The first stop on a trip to Gold Country has to be Jamestown. Skip the dusty antique stores and head straight to Railtown 1897. Experience a ride through movie history and take the Back to the Future steam train into the hills. Walk around the buildings used in classic western films and television, then go for a guided tour of the roundhouse. You might even get to see the roundhouse in action.
Check out Indigeny Reserve, a cider works and distillery. You can tour the acres of apple orchards and barrel room before tasting their brandies, triple distilled infused vodkas and apple ciders. You’ve got to be 21 years old to get into the place.
Drive back down the hills to Sonora, the gateway to Yosemite. Sonora might surprise you with its restored historic buildings, boutique shops, and good food. You can explore the historic buildings starting with the perplexing white domed and columned building looming over the city — that’s the old, condemned school district building. Continue down the hill to the Opera House then follow South Washington Street and check out the art galleries, Veteran’s Memorial, Tuolumne County Courthouse, and end at the red St. James Episcopal Church.
Once you’re done wandering around the historical buildings, eat at one of Sonora’s restaurants. For its size, Sonora has a number of great places ranging from burgers and fries joints to Thai food. Many of the restaurants feature local wines from the nearby up and coming vineyards. If homemade ravioli or salmon with mango chutney paired with the region’s best wines sounds like your thing, check out Talulah’s Restaurant on South Washington Street.
Nightlife is limited in this area, but if you’re a fan of spoof cover bands you can rock out with the bachelorette parties, ranchers, and bikers up the road in Tuolumne at Black Oak Casino. For a more relaxed time, stay at the newly restored Sonora Inn and enjoy the views of the Sierra Nevada while floating in their rooftop pool.
Columbia, Angels Camp, and Murphys
Before heading further north on Highway 49, skip the complimentary breakfast and grab a smoothie or a coffee and a pastry at Schnoog’s Cafe. At Columbia State Historic Park, you can take a horse and carriage ride through town, pan for gold in the mining area, and get in line to play old fashioned bowling. For a break from the crowds, head up the hill and discover Columbia’s history in a different way: with its cemetery and Old Columbia Schoolhouse — a two-story schoolhouse set up just like a 19th-century classroom, dunce cap and all.
When you’re done playing miner at Columbia, head north to Angels Camp. Readers of Mark Twain’s short story The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County will want to look down at the sidewalk: each section of it celebrates the winner of the annual frog-jumping jubilee. If you’re there in May, you can check out this wackiness in action.
If you’re on the more adventurous side, head to Moaning Caverns, a cave deep enough to hold the Statue of Liberty, outside Vallecitos. You can rappel 135 feet into its depths, put on your hardhat and take the 3-hour adventure tour. If dark, enclosed spaces aren’t your thing then head up to Murphys and check out one of their many wine tasting rooms.
Calaveras Big Trees State Park
End your trip to the Gold Country with a relaxing walk through a grove of the largest living things on Earth: the Giant Sequoias. These giants grow in pockets throughout the Southern Nevada, and Calaveras Big Trees State Park is one of the best places to experience them. Secure an eco-campsite (halfway between car camping and backpacking) under the stars. With a bottle of wine from one of the local vineyards, the quiet and solitude make for one of the best camping experiences. For the next day, push yourself to complete the 8-mile loop to the fast running Stanislaus River on the River Canyon Trail. Don’t forget to bring plenty of water as this south facing slope can get warm in the summer.