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Hikers at Hetch Hetchy Reservoir
Menka Belgal

Experience Tuolumne County's Yosemite and Beyond: A Highway 120 Road Trip

The Highway 120 corridor is the most direct route to iconic Yosemite National Park from the San Francisco Bay Area and Northern California. Not only does it provide convenient passage to the park, it also offers a road trip where there’s something for everyone in your party, from the history buff to the outdoor adventurer, to do along the way.

It’s time to embark on your journey. This itinerary begins from the west and heads east along Highway 120. It can certainly be done in reverse from the east, heading west.

Nestled in the Sierra Nevada foothills, Lake Don Pedro offers 160 miles of shoreline and thousands of acres of water surface for a plethora of activities. Fish from the shore or on the water, rent a ski boat, kayak, paddle board, or even a houseboat at Moccasin Point Marina. Developed trails, day-use areas, and campgrounds provide for land-based fun.

Courtesy of Suntex Marinas
Courtesy of Visit California/Stephen Lam
Courtesy of Instagram @kingofpain_2021

Continuing east toward the town of Groveland, make a stop at Around the Horn Brewing Company, a popular destination for visitors and locals. Relax with a glass of one of their continuously changing craft brews (there’s even some for non-beer lovers) a tasty meal, and maybe a cornhole game in the shaded beer garden.

Downtown Groveland

Groveland, a gateway town to Yosemite, played a key role in the California Gold Rush, and also in the history of Yosemite and even the city of San Francisco, 145 miles away. Discover the cultural and natural stories of the area at the Groveland Yosemite Gateway Museum, located at Mary Laveroni Park and open year-round.

The town isn’t very large, so leave the car parked and wander on foot if you would like. Explore Main Street to find unique shops, including recreation supplies stores, restaurants, coffee shops, nursery (with California native plants), and the longest continuously operating saloon in California, the Iron Door Saloon. 

Pine Mountain Lake

Visit Pine Mountain Lake on the outskirts of town, play a round at the public championship Pine Mountain Lake Golf Course with spectacular views of Yosemite’s peaks (club and cart rentals are available), and enjoy a meal at the adjacent Grill, also featuring great views. For a mild Wild West adventure, saddle up for a horseback ride at the Pine Mountain Lake Equestrian Center.

Courtesy of Visit California/Mason Trinca
Courtesy of India Sutton

Continuing on, Highway 120 passes through the Stanislaus National Forest, which borders Yosemite National Park. The national forest is a haven for adventure seekers with choices of activities like whitewater rafting, biking, fishing, hiking, and camping. Stop by the Groveland Ranger Station, where helpful rangers can answer questions and provide maps and helpful information about trails and more. Here are a few ideas to make the most of your visit to the national forest:

Whitewater rafting with up to Class 5 runs on the Wild and Scenic Tuolumne River is thrilling and creates life-long memories. There are several local outfitters ready to take you on an exciting rafting adventure, each offering their own specialties.

The Tuolumne River also has optimal water for fishing. If you’ve tried fly-fishing or are an avid angler, you know the relaxation that comes with being stream-side, casting a line. If you haven’t tried it or would just like to go out with a local guide, ECHO Adventure Cooperative can take you for a couple hours or a whole day.

Get your gears moving on two wheels. New, exciting mountain bike trails are being built and expanded on a regular basis by a team of devoted volunteers of Groveland Trail Heads. Within the Ferretti Road Non-Motorized Trail Network, just outside of Groveland, is a 1.3-mile bike-only trail that can be ridden in either direction and features long drops, log ride, jumps, berms, and rollers. The features have go-arounds so they can be avoided, making the trail accessible for all skill levels. Don’t have bikes with you? Rent some in town.

New to Tuolumne County! Miller’s Off-Road Adventures offers Jeep tours that will fill your sense of adventure as you take off on dirt roads and through creeks and streams.

Courtesy of Zephyr River Expeditions
Courtesy of ECHO Adventure Cooperative

Top off your gas tank, grab some snacks and water, and head to Yosemite National Park. Famous for its iconic granite monoliths like Half Dome and the gushing waterfalls in Yosemite Valley, the park has a quieter, less crowded side. Over half of the park is in Tuolumne County where there’s room to roam in less crowded surroundings at Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, in the Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias, and Tuolumne Meadows.

Hetch Hetchy Reservoir

Head east on Highway 120 toward Yosemite, turn left on Evergreen Road and venture to Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. You’ll get glimpses of it from the road but once there you will find the expansive deep blue lake, which is the water source for much of San Francisco, surrounded by impressive granite peaks. Cross the O'Shaughnessy Dam, walk through the tunnel, and hike the uncrowded lake-side trail to uncommon waterfalls that are comparable in beauty to their more famous rivals in Yosemite Valley.

Tip: Arrive early because parking is limited and the road is open for limited hours (varies seasonally), and bring plenty of water.

Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias

Head through the Big Oak Flat entrance of the park, continue on Highway 120, take the highway east at Crane Flat, and park at the Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias trailhead (1 mile east of Crane Flat). Enjoy a peaceful hike to and through the grove. Although it is the smallest of Yosemite’s three Sequoia groves, the trees and landscape plus the wildlife you may see are inspiring none-the-less.

Tuolumne Meadows

If you have time to travel farther, continue east on Highway 120 (Tioga Road) to Tuolumne Meadows, you won’t be disappointed with the drive and the views. This historic road winds through the higher elevations of Yosemite offering unbelievable views of Half Dome and Tenaya Lake along the way. Suddenly the forest and surrounding granite cliffs open up and the expanse of spectacular Tuolumne Meadows is in front of you. Beautiful trails around the meadow and along the crystal-clear Tuolumne River await hikers of all skill levels. Take your time though, remember you’re at 8,600 feet in elevation where the air is a bit thinner than you may be used to. While in Tuolumne Meadows, take the easy walk to Parsons Memorial Lodge, a historic stone structure built by The Sierra Club in 1915, which is an interpretive center.

Tip: Make sure you have plenty of gas, there aren’t gas stations beyond Crane Flat.

Courtesy of Instagram @allyrunion

Redy to go? You'll need a place to stay, and whether your preference for accommodations is a quaint B&B, historic inn, mountain resort, simple campground, or a full-service RV park, there's a place along Highway 120 with your name on it. 

Courtesy of Evergreen Lodge/Kim Carroll
Courtesy of Yosemite Lakes RV Resort

You may want to venture out to explore Tuolumne County’s Gold Country along Highway 49 and High Sierra along Highway 108. 

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