Things to do in Tuolumne County – California Gold Country

categories: Sierra Nevada Mountains

While the California gold rush may be over, some of the places that are left behind in Tuolumne County still have riches to explore for travelers. Things to do in Tuolumne County include winter sports, cool hikes, historic sites, or just relaxing and enjoying a glass of local wine or cider or a slice of pie.

National Hotel Jamestown

National Hotel Jamