold Rush historic towns— the surrounding area of Yosemite National Park is filled with rich places to explore.
There’s something for everyone here in California Gold Country, from antique shopping to wine tasting. And of course, you can’t forget about all of the outdoor activities you can spend your time doing.
Wondering what there is to do beyond Yosemite National Park? Look no further! Here’s your complete guide on things to do near Yosemite National Park, within California Gold Country, and in Tuolumne County.
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Table of Contents
YOSEMITE AREA: IN A NUTSHELL
Here’s a quick overview of all the useful info you need to plan an awesome trip!
- When To Go: Summer is the most popular, but also the most crowded. Visit during fall and spring to see a quieter and more dramatic side of Yosemite (spring for the gushing waterfalls and fall for the colorful foliage)!
- Where To Stay: Outside the park, one of my favorite lodges is Sierra Sky Ranch in Oakhurst. Rush Creek Lodge at Yosemite is another top choice of ours, just minutes from the Big Oak Flat entrance.
- Nearest Airport: The nearest international airport is San Francisco International Airport (SFO), ~190 miles from the park’s western entrance. This is likely the airport you’ll fly into. The nearest regional airport is the Fresno Yosemite International Airport (FAT), ~65 miles from the park’s southern entrance. But chances are, flights in/out of FAT will be expensive.
- How to Get Around: You can get around the Yosemite area on public transit, but we recommend having your own car (in the winter, don’t forget to bring chains). We recommend using Rentalcars.com to find the best deal!
- Must-Do’s: Walk a portion of the Mist Trail to see Vernal Falls, hike around the perimeter of Yosemite Valley, snap pics of Bridalveil Falls, Half Dome, and Yosemite Falls, and catch the sunset at Glacier Point.
- Before You Go: Grab your America The Beautiful National Parks Pass and pack that baby away into your suitcase or car — don’t forget it! If you decide you don’t want to bother driving yourself around the park, this full-day small-group tour is a great option for seeing Yosemite’s top highlights! IT conveniently departs from the towns of Fresno or Oakhurst.
FUN FACTS ABOUT CALIFORNIA GOLD COUNTRY
- The California Gold Rush (1848 – 1855) was a period in American history marked by the discovery of gold in the Sierra Nevada mountains of Central California and Northern California.
- Over hundreds of millions of years, volcanoes, tectonic shifts, and erosion all combined to generate billions of dollars’ worth of gold in the mountains of California.
- The California gold rush officially started on January 24, 1848, when gold was found by James W. Marshall at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, California.
- The news of gold brought approximately 300,000 people to California from the rest of the United States and abroad. This was a lot of people back then! In fact, this was one of the largest migrations in American history.
- California actually did not have the first gold rush in the US. That honor actually belongs to North Carolina. Fifty years before gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill, the first gold rush in American history started after a 17-pound gold nugget was found in Cabarrus County, North Carolina.
- Not all ’49ers came to California by covered wagon. Lots were arriving by ship! Because of people (ship passengers and crew alike) coming in droves with one-way tickets, early sections of San Francisco were built out of ships abandoned by prospectors.
- Back then if you had struck gold, you ordered a Hangtown Fry, an omelet cooked in bacon fat and topped with fried oysters. Supposedly, one lucky miner ordered this when he entered a restaurant and realized he could order absolutely anything he wanted on the menu. You can actually still find this dish at restaurants in San Francisco, CA!
15+ THINGS TO DO IN GOLD COUNTRY NEAR YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK
Ah, Tuolumne Meadows, a place that not many Yosemite visitors make the time to explore. What a shame, because it’s simply beautiful here. Tuolumne Meadows, accessible from Yosemite National Park, boasting amazing hiking and rock climbing opportunities.
Camping is also available at the Tuolumne Meadows campground. Why not stay the night and make the most out of your time here with mother nature?
COLUMBIA STATE HISTORIC PARK
Go back in time to the Gold Rush days of the mid-19th century at Columbia State Historic Park. Back in the 1850’s, Columbia was once the second-largest “metropolitan” city, right behind San Francisco! It was booming with gold miners looking for opportunities and riches.
