A Printable, Downloadable, PDF version of this itinerary is available for purchase. Includes Places to Stay in proximity.
ITINERARY AS EXCERPTED FROM KAREN BROWN’S E-BOOK:
This itinerary features two of California’s most spectacular natural attractions, majestic Yosemite National Park and beautiful Lake Tahoe, and links them together by one of California’s best-kept secrets-the spirited, nostalgic, Gold Rush towns, which string along the Sierra foothills. These colorful towns date back to 1848 when the cry went up that gold had been found at Sutter Creek, precipitating the rush to California by men eager to make their fortunes. Overnight, boom towns sprang up around every mining camp, with a cluster of similar-style saloons, restaurants, hotels, dance halls, and homes. Gold Rush fever quickly cooled and many of the towns were left, quietly forgotten, until tourists rediscovered their charm. Today these benignly neglected towns have been spruced up and bustle with activity: antique shops, art galleries, nifty boutiques, attractive restaurants, and appealing inns are tucked into old Victorian houses lining sleepy streets. The highway that runs through the mother lode country is numbered 49 after the gold-seeking miners who were known as the Forty-Niners.
Recommended Pacing: We recommend a minimum of two nights in Yosemite and suggest that you try to stay at accommodation in the park. Either before or after visiting Yosemite, you have a perfect opportunity to explore California’s Gold Rush Country. Rather than backtracking, plan to progress through the region, spending at least one night in the south and one night in the north. From the northern region of the Gold Country it is a logical continuation on to Lake Tahoe. Many people enjoy Lake Tahoe as a resort and will spend at least a week here, basking on its sandy beaches in the summer and skiing down the snow-covered peaks that ring its waters in the winter. If you are visiting Lake Tahoe as a tourist, we recommend a two-night visit.
Weather Wise: Heavy snow is the norm at Tahoe and Yosemite during the winter, while most of the Gold Rush towns are beneath the snow line and experience heavy winter rains. During summer months the days are hot in Yosemite and Tahoe, and several degrees warmer in the Gold Country.
As you read through this itinerary, please be aware that each of the areas featured could well be a destination in itself. Yosemite and Lake Tahoe are especially popular resorts and an entire vacation could easily be dedicated to either one. If that is your desire, just extract from the itinerary the portion that suits your interests. However, the Gold Country is not as well known and makes a super link between Yosemite and Tahoe-or, for that matter, a great destination in its own right.
Since Yosemite makes a most convenient first-night stop from either San Francisco or Los Angeles, driving directions are given from both so that you can tailor the trip to your own needs. Much of the first day of this itinerary is spent driving to Yosemite National Park, about a four- to five-hour drive from San Francisco or a six- to seven-hour drive from the Greater Los Angeles area. A brief description of what to see and do during your stay in San Francisco is included in San Francisco to Los Angeles via the Coast, while the list of attractions of the much larger, more sprawling Los Angeles are included in Leisurely Loop of Southern California.
Leave San Francisco east over the Bay Bridge, in the direction of Oakland. Once across the bridge, stay in the middle lane and follow signs for Hwy 580, heading east, signposted Stockton. Stay on Hwy 580 for about 48 miles until you come to Livermore where Hwy 580 meets Hwy 205, which you take, continuing east, following signs for Manteca. Near Manteca, take Hwy 120 east, directly to the northern gate of Yosemite National Park. Total driving distance is about 200 miles.
Leave Los Angeles heading north on Hwy 5 until you come to the junction of Hwy 99, which you take north (signposted Bakersfield). Continue on Hwy 99 to the north edge of Fresno where you take Hwy 41 north, directly to the southern gate of Yosemite National Park. Total driving distance is about 300 miles.
The main attractions of the over 1,000 square miles of Yosemite National Park lie within the narrow 7-mile-long Yosemite Valley, which is where you should try to stay if at all possible. A two- or three-night stay in the park is recommended. From hotels through tented cabins, all accommodations in Yosemite are controlled by the Yosemite Concessions Services (YCS)–for information call 209-372-0200. It is necessary year-round to make reservations well in advance by phoning 559-252-4848 or www.yosemitepark.com. Visit their homepage on the National Park Service website at www.nps.gov.
