Yosemite National Park is an iconic highlight that every visitor to California MUST take a road trip to, and with good reason.
The magnificence of the sheer cliffs, the mecca for rock climbing, hiking, the unbelievable formations of nature’s works… As if you need more reason to visit Yosemite!
Even though Yosemite Valley is only 12 km/ 7.5 miles long, it attracts over 4 million visitors every year.
But did you know, there is more to Yosemite National Park than Yosemite Valley to see El Capitan or Half Dome? So many visitors head straight to the valley and miss out on the rest of the beauty that the surrounding area offers.
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One particular county is the Tuolumne County. Tuolumne County encompasses the small towns of Sonora, Groveland, Tuolumne and Columbia, the national parks Stanislaus National Forest and Yosemite National Park. You will pass right through this county on the way from San Francisco if you’re on Highway 120.
Here, I’m going to share some itinerary ideas beyond Yosemite National Park. I say, it is well worth extending your road trip if only to cover these areas, for you get to step back into history and experience the Gold Rush era, and even uncover some of your favourite outdoor activities to get your groove going.
Recommended duration: 4 days, excluding the time you want to spend in Yosemite Valley or Yosemite National Park itself.
- How to get to Yosemite National Park
- Where to stay near Yosemite National Park
- BEYOND Yosemite Valley – What to do near Yosemite National Park
- 1. Lay back in small town Sonora
- 2. Feast American-style in Sonora
- 3. Hike the Dragon Gulch Trail in Sonora
- 4. Cider tasting at Indigeny Reserve
- 5. Catch the sunset at Pinecrest Lake
- 6. Ride horses at Aspen Meadow Pack Station
- 7. Go back in time in old town Columbia
- 8. Have a cuppa at Mountain Sage, Groveland
- 9. Hike the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir
- 10. Fuel up at Evergreen Lodge at Yosemite
- 11. Gaze up at the Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias
- Important tips for conquering Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park
- Beyond Yosemite National Park – Other Exciting Things to Do in Tuolumne County
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How to get to Yosemite National Park
Getting from San Francisco to Yosemite National Park passes through Tuolumne County. From San Francisco airport, it takes about 2.5 hours, over 219 km/ 136 miles to Sonora.
Where to stay near Yosemite National Park
I won’t be talking about places to stay in Yosemite National Park. Not only is it often crowded, the prices are also sky high especially if you’re visiting during peak holiday season.
Instead, the suggestions below are around Yosemite National Park, and offers you more to explore around the national park.
Sonora is a great, centralised place to stay with a no shortage of options for lodging.
Since it was a long drive from San Francisco to Yosemite National Park, we checked in to Best Western Plus Sonora Oaks Hotel and Conference Center that night and only got to explore Sonora the next day. We were booked in a pool-facing room and they also have a jacuzzi on site.
The hotel was easy access to the few towns we will visit while passing through Tuolumne County – Sonora, Tuolumne and Columbia, before moving onward to Yosemite.
The one thing that I wasn’t too comfortable with was how they all the cutleries and plates at breakfast every morning was a disposable one. We were also served the same breakfast daily.
Water and toiletries are provided upon request.
Another of Tuolumne County’s Gold Rush towns, Groveland is located on Highway 120, the most direct route from San Francisco to Yosemite National Park.
It’s thus a popular town for a quick stopover, though it essentially only has a main street where all the shops, restaurants and hotels are situated on. To give you a sense of the size, the 2010 United States census reported Groveland’s population was only 601!
Don’t miss the Iron Door Saloon, said to be California’s oldest continuously-operating saloon.
And so, it was here that we based ourselves at Yosemite Pines RV Resort & Family Lodging on our visit en route to Yosemite National Park, which was also only a 5-minute drive to/ from Groveland.
Checking in took a little longer than expected as the reception is combined with the general store cash register. Because of that, we weren’t given much information at check in about the area, so we had to figure out our own laundry facilities. On our walk around the property, we also found a swimming pool, campfire/ outdoor group area where you can watch movies and even a pet farm on their property!