This place is seriously amazing for history buffs and children alike. This park is a reenactment town and museum jumbled up into one unforgettable and immersive experience, featuring old-fashioned candy stores, restaurants, saloons, gold-panning areas, picnic areas, and old-timey gift shops.
There are also docents donning period costumes who put on public displays and host special events throughout the year.
RAILTOWN 1897 STATE HISTORIC PARK
Railtown 1897 State Historic Park is a living museum located in the town of Jamestown, California. The park is dedicated to preserving the history of the Sierra Railway, a historic railroad that operated in the Sierra Nevada region from the late 1800s to the mid-1900s.
The centerpiece of Railtown 1897 is the historic roundhouse, a large building that was used to service and repair locomotives. Visitors to the park can take a guided tour of the roundhouse and see the historic steam engines and other equipment that were used to operate the Sierra Railway.
In addition to the roundhouse, Railtown 1897 also features a variety of other historic buildings and exhibits, including a blacksmith shop, a machine shop, and a historic depot.
This park is also super popular for its Polar Express train rides in December. They house trains that have been featured in hundreds of TV shows and movies (including Back to the Future III and Little House on the Prairie).
Farmer’s markets are held in the warmer months on Saturdays in Sonora, CA. In addition to fresh produce, you can expect local honey, hames, jellies, nuts, plants, and various hand-crafted items.
There are also farmer’s markets in Tuolumne (Wednesdays), Columbia (Thursdays), and Twain Harte (Fridays).
SHOPPING / ANTIQUE SHOPPING
If you want to hunt for souvenirs, gifts, vintage treasure, or whimsical knick-knacks, look no further than Tuolumne County. This was one of my absolute favorite things to do outside of Yosemite National Park.
Go town-hopping between Sonora, Twain Harte, Groveland, and Jamestown—each town has its own quirks and architectural style that are worth seeing. The main streets of these small towns offer a variety of locally owned hobby shops, fashion boutiques, general stores, and antique shops.
Though the winery options are limited, the fact that they exist is a plus for wine lovers out there.
Check out Gianelli Vineyards, La Bella Rosa Vineyards, Inner Sanctum Cellars, and Yosemite Cellars.
Indigene Reserve is a 160-acre hard cider distillery nestled in an apple orchard in Sonora. There is a tasting room, hiking trails, and a gift shop here.
You can also check out Cover’s Ranch in Tuolumne, where you’ll find lots of apple cider, a bakery, gift shop, petting farm, and various desserts for sale.
BLACK OAK CASINO RESORT
Looking to test your luck? Black Oak Casino Resort offers a full range of casino gaming, along with several restaurants and bars. For family-friendly entertainment, there is a large arcade and bowling lanes here.
This is a good place to stay if you want to explore the Tuolumne area outside of Yosemite National Park.
Tuolumne County has so many lakes and reservoirs you can take advantage of. The larger reservoirs, include New Melones and Don Pedro, allow you to go speedboating and fishing. Pinecrest Lake offers various boat rentals including kayaks, paddleboats, sailboats, party boats, and motorboats. Other reservoirs to consider: include Beardsley, Cherry, Donnell, Hetch Hetchy, and Lyons.
One of the best places to hang out near Yosemite if you love golf and you’re looking for a different kind of outdoor relaxation. Four golf courses are located in Tuolumne County— Teleli Golf Club, Phoenix Lake Golf Course, Pine Mountain Lake Golf Club, and Twain Harte Golf Club.
Conveniently located just off Highway 120 on the way to Yosemite National Park, you will find Rainbow Pool. This area hosts natural swimming holes along the south fork of the Tuolumne River, where you can dip your feet or even jump off rocks and take a plunge.
This area is a popular picnic, swimming, hiking, and fishing spot among the locals.
Gods Bath is located deep in the Stanislaus National Forest, so it’s not the easiest spot to get to. However, this granite-clad swimming hole has a cliff-jump area and is worth the drive if you’re on the hunt for awesome swimming holes in California.
If you plan on visiting, why not hit two birds with one stone and pay Sonora, CA a visit too? It’s the closest town from God’s Bath.
Pro Tip: The drive to God’s Bath is a very windy one, and you can expect to walk a mile from the parking lot to get there.
A number of tour operators in Tuolumne County offer guided whitewater rafting trips in this area. Local favorites include Zephyr Whitewater Rafting and Sierra Mac River Trips, both offering a variety of whitewater rafting excursions including everything from float boats to Class 5 runs.
If you’re looking to raft or canoe on your own, head to the Tuolumne Wild and Scenic River or the Stanislaus River.
Experience the High Sierra the way the settlers first saw it–on horseback! I mean, who doesn’t want to catch a ride on a horse with such an amazing backdrop such as the Sierra Mountains?
Numerous stables offer trail rides and day tours. From leisurely half-hour rides to adventurous week-long pack trips into the Emigrant Wilderness–these stables offer it all. Pack stations such as Kennedy Meadows and Aspen Meadows offer those immersive adventures into the deep wilderness of Yosemite and Stanislaus National Forest.
DODGE RIDGE / LELAND SNOWPLAY
Ski resorts and snowplay areas are some of the best places near Yosemite in the snowier months. They offer wintertime recreational activities for all ages. Skiers and snowboarders can shred at the Dodge Ridge Ski Area (about 30 miles east of Sonora), while families can head to Leland High Sierra Snowplay (4 miles east of Strawberry) for tubing, sledding, and riding mini-snowmobiles.
BEST TOWNS TO VISIT IN GOLD COUNTRY, CA (NEAR YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK)
Sonora, one of the oldest cities in California, was incorporated on May 1, 1851. Like so many Gold Rush towns, Sonora was considered the wild, wild west where many carried a gun wherever they went. The beautiful historic buildings and homes in this town are evidence of how prosperous Sonora was in its prime.
Today, Sonora is the largest and liveliest of the California gold-rush town trio on California State Route 49 (Sonora, Columbia, Jamestown). Its main street is lively and entertaining, lined with gift shops, saloons, and many restaurants. The variety of storefronts is an eclectic mix, ranging from bakeries and coffee shops to old-timey bars, antique shops, and emporiums selling various goods. If you like old-fashioned candies, don’t miss The Candy Vault!
If you want to take a stroll through nature, consider spending an hour or two on Dragoon Gulch Trail, which gives visitors a unique opportunity to stroll through the Mother Lode’s oak woodlands. There’s also an awesome farmer’s market that takes place here on Saturday mornings.
Local Tip: Sonora and Columbia are both wild west towns that are situated relatively close to Yosemite National Park. Why not add these towns to your next Yosemite trip?
During the Gold Rush in the 1850s, Columbia grew to become the second-largest city in California behind San Francisco. Lucky for us, unlike most mining towns that flourished in the era and then evolved into ghost towns, this one is still a fully functional town.
Columbia State Historic Park is the main landmark to visit here. Not only is admission to the park free, but there are also free guided tours led by docents dressed up in period costumes. There are also free booklets for you to lead your own self-guided tour of the town.
This town and state park is brimming with history, as it hosts a collection of mid-19th-century buildings that now house restaurants, saloons, various shops (leather goods, candles, books), an ice cream parlor, and even a theater. Of course, what would a historic western town be without a gold-panning shack and stagecoach rides? Yes, you can enjoy these activities at Columbia State Historic Park!
Columbia is located four miles north of Sonora, so it’s a no-brainer to stop by after visiting Sonora. Read more about all the things you can do at Columbia State Historic Park.
Local Tip: Not many people know that you can also stay the night at one of the few historic hotels here.
A few miles southwest of Sonora lies Jamestown, another historic California gold rush town. Jamestown features a few blocks of historic buildings strung along their main street, which is now home to various shops, restaurants, and attractions. While you’re here, try your hand at gold panning at California Gold Company and Jamestown Gold Panning.
And by far the best attraction here is Railtown 1897 State Historic Park (mentioned above), which is the perfect place to spend a part of your day if you love trains and locomotives.
At Railtown, you absolutely cannot miss Sierra No. 3, a circa 1891 steam locomotive that’s made appearances in big-time movies such as Back to the Future Part III, Little House on the Prairie, and High Noon.
You can also Stroll along the local Walk of Fame, a walkway stretching between Rocca Park, downtown, and Railtown 1897, dotted with medallions featuring artists of many of the movies and TV shows filmed in the area. When you need a pick-me-up coffee or ice cream, make sure to stop by the half-coffeeshop, half-antique shop on the main street!
Murphys is another California Gold Rush town located between Lake Tahoe and Yosemite National Park, in Calaveras County, California. Yet another town beaming with ample gold rush history, Murphys today stands as a vibrant, thriving community, alive with art galleries and live theater, eclectic shops, fine restaurants, charming B&B’s, and a multitude of outdoor activities you can enjoy.
This town is within close proximity to Calaveras Big Trees State Park, which is a plus for those who want to explore nature. Some notable museums include Ironstone Heritage Museum and Murphys Old Time Museum. If you’re still not sick of history-rich establishments, there is also Angels Camp Museum nearby.
Are you a wine lover? Well, you could spend a whole day visiting local tasting rooms and vineyards around the area and still not be able to cross them all off your list. A few quality breweries also exist, including The Watering Hole and Murphys Pourhouse. Check out the list of offerings here.
Murphys is also home to a variety of annual events throughout the year, including Presidents Wine Weekend (February), Murphys Irish Day Parade and Street Fair (March), Taste of Calaveras (April), Jumping Frog Jubilee (May), and Grape Stomp (October).
Jackson, while situated a tad bit farther from Yosemite National Park (130 miles away), is another gold rush town that’s surely worth a visit if you’re going to be on a gold rush road trip!
Named after Colonel Alden Jackson, this town was founded in 1848. Most of Jackson, like many other gold rush towns, was destroyed by fire in 1862 and rebuilt, and many of the historic buildings you see today are from that era.
Don’t miss Jackson’s Historic Main Street, truly one of the most charming historical main streets out there! You’ll find antiques galore, art galleries, clothing boutiques, jewelry shops, and various gift stores.
Town highlights include the Amador County Museum, a vintage home with 15 exhibit rooms showcasing Mother Lode memorabilia, and the Kennedy Mine, once one of the richest mines in the Mother Lode! Mine tours and gold panning are offered from March to October.
While you’re here, don’t miss the self-guided historic walking tour, where you’ll get to visit 25 historic buildings and sites. Pick up a map at the Sutter Creek or Jackson Chamber of Commerce.
Annual events include the Lions Club Dandelion Days Flea Market (mid-March), the Gold Country Cruise Car Show (mid-May), Amador County Heritage Days (October), and Christmas Delights Open House (Thanksgiving weekend).
Fun Fact: From early 1850 until WWII Amador County’s three main mines, the Eureka, Kennedy and Argonaut mines produced over 4 million ounces of gold, more than half the county’s entire gold production. Jackson itself produced more than half the gold mined in the Mother Lode!
The city of Sacramento, CA is located about 3-4 hours away from Yosemite National Park, but is a Gold Country road trip staple. Sac, as we locals call it, is more commonly known as the capital of the state of California. This bustling city deserves at least an entire weekend of exploration (and even then you’ll barely scratch the surface)!
Start at Old Town Sacramento (also known as Old Sacramento State Historic Park) where you and your family will be immediately be transported back into the Gold Rush era. Here, you’ll learn and experience the history of California beginning with the Gold Rush of 1849.
Then, continue your trip back in time at The California State Railroad Museum, one of the most popular museums in Sacramento. To continue learning about the rich history of California, check out the California State Indian Museum. This museum’s mission is to showcase three different themes important to Native American life–Nature, Spirit, and Family.
