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Family in Columbia State Historic Park
Jennifer Rapoza

Discover Tuolumne County's Gold Country on a Highway 49 Road Trip

By VTC Author | 06/17/2022 | Exploring Tuolumne County, Family, Pet Friendly , State Parks

Tuolumne County’s Gold Country, along Highway 49 (named for the 49ers searching for gold) offers an authentic Gold Rush experience with its rich, lively, and thriving historic towns such as Jamestown, Sonora, Tuolumne, and Columbia. Along within the towns, this era of California's history is on complete display in two State Historic Parks, Railtown 1897 and Columbia State Historic Park. 

Highway 49, which in its entirety spans 300 miles from Madera County in the south to Sierra County in the north, is known as one of “America’s best drives.” Embark on a road trip on Tuolumne County’s section of the legendary route to immerse yourself in a time when people were looking to strike it rich and begin a new way of life.

Downtown

Jamestown was where gold was first discovered in Tuolumne County in 1848, so it's an appropriate place to start your road trip. During a stroll along Jamestown's Main Street, you’ll discover that several of the town’s buildings that date back to the 1870s and 1880s are occupied by quaint historic inns, restaurants, shops, brewery and wine tasting room. Take your time to browse the shops and have a bite to eat.

At Rocca Park, check out the introductory exhibit to the Walk of Fame, which highlights Tuolumne County’s show business history. Follow the sidewalk dotted with medallions featuring the movies and television shows that were filmed in the area. How many have you seen? Also, in Rocca Park, you'll find the Jamestown Museum in the form of a replica blacksmith shop.

Railtown 1897 State Historic Park

There's nothing quite like the sights, sounds, and smells of the railroad. Railtown 1897 State Historic Park is where the most famous movie star in the County is located. It’s not a person though, it’s a historic steam locomotive, “Sierra No. 3.” Although the locomotive, featured in movies like “Back to the  Future III,” is in the historic roundhouse for maintenance in 2022, you can get a glimpse of it on a guided tour, or take a train ride on the weekends April through October lead by No. 3’s sister locomotive, Sierra No. 28 or a vintage diesel engine.

Railtown is a beautiful and small state park with a nice area to enjoy a picnic and then walk around to take in the other sights like the movie museum, the Depot Store, and the actual water tower from the television show, “Petticoat Junction.” 

John Bartell of KXTV, ABC 10 in Sacramento and “Bartells Backroads” named the park the #1 must see California State Park!

Outskirts of Town

Hike the fantastic trails at Red Hills Recreation Management Area and the Table Mountain Trail in the New Melones Lake Area for seasonal wildflower displays and phenomenal year-round vistas.

Discover More to Do in Jamestown.

Photo: Preethi Chandrasekhar

Downtown Sonora

The largest town in Tuolumne County, Sonora is a great base camp for a visit and is an easy access point to all of the fun in the surrounding area. Its historic downtown is home to shops, galleries, restaurants, and fascinating museums. Step inside the impressive Tuolumne County History Museum and you'll feel embedded in the past as the building is the former jail, established in 1857. Another notable stop is The Red Church, which is probably one of the most photographed icons in the County. Downtown is also home to 2nd Saturday Art Nights, which feature art of all kinds and live music on the second Saturday night of each month year-round.

A hike on the Dragoon Gulch Trail is a great place to get out of the car and stretch the legs. Over three miles of trails with varying difficulty, from easy to moderately strenuous, lead the way through the oak and Manzanita landscape. There are great views of downtown Sonora along the way.

Indigeny Reserve

A visit to Sonora isn’t complete without taking the short drive to Indigeny Reserve. Indigeny Reserve’s organic hard apple cider will ruin you for any other hard cider. Distilled carefully with pride and love on the family-owned and operated property, the cider pairs perfectly with a relaxing picnic on their spacious, beautiful grounds or on a nice hike around the orchard.

Find More to Do in Sonora.

The Center of Town

Take a short trek off of Highway 49 to the small town of Tuolumne southeast of Sonora. It is steeped in interesting history. A visit to the Tuolumne City Memorial Museum is worth the trip to learn about the town and its inhabitants through time. 

Also, stop by the nearby 9/11 Global War on Terrorism Memorial to pay respects and reflect. Across the street is West Side Memorial Park, which is nice for relaxing and having a picnic. There's also a large piece of Tuolumne memorabilia there, a small steam locomotive. On Wednesday evenings in the summer, the park is home to the Concerts in the Park and Outdoor Market.

West Side Trail

If you'd like to hike some more, the West Side Trail, is an easy hiking trail that was once the rail line of the Hetch Hetchy & Yosemite Valley Railroad, owned by the West Side Lumber Company (which also operated the locomotive in Memorial Park), The trail features scenic views along with interpretive exhibits and spectacular spring wildflower displays.

Cover's Apple Ranch

Treat yourself at Cover’s Apple Ranch located just outside of Tuolumne on Cherokee Road. Not only is it a local favorite bakery and restaurant, but the kids (and grown-ups) will enjoy a miniature train ride and petting zoo. You must try the Mile-High Apple Pie!

Read more about these activities in Tuolumne.

Photo: High Sierra Visitors Council/Local Freshies

Columbia State Historic Park

Go back in time during a visit to Columbia State Historic Park, a living, breathing Gold Rush-era town complete with stagecoach rides, gold panning, and saloons pouring sarsaparilla. Not only is the park immersive, but it's free and dog-friendly! Historic inns, restaurants, a working blacksmith shop, old-fashioned bowling alley, theatre, and shops supplied with treats and trinkets add to the ambiance of the town where a new surprise is around every corner.

The Wilson-McConnell House, Grace Kelly’s character’s house in “High Noon,” and the Wells Fargo Building plus many other iconic spots in the park are great backdrops for taking epic Gold Country selfies and family pictures.

Many who visit the park miss the Columbia Schoolhouse, but it's worth the walk (or drive) to see it and peek into the center of education of the past.

Inner Sanctum Cellars Winery & Tap Room at Basecamp

Enjoy the award winning wines of Inner Sanctum Cellars in their spacious tasting room or on the peaceful outdoor patio, where there is often live music. Looking for beer? There's a tap room on site too.

Read more about visiting Columbia.

From quaint B&Bs and historic inns to private vacation rentals and full-service RV parks, there's a place to stay in Gold Country with your name on it, so stay for a while or venture out to explore more of Tuolumne County on Highways 120 and 108.

You can pack much more into a road trip to Tuolumne County. Request a free Tuolumne County Travel Guide or view the digital version here to learn more. And, stay in the know by signing up to receive monthly emails.


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