We were put up in a neat, bright, clean Cosy Cabin with 2 queen beds. What’s interesting about this property is that apart from also having RV/ tent sites, you can also glamp in their cute Conestoga wagons or retro trailers. They also have yurts which makes for quite an exotic staying experience!
It was a really interesting mix of accommodation, and I’m sure I would have fun no matter which one I stayed in.
A microwave and refrigerator are provided, as well as an outdoor grill. We bought charcoal to do some BBQ one night but was disappointed to find there wasn’t any utensils we could use, and the store was also closed. 😕
There was no phone service throughout the property, and WiFi can be bought for a fee.
Their reception is combined with the General Store’s cashier, so when manpower is short, the queues tend to be long.
BEYOND Yosemite Valley – What to do near Yosemite National Park
Our itinerary goes like this:
San Francisco > Sonora > Columbia > Groveland > Yosemite Valley
The activities below are thus sequenced in that order, so you can follow through our footsteps when we did this trip in September and experience all there is to offer!
1. Lay back in small town Sonora
Walking through the simple streets of Sonora, I notice the quiet laid-back vibe of the town. With a rich Gold Rush history, it has been touted the “Queen of the Southern Mines.” You can experience what it was like living in a gold rush community in Sonora.
On the main street of S Washington street, you can find boutiques, museums, art galleries, and a variety of eateries.
Get into the small lanes to find a brick house converted into a beer pub and retired old west saloons that is reminiscent of its good ‘ol Gold Rush days.
2. Feast American-style in Sonora
Diamondback Grill and Emberz Wood-Fired Foodz were both highly recommended by the locals here. They serve as typical and as decent an American meal as you’d expect.
3. Hike the Dragon Gulch Trail in Sonora
If you’re looking to get a little active here, Dragon Bulch Trail provides 5 km/ 3.1 miles of nature trail through Sonora’s oak woodlands.
4. Cider tasting at Indigeny Reserve
Indigeny Reserve is an organic apple ranch, cider works and distillery.
Driving into this secluded 16-acre preserve in Sonora promises views of tree-lined road all to yourself. At the heart of the property, you can find picnic areas, play areas and scenic walking trails. All around, you’ll see apple orchards surrounding you.
They have more than 25,000 apple trees around their perimeter. Here, they use up to 52 varieties of apple to make their hot ciders, brandy and vodka.
Sure, we’ve all had wine tastings, but cider tasting is a completely new concept to me.
Indigeny’s popular favourite is the hard cider – a crisp, thirst-quenching and sweet alternative to wine and beer, encompassing a fruity flavour.
We couldn’t help but to get a bottle of it for ourselves to refresh us from a day of being on the road.
With only less than 10 employees managing this large property, I could feel a sense of homeliness from how personal the tasting session was when we gathered around the tasting bar, sampling various types of ciders.
The way they do their brandy is by using the aging methods of Normandy, France. Their bourbon whisky barrels are bought and reused from Jack Daniel’s, which they then use to make brandy after ageing for 5 years.
5. Catch the sunset at Pinecrest Lake
Located just off Highway 108, vacation cabins, resorts and campgrounds line up the side of the roads as we drove into the lake.
I can imagine why it is a popular summer and winter vacation spot, given the appeal of summer fun on the water and winter activities at nearby Dodge Ridge Ski Resort and Leland High Sierra Snow Play.
6. Ride horses at Aspen Meadow Pack Station
Close by to Pinecrest Lake, we couldn’t pass up the chance to do some horse riding.
At Aspen Meadow Pack Station, you’ll find yourself completely cut off from civilisation, leaving just you and the horses to get along.
I don’t know if it was a cowboy attitude kind of thing, but the people managing the station weren’t too chatty with us. No smiles or greetings when we arrived – they just got right down to business, had us sign indemnity forms and loaded us up on the horses so efficiently.
Horseback rides go by the hour, and it goes through the long alpine meadows into a clearing where you can get a panoramic view of the surroundings. Most of the ride was our horses just following the guide – I would have enjoyed a little more action with the horses, or some conversation about the kind of horses they rear.
Nevertheless, it was enjoyable observing the many horses back at the pack station.