From the stately and very expensive Ahwahnee Hotel, through lodges, cabins, tented camps, and regular campsites, Yosemite has accommodations to suit every pocketbook. If your taste in hotels runs to grand, stay at The Ahwahnee. Yosemite Lodge provides more moderately priced accommodations in both cabins and motel/hotel-type rooms. Still less expensive are the tented camps that provide canvas tents on wooden board floors (you do not need sleeping bags since beds and linens are provided). The budget choice is regular camping. But please remember-space is very limited in every category and reservations are essential.
While the attractions of staying in the valley cannot be denied, a more relaxed, serene, country atmosphere pervades the Wawona Hotel, located within the park, but about a 30-mile drive south of the valley on Hwy 41. With its shaded verandahs overlooking broad rolling lawns, the hotel presents a welcoming picture. Bedrooms with private bathrooms are at a premium-most rooms use communal men’s and women’s bathrooms (sometimes situated quite a distance from your bedroom).
Yosemite Valley, an awe-inspiring monument to the forces of nature, is bounded by magnificent scraped granite formations-Half Dome, El Capitan, Cathedral Rock, Clouds Rest-beckoning rock climbers from around the world. And over the rocks, cascading to the valley far below, are numerous high waterfalls with descriptive names such as Bridalveil, Ribbon, Staircase, and Silver Strand. Below the giant walls of rock the crystal-clear River Merced wends its way through woodlands and meadows of flowers. Undeniably, this is one of the most beautiful valleys anywhere in the world.
Your first stop should be the information center to obtain pamphlets, books, and schedules. The park service offers a remarkable number of guided walks, slide shows, and educational programs-look over the possibilities and select the ones that most appeal to you.
Once you are in the valley, park your car and restrict yourself to travel aboard the free shuttle buses as you can do most of your sightseeing by combining pleasant walks with shuttle-bus rides. Alternative modes of transportation are on horseback on guided trips and by bike (bicycles can be rented in the park). Because the valley is flat, it has miles of paths for biking-a very unstrenuous, efficient way of getting around.
Be warned that during the summer months Yosemite Valley is jammed with cars and people-spring and fall are much more civilized times to visit.
Within the park, but beyond the valley floor, are many areas of great natural beauty. Situated just inside the park’s southern perimeter is the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias. It was here that John Muir, the great naturalist who fathered the idea of the national park system, persuaded President Theodore Roosevelt to add the 250-acre grove of trees to the Yosemite park system. A tram winds through the grove of sequoias as the driver tells the stories of these giant trees-some of the largest in the world.
To the south of the valley Hwy 41 climbs for about 10 miles (stop at the viewing point just before the tunnel) to the Glacier Point turnoff. It is a 15-mile drive to the spectacular Glacier Point-a vista point over 3,000 feet above the valley floor. From Glacier Point everything in the valley below takes on Lilliputian proportions: the ribbon-like River Merced, the forest, meadows, and waterfalls all dwarfed by huge granite cliffs. Beyond the valley a giant panorama of undulating granite presents itself. The ideal time to visit for taking photographs is early in the morning or evening. Rangers at Glacier Point offer evening interpretive programs.
Leave Yosemite by the northern gate on Hwy 120 to Groveland, a handsome old town shaded by pines. The nearby town of Big Oak Flat is little more than a couple of houses and the crumbling IOOF (International Order of Odd Fellows) building strung along the road. As Hwy 120 drops steeply down 5 miles of twisting road to Hwy 49, the shady pine forests of the mountains give way to rolling, oak-studded foothills, the typical scenery of the Gold Country.
Heading north on Hwy 49, detour through Chinese Camp, home to over 5,000 Chinese miners in the 1850s and now almost a ghost town sleeping under a profusion of delicate Chinese Trees of Heaven.