If you’re traveling with the kids who enjoy animals, consider spending a few hours at the Sacramento Zoo, featuring 400 animals from all corners of the globe. Traveling with younger children? Fairytale Town is an ideal stop for toddlers where they can run around and enjoy 26 playsets based on nursery rhymes and fairytales, slide down the Old Woman’s shoe, and pet the docile farm animals.
And sitting right in the heart of Sacramento is the California State Capitol Museum, where you can learn all about California’s history! Not only is it a museum, but it also acts as an active government building. You can opt for a guided tour around the museum (there’s so much you can learn on a tour) or explore the building on a self-guided tour.
SUTTER CREEK, CA
Less than an hour away from Murphys, CA sits Sutter Creek, another town ideally situated in the heart of the Sierra Foothill Wine Country. Sutter Creek is pure enjoyment to walk around, with its many picturesque B&Bs, restaurants, and shops all along the main street.
For history buffs, you can take a fascinating tour of one of the most famous mines of the Mother Lode, the historic Kennedy Gold Mine. For a tour around town, this walking map will guide you around the town streets to make sure you hit all the main historical attractions.
You can also catch some live music at the Sutter Creek Theater. Sutter Creek is the perfect hub to explore the Sierra Foothill Wine regions (Amador Valley’s Shenandoah Valley, El Dorado County’s Fairplay region and Calaveras County’s wine region). Seriously, if you love wine just as much as Gold Rush towns, or aren’t interested in Gold Rush towns at all, you can distract yourself with a whole day of wine tasting.
FESTIVALS AND LOCAL EVENTS IN GOLD COUNTRY, CA
- Gold Rush Days: 2nd Saturday of each month in Columbia State Historic Park. (February)
- The Celtic Faire: Fantastic line up of musicians, crafts, and costumes. (March)
- Gem and Jewelry Show: Exhibit cases, demonstrations, silent auction, crafts for kids. (March)
- Columbia Victorian Easter Celebration: Old-fashioned parade and egg hunt at Columbia State Historic Park. There is also a costume competition! (April)
- Annual Columbia Fireman’s Muster: Volunteer fire crews from across the western United States come together to participate in events designed to test their firefighting skills. Includes kart races, bucket brigade competitions, hand pumper contests, as well as a parade and dance. (May)
- Motherlode Roundup: Tuolumne County’s biggest event is held on Mother’s Day weekend. There is a kick-off parade, followed by two days of professional rodeo. There is also a kiddie rodeo, Mother’s Day breakfast, and a Saturday night dance. (May)
- Downtown Sonora Old West Fest: Celebrating the beginnings of Sonora (Gold Rush, farming, movie industry, lumber). Features people in period costumes, arts and crafts, live music, and food booths. (May)
- Tuolumne Lumber Jubilee: In Tuolumne, this event celebrates the logging industry with contests, games, carnival, crafts, a parade, arm wrestling, loggers’ tug-of-war and queen coronation. (June)
- Passport Weekend: Calaveras Wine Association sponsors a 3-day event filled with food, music, winery tours, and wine tastings. (June)
- The Mother Lode Fair: A 3-day event featuring live music, games, exhibits, carnival rides, destruction derby, and animal exhibitions. There are also local crafter and baker competitions. (July)
- Magic Of The Night: Held in Sonora, this event features live music, entertainment, dancing, antique car show, games, and vendor booths. (August)
- 49er Festival and Chili Cook-Off: A festival commemorating California’s gold mining history. The event draws a few thousand people per year and includes a parade, chili and salsa cook-off, live music, auctions, and lots of food. (September)
- Annual Me-Wuk Indian Acorn Festival: Celebration of the Me-Wuk Tribe, hosting activities including a celebration of the black oak acorn harvest, traditional dancers, Indian tacos, deep pit barbecue and Native American arts and crafts. (September)
- Wine Stomp: The event celebrates the harvest and the rich wine industry of Calaveras County. Features stomping competitions, costume contests, silent auctions, and wine tasting. (October)
- Downtown Sonora Christmas Parade: Held Friday evening after Thanksgiving in Sonora. Includes floats, marching bands, dancers, and the arrival of Santa Claus to downtown. (December)
- Columbia State Historic Park Holiday Events: Be sure to check out the holiday-themed activities and foods. (December)
ESSENTIAL PACKING LIST: YOSEMITE AND GOLD COUNTRY
- Hiking Boots | If you plan on hiking, bring well broken-in boots with good ankle support and good traction. My all-time favorites are the Lowa Renegade GTX Mid Boots. They’re one of the lightest boots in its class, very durable, and provide out-of-the-box comfort, which is extremely important if you want to prevent blisters from the start.
- Hiking Socks | Make sure you have a good pair of cushioned wool hiking socks. For extra toe protection and to prevent blisters from developing from skin-to-skin contact, go with a pair of Injinji toe socks.
- Adventure Sandals | Tevas and Chacos are my go-to brands for multipurpose summer sandals. If you’re planning on spending some time on the river or hiking to waterfalls, you should definitely consider getting adventure sandals — they’re comfortable for long-distance walking, safe for submerging in water, and super durable.
- Waterproof Rain Jacket | A lightweight waterproof rain jacket is critical for any alpine destination. Since these weigh virtually nothing and are so easily packable, I recommend you carry one with you whenever you head outdoors. Depending on the weather forecast and chance of precipitation, I’ll either go with a rain shell or a puffier windbreaker. Despite the options I have here, one thing is for sure— I’m never without some sort of outer layer. My top recommendations are Marmot Men’s PreCip (for men) and The North Face Women’s Venture 2 Jacket (for women).
- Puffy Jacket | You’re going to need layers in this part of California. The climate here brings chilly mornings and evenings, even on warm summer days. You have a lot of options here, but I personally have the North Face Thermoball, and it’s kept me warm throughout my many years of outdoor adventuring!
- Daypack | I’m a fan of the Osprey Daylite Daypack. It has ample room for all the snacks and water you’ll need, as well as for your camera and the safety essentials for a day hike.
- Laundry Bag | Outdoor activities = lots of sweaty, smelly, dirty, and worn clothes. Don’t soil your entire travel bag by mixing worn clothes with your unworn clothes! Definitely bring a laundry bag to separate your clean clothes from your dirty clothes to maintain the utmost freshness.
- Hat, Bandana, or Buff | Sun protection is key for any outdoor destination. Keep the sun off your skin with a fancy sunhat, bandana, or a Buff. All three can be used to shield your neck or forehead from the sun.
- Sunscreen | Remember to put on sunscreen even if there is cloud coverage. UV rays in overcast conditions are particularly strong, so don’t overlook it.
- Hand Sanitizer | Hand sanitizer gel or wipes are a must any time you’re going to be in contact with surfaces many other people have touched. Never leave your hotel room without it! And if you do happen to forget it, remember to wash your hands often, especially before eating or touching your face.
- Body Wipes / Feminine Wipes | Feeling a bit gross after a hike but don’t have the time to shower right in that instant? Just whip out one of these body wipes for a quick refresher. The feminine wipes I like are infused with cucumber and aloe. Trust me, you will feel and smell so much better. Always good to have a few handy in your travel bag.
- Portable Power Bank | You’re probably going to be out all day, snapping away taking pictures, GPSing… the last thing you want is to be stranded with no phone battery! A portable power bank is a must-have, and Anker’s ultra-light, ultra-portable power bank is tried and true by so many travelers! I never embark on a day of exploration without it.
- Smartphone UV Sanitizer and Charger | Our phones gather all the grime and bacteria we touch throughout the day, and then they are stored in warm, dark places like purses and pockets, which make for great breeding grounds for bacteria to grow. They are the third hand we never wash, but should! Using a UV sanitizer such as PhoneSoap on a regular basis will help keep germs and illness at bay.
- Soft Hydration Flask | Stay hydrated throughout the day with a water bottle that can go anywhere with you—and fold up when not in use. I love the packability of these bottles!