7. Go back in time in old town Columbia
Columbia was founded as another Gold Rush boom town in 1850. It used to be a busy marketplace for the miners who came here to mine gold.
The town’s location was just far enough off a major road never to be modernised and just close enough never to be entirely abandoned. It’s now preserved as a historic downtown and considered the best-preserved Gold Rush town in California. It’s no surprise then, that the movie High Noon was filmed here.
Be prepared to truly immerse yourself in authentic California history when you visit the Columbia State Historic Park – an authentic living history town.
The entire park area transports you to the time of the Gold Rush era, reflected by the shops, buildings, museums, stables, horse carriages, streets, historic hotels, restaurants, an old-school candy store and blacksmith shop.
I really enjoyed stepping back in time going into former banks, post office and saloons and imagine what the hubbub of activities done by mining camp residents was like.
It’s a historic surprise at every corner roaming this park.
8. Have a cuppa at Mountain Sage, Groveland
Mountain Sage is a cute little hole-in-the-wall type of cafe-cum-garden, and very well worth to stop by to grab a drink!
If a relaxing morning is what you’re after, have a snack at their outdoor garden while being surrounded by fresh and beautiful blooms.
It’s a great pick-me-up in between getting from place to place.
9. Hike the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir
Early American Indian settlers lived here for more than 6000 years, way before the first European Americans arrived in the 1850s looking for gold. The modern valley name is derived from the Miwok word “hatchhatchie”, which means edible grasses.
This 12.8 km/ 8-mile-long reservoir can hold 117 billion gallons of water, providing drinking water to 2.7 million residents daily.
So many visitors come to Yosemite National Park and head straight to the Yosemite Valley and often miss this sweet spot out, but Hetch Hetchy Reservoir is also packed with activities, if you know where to look. You can backpack, bird watch, fish and hike.
There are a couple of cool hikes to do around the area:
Wapama Falls (8 km/ 5 mi round trip) – This is the hike we embarked on, and also the more popular one at Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. You start across the dam, through the tunnel. You’ll follow the shoreline of the reservoir to arrive at Tueeulala and Wapama Falls. It’s an easy, flat trail that’s perfect for visitors like us wanting to get a feel of Hetch Hetchy.
Lookout Point (3.2 km/ 2 mi round trip) – A rocky outcropping overlooking Hetch Hetchy. Trail begins near the entrance station.
Poopenaut Valley (4 km/ 2.5 mi round trip) – This trail involves descending 1229 feet to the Tuolumne River. It starts via a signed trailhead 4 miles past the entrance station. The dramatic domes surrounding these waterfalls add to the grandeur of the valley.
Rancheria Falls (21 km/ 13 mi round trip) – A long day hike by continuing past Wapama Falls for rewarding views of the valley and waterfalls. You can access Tiltill or Rancheria mountains and the northwest of Yosemite from this trail.
Smith Peak (21-26 km/ 13-16 mi round trip) – Highest point in the area, offering views that don’t disappoint. Route #1 (21 km/ 13 miles) begins 9.6 km/ 6 miles beyond the entrance station. Route #2 (26 km/ 16 miles) begins at the entrance station. Be prepared for a 1000m/ 3300 ft of elevation gain.
The Laurel/ Vernon/ Rancheria Loop (46.6 km/ 29 mi round trip) – A multi-day hike offering views of Hetch Hetchy, High Sierra lakes and the Yosemite’s northern wilderness. The first 6.4 km/ 4 miles follows the old Lake Eleanor Road as it climbs out of the valley.
Other things to note:
- Watch out for rattlesnakes and poison oak, though if you keep to the main path, you’ll be fine.
- Be sure to carry plenty of water and sunscreen as well. It’s not a short hike, no matter which hike you choose, it’s better to always be prepared!
- Swimming and boating in the reservoir are prohibited.
- Dogs and other pets are prohibited on all trails and on the dam to protect the wild animals.
- Fishing is allowed but only if you have a valid California fishing license.
- Overnight backpackers require a wilderness permit. It’s free and it can be obtained at the Hetch Hetchy entrance station. Bear canisters are required for back country food storage and can be rented at the entrance station.