The main street of Jamestown is off Hwy 49 and therefore free of thoroughfare traffic. With its wooden boardwalks, balconies, and storefronts, Jamestown has managed to retain much of the feel of the Gold Rush days. Inviting shops, particularly the emporium, merit a browse, the western-style saloons are full of local color, and the 1859 National Hotel as well as the Jamestown Hotel have been restored to a beauty such as the Gold Rush days never witnessed. Just above Main Street on Fifth Avenue is the Railtown 1897 State Historic Park where visitors can see old freight and passenger cars, steam trains, and the roundhouse. Rides on an old steam train are offered on summer weekends. (209 984-3953, www.csrmf.org/railtown)
Leaving town, continue up the main street and cross Hwy 49 onto Jamestown Road, a peaceful little byway that avoids the congestion of Sonora, and takes you through the countryside to Columbia. Follow signs for Columbia or, wherever a junction is unmarked, continue straight. A 15-minute drive brings you to Parrot Ferry Road on the outskirts of the town.
In the 1850s Columbia was one of the largest towns in California, with many saloons, gaming halls, and stores. Today the main street is closed to car traffic and has been restored as a state park to reflect the dusty, raucous days when Columbia was the “gem of the southern mines.” The renovated buildings of Main Street are like exhibits that make learning fun. Be sure to visit the Wells Fargo office, fire station, candy store, mining museum, and concession shops where costumed citizens sell goods appropriate to the period. You can enjoy a cold sarsaparilla at the saloon, munch candy rocks at the Candy Kitchen, and pan for gold at the mining shack. It is great fun to climb aboard a stagecoach for a ride through the town or take a tour to the Hidden Treasure Mine.
Both the Fallon & City Hotels have been restored by the State of California to mirror the look of two of Columbia’s hotels in Gold Rush days. The City Hotel on Main Street has a less ornate Victorian decor, reflecting the Columbia of the 1860s. Both hotels have been temporarily closed by the State as of June 21, 2009 pending new management.
Parrot Ferry Road leads north from Columbia, crosses the dam and continues through hilly countryside in the direction of Murphys. If you would like to try your hand at rappelling into the largest cavern in California, you have the opportunity at Moaning Cavern. (You can, of course, take the saner descent down a spiral staircase into a room capable of holding the Statue of Liberty.) The rappel is exciting, and with outfitting, instruction, and a boost of confidence, you descend through a small opening into the well-lit cavern-a most exhilarating experience.
From the caves a short drive brings you to Hwy 4 where you turn east (right) and travel a very short distance to Chatom Vineyards where you can sample their wines and picnic under their shady arbor. (www.chatomvineyards.com, 800-435-8852)
Leaving Chatom a 20 mile drive brings you to Calaveras Big Trees State Park, a 6,000-acre preserve of forest including two magnificent stands of sequoia trees. A 45-minute self-guided tour takes you through the North Grove and the nearby visitors center provides information and history on these mammoth trees. If you have time and interest, you can visit the more distant South Grove of giant sequoias. (www.bigtrees.org)
Leaving the park, retrace your route down Hwy 4 and detour into Murphys, the most stylish of Gold Rush towns where boutiques and restaurants shelter under locust and elm trees and the Old Timers’ Museum reflect its Gold Rush heritage. Well signposted from the center of town is another cavern complex, Mercer Caverns, with rooms of stalactites, stalagmites, and other interesting limestone formations. You might also want to detour to a beautiful winery, Ironstone Vineyards, set on the hill outside Murphys. (Turn off Main Street up the road to the side of Murphy’s Hotel and follow signs.) A visit here is much more than wine tasting for there’s a mining museum (you can go gold panning), deli, jewelry store and theater with a grand organ used in the days of silent movies. Complimentary tours are offered daily at 11:30 am, 1:30 pm, and 3:30 pm (no 11:30 am tour during winter months). The winery is open daily between 10 am and 5 pm (closed at Christmas and Thanksgiving). Ironstone Vineyards is located at 1894 Six Mile Road, Murphys. (209-728-1251, www.ironstonevineyards.com)
At the junction of Hwys 4 and 49 sits Angels Camp, a pleasant town with high sidewalks and wooden-fronted buildings. Today Angels Camp’s fame results not from mining, but from the frog-jumping contests held every May. There is even a monument to a frog taking the place of honor on the main street and brass plaques set in the sidewalk honoring the frogs who have won the jumping contest over the years.
Leave Angels Camp traveling north on Hwy 49 through San Andreas where nearly all evidence of Gold Rush days has been obliterated by modern shopping centers and commercial businesses. On the outskirts of the town Hwy 49 makes a sharp turn to the east (right), which is signposted Jackson. A 7-mile drive brings you to Mukulumne Hill, which in its heyday was one of the more raucous mining towns, though now it’s a sleepy place. Turn off Hwy 49 and loop through town past the Hotel Leger and turn left in front of the crumbling IOOF (International Order of Odd Fellows) building, then through the residential area and back onto the main road.
Jackson still supports roughly the same population as it had during the Gold Rush-consequently, modern shopping centers and sprawling suburbs are the order of the day. To visit the old town turn right at the first stop sign in town which curves through the old downtown along Main Street. Set above the old town in a Victorian home is the Amador County Museum, 225 Church Street (open Wednesday to Sunday 10 am to 4 pm). The various rooms have rather eclectic exhibits from the Gold Rush era: for example, the kitchen is full of 19th-century cookware while a small upstairs bedroom displays Indian baskets. Set in an adjacent building is a scale working model of the North Star Stamp Mill, which crushes tiny stones.
Retrace your route to where you turned off Hwy 49 and turn left on Hwy 88 signposted for Lake Tahoe and Pine Grove. Just outside Pine Grove turn left (signposted for your next two destinations, Indian Grinding Rock State Park and Volcano) and follow a pretty back road to Chaw’se Indian Grinding Rock State Park. A giant slab of limestone has over 1,000 grinding mortars worn into it by Indian women grinding acorn meal. A typical Miwok village has been built nearby with a ceremonial roundhouse and various tree-bark dwellings. The adjacent cultural center, built in the style of an Indian roundhouse, has interesting displays from several local Indian tribes.
Just a short drive takes you past the turnoff for Sutter Creek and into City Hall, one of the smallest (population 100) Gold Country towns, which boasted the first lending library and theater group in the state. Now it is a tiny one-street town whose most impressive building is the three-storied, balconied Saint George Hotel. Several weathered building fronts give an impression of what the town looked like in more prosperous days. Three miles beyond the town lies Daffodil Hill where over 25,000 daffodils provide a colorful spring display.
Follow the narrow wooded ravine alongside Sutter Creek as it twists down to the town of the same name. Sutter Creek rivals Nevada City and Murphys as the loveliest of the Gold Rush towns. Its main street is strung out along busy Hwy 49 but somehow the bustling traffic does not detract from its beauty. False wooden storefronts support big balconies, which hang over the high sidewalks of the town. Today many of the quaint wooden buildings are home to antique, craft, and gift shops.
Christ Church Cathedral and Ciäsa Granda, the first two towns you encounter after leaving Sutter Creek as you head towards Placerville on Hwy 49, have an old-world charm and are worth exploring. However, following thereafter is a string of commercial towns that are of little interest to the tourist although the intervening countryside is still most attractive. Follow Hwy 49 as it weaves through the commercial sprawl of Placerville. As Hwy 49 winds down into town take a right at the bottom on the hill to explore the town’s restored Main Street. If it is lunchtime head for A Main Street Café. Cross Hwy 50 and then follow the 49 as it climbs out of town.
It is an 8-mile drive along Hwy 49, through apple orchards and woodlands, to Coloma where the Gold Rush began. Set on the banks of the American River, the scant remains of the boom town of Coloma are preserved as Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park. It all began in 1848 when James Marshall discovered gold at Sutters Sawmill. The remaining historic buildings are scattered over a large area, each separated by expanses of green lawn and picnic places along the banks of the river. The residential part of town is a sleepy little cluster of attractive houses set back from the river-it is hard to believe that there was once a population of over 10,000 here. The museum shows a short film on gold discovery and provides information for a self-guided tour. A duplicate of Sutter’s original sawmill, looking like a big shed, sits on the bank of the river. For a change of transportation, a number of companies offer one-day rafting trips down the most famous section of the South Fork of the American River. We thoroughly enjoyed the trip that we took with Beyond Limits Adventures. It’s a class 3 (intermediate) section of river that combines pretty scenery and whitewater as your raft plunges into Satan’s Cesspool, Hospital Bar, and Ambulance Driver. (Minimum age seven, season April to October, 800-234-7238, www.rivertrip.com.)
Auburn lies 20 miles farther north along Hwy 49, which weaves through its town center, crosses Hwy 80, and continues as a fast, wide road for approximately 24 miles into Grass Valley. An alternative, far more attractive, and just a few miles longer route, is to take Hwy 80 north to the Colfax-Grass Valley exit and follow Hwy 174 through pretty woodlands and orchards into Grass Valley. (The following sightseeing suggestion, Empire Mine State Park, is signposted on your left as you near town.)
Grass Valley has a booming economy and sprawls far beyond its historic boundary. Its old downtown buildings housing everyday stores attest to its prosperity. Save town explorations for adjacent Nevada City and concentrate on Grass Valley’s Empire Mine State Park at the southern end of town. This hard-rock mine is the oldest and richest in California. From startup in 1850 to closure in 1956, an estimated 5,800,000 ounces of gold were extracted. Wander through the yard to see the historic buildings (excellent displays) and take a peek down the mainshaft. Tours are given through the opulent Empire Cottage where you see how William Bourne, the wealthy mine owner, lived when on vacation or visiting his mine interests. (530-273-8522)
The adjacent town of Nevada City is as handsome as Grass Valley is functional. The old mining stores and saloons have been cleverly converted into eateries ranging from family-style cafés to gourmet restaurants, antique stores, boutiques, bookstores, and the like. Old-fashioned gas lamps light the streets at night, providing a perfect backdrop for a horse-drawn-carriage ride. Many settlers came here from the east bringing with them the deciduous trees of their home states, so Nevada City is one of the few places in California that has the glorious fall foliage. A great many events occur in Nevada City including the popular Victorian Christmas (Thanksgiving to Christmas-roast chestnuts and carolers), Summer Nights, and the Teddy Bear Convention (April). The town also hosts parades such as the Joe Cain Parade (Mardi Gras), markets, festivals, and tours that give you plenty of excuses to visit this delightful spot at all times of the year.
As a conclusion to your Gold Country explorations, take a 45-mile round trip to Malakoff Diggins State Park where high-powered jets of water were blasted at a mountainside to extract gold. The method was very successful, but it clogged waterways for miles and left a lunar-like landscape where there had once been a forested mountainside. This is a very pleasant summer-evening trip, but rather than run the risk of returning down narrow country roads in the dark, make the loop as you leave Nevada City for Lake Tahoe. The route is quite well signposted, but it gives you reassurance to have in hand the map from Nevada City Chamber of Commerce. (530-265-2692, www.nevadacitychamber.com)
Go north on Hwy 49, following it through wooded countryside for 11 miles to the marker directing you right to Malakoff Diggins (signposted Tyler Foote Crossing Road). The narrow paved road leads you through the forest and, just as you are beginning to wonder quite where you are going, a signpost directs you right down a dirt road into North Bloomfield, a town of white-painted houses and buildings set behind picket fences under forest shade. (Several buildings have been restored as museums and the ranger station is a useful informational stop.) The road through town leads to the diggins proper, a vast landscape of awesome scars. If the weather is inclement, turn back at this point and return to Nevada City by way of the paved highway. Otherwise, continue along the well-maintained dirt road (forking left and downhill at junctions), which leads you down through some lovely scenery to a narrow wood-and-metal bridge spanning a rocky canyon of the South Yuba River where you pick up the paved road that brings you back to Hwy 49 on the outskirts of Nevada City.
Leave Nevada City on Hwy 20 east, a freeway which soon becomes a two-lane highway passing through forests and along a high ridge giving vistas of the Sierras. As Hwy 20 ends, take Hwy 80 towards Truckee, a fast freeway that climbs into the Sierra mountains through ever-more-dramatic rugged scenery.
The freeway climbs over Donner Lake & Pass, both named in honor of the group of settlers led by George Donner who in 1846 became snowbound while trying to cross the Sierra Nevada in late fall. Harsh conditions and lack of food took many lives and resulted in the survivors resorting to cannibalism.