10. Fuel up at Evergreen Lodge at Yosemite
With a focus on procuring ingredients from the source as much as possible, it is no wonder why there was already a queue when we got in to Evergreen Lodge on the way out of Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.
The cosy dining room was a warm respite from the plummeting temperatures of the National Park forest outside as the sun began to set.
Whether you choose to dine in their old-west front porch, dining hall or tavern, you can be sure of one thing – the whole lodge emanates warmth with their cabin-themed woodwork.
11. Gaze up at the Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias
Have you ever seen giant trees? If not, you’ll have to see this with your own eyes.
One of the three sequoia groves in Yosemite National Park, the Tuolumne Grove contains about 25 mature trees. Giant sequoias now grow only in isolated groves on the Sierra Nevada’s western slope.
Through an easy, smooth 4 km/ 2.5 miles walk through the grove, you’ll be surrounded by massive Giant Sequoia trees, including one (dead) tree you can walk through.
To get a sense of how high they grow, a mature sequoia can grow up to 85 metres/ 280 feet high, and 7 metres/ 23 feet across.
Important tips for conquering Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park
Now, what’s a post about Yosemite National Park without talking about the actual valley aye? Yosemite National Park is a popular spot for hikers, overnight campers and sightseeing.
I won’t even bother going into detail about the ins and outs of visiting Yosemite Valley since there are already plenty of resources out there.
What I’ll offer below are some handy, important tips that you should know prior to going, especially if it’s your first time going there.
There are five main entrances to the Park:
- The South Entrance – Highway 41 North from Fresno.
- Arch Rock Entrance – Highway 140 West from Merced.
- Big Oak Flat Entrance – Highway 120 West from Modesto and Manteca. (Closest to Yosemite Pines Resort)
- Tioga Pass Entrance – Highway 120 East from Lee Vining and Highway 395.
- Hetch Hetchy Entrance – Hetch Hetchy Road from Evergreen Road west of the Big Oak Flat Entrance.
In Yosemite Valley, it operates only on one-way roads. The roads are separated by the Merced river which flows in between.
Go early in the morning to avoid park entrance traffic that happens between 10am and 12pm, and also before all the big tour buses start photobombing your pictures.
If you’re looking for a place to start, I recommend the Yosemite Valley Visitor Center in Yosemite Village. Do note it might be difficult to get a parking space here. Most of the roads around here are blocked off for residents only. What roads that remained were cordoned off for whatever reason when I was there.
Most of the parking is available at Yosemite Village, Curry Village and near Yosemite Falls.
If you manage to snag a place, you can park here and use the free Yosemite Valley bus shuttles to get you around Yosemite Valley, which is highly recommended because of such heavy traffic within the small confines of Yosemite Valley.
Otherwise, use the map given to you when entering the village – they show photo spots where you can stop along the way in the village. It is similar to the one above, or download it here.
Don’t worry about missing the picturesque spots of El Capitan or Half Dome. No matter where you stop, the most grandiose cliff that stands out will be one of them. 😉
Park on Cathedral Beach to get to El Capitan Bridge, where you can – as the name goes – get a spectacular view of El Capitan from the bridge.
El Capitan Meadow, located along one-way Northside Drive, is another popular place worth stopping for photos. It provides a perfect view of El Capitan and of Cathedral Rocks.
Some easy trails include:
Mirror Lake (3.2 km/ 2 mi lake & back) – an easy trail that gets you to a lake with perfect mirror reflections.
Lower Yosemite Fall on Yosemite Creek (1.6 km/ 1 mi entire loop) – if you’re lucky, you can sometimes spot rock climbers ascending the granite cliffs right beside the falls. We saw some when we visited!
Bridalveil Fall (0.8 km/ 0.5 miles round trip) – This waterfall is one of the most iconic waterfalls in the park and is just a short hike away. It has quite the spray in the spring.
For more Yosemite Valley day hikes, you can check on their official website.
So there you have it – other (equally spellbinding, if I may say so) things to do near Yosemite Valley besides crowding along with the other tourists in the small Yosemite Valley.
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Special thanks to Visit Tuolumne County for this experience! All opinions remain my own.
9 – 13 September 2019, Mon – Fri