Take Hwy 89, the Tahoe City exit, and follow it alongside the rushing Truckee River to its source, Lake Tahoe. Tucked in a high valley, Lake Tahoe is a vast, blue, icy-cold lake ringed by pine forests and backed by high mountains. The lake has about 70 miles of shoreline, a maximum depth of 1,645 feet, and a summer temperature of about 65 degrees. When people from the San Francisco Bay Area say they are “going to the mountains,” Tahoe is usually where they’re heading. While certain enclaves have their share of hot dog stands, McDonald’s restaurants, and glitzy gambling casinos, there are many unspoilt areas where you can enjoy the exquisite beauty of the lake and its surrounding stunning scenery. For bikers and joggers, a marvelous, seemingly endless trail traces a path along the lakefront and down the Truckee River.
Tahoe City combines rustic, folksy shops, restaurants, and everyday stores with two quite interesting tourist attractions: Fanny Bridge and the Gatekeeper’s Cabin. Fanny Bridge is very close: just turn right at the supermarket, and there it is. You will see immediately the derivation of “Fanny” when you see the tourists leaning over the railing to watch the trout gobble up the food tossed to them. On the same side of the bridge where the fish feed, outlet gates are opened and shut to control the level of the lake-the entire flow of water exiting from Lake Tahoe is regulated here as the water runs into the Truckee River. The other attraction of Tahoe City, the Gatekeeper’s Cabin, sits on the bank of the Truckee. The rustic old cabin, once home to the man who controlled the river level, is now an attractive small museum operated by the local historical society.
Hugging the shoreline, Hwy 89 opens up to ever-more-lovely vistas as the road travels south. Nine miles south of Tahoe City brings you to Sugar Pine State Park with its many miles of hiking trails, and camping and picnic sites. In summer you can tour the nicely furnished Ehrman Mansion, once the vast lakeside summer home of a wealthy San Francisco family.
You will know by the sheer beauty of your surroundings when you are at Emerald Bay. The road sits hundreds of feet above a sparkling, blue-green bay and miles of Lake Tahoe stretch beyond its entrance. Center stage is a small wooded island crowned by a stone teahouse. A 1½-mile trail winds down to the lake-it seems a lot farther walking up-and in summer you can tour Vikingsholm, the 38-room lakeside mansion built in 1929 and patterned after a 9th-century Norse fortress. It is the finest example of Scandinavian architecture in America and is filled with Norwegian furniture. (www.vikingsholm.com)
Just beyond Emerald Bay a trail leads from the parking lot up a ¼-mile steep trail to a bridge above the cascading cataract of Eagle Falls, which offers fantastic views of Lake Tahoe. A mile farther up the trail is Eagle Lake, in an isolated, picture-perfect setting.
A memorable outing from Tahoe is a day trip to Nevada’s silver towns, Virginia City and Carson City. Leaving Tahoe City, follow the northernmost shore of the lake across the Nevada state line and take Hwy 431 from Incline Village over Mount Rose to the stoplight at Hwy 395. Cross the highway and go straight ahead up the winding Geiger Grade, Hwy 341, to Virginia City. Built over a honeycomb of silver mines, in its heyday Virginia City had a population of over 30,000. Its wooden sidewalks, colorful saloons (you must visit the Bucket of Blood Saloon), and false-front buildings with their broad balconies make it a town straight out of a John Wayne movie. The stores sell everything from homemade candy to western boots and several have been reconstructed as museums. You can walk up to the old cemetery, take a steam-train ride, or tour a mine.
Leaving town, travel on through Gold Hill and Silver Hill to Hwy 50 where you turn south for the 7-mile drive to Carson City, the state capital. The town itself has little of interest except for the Nevada State Museum, just across the street from the Nugget Casino on the main road (open 8:30 am to 4:30 pm daily). The highlight of the museum is the re-created silver mine in the basement. You walk along rail car lines in semi-darkness, past exhibits of miners at work and mine machinery-a lot safer than going down a working mine. (775-687-4810)
To return to Tahoe, go south on Hwy 395, the main street of town, to Hwy 50 west. Turn right and when you come to Lake Tahoe turn right, following the lake to Tahoe City.
Leaving Lake Tahoe, it is a fast four- to five-hour freeway drive, via Hwy 80, to the San Francisco Bay Area. If you are going to Los Angeles, take Hwy 80 to Sacramento and Hwy 5 south to Los Angeles-a fast eight- to nine-hour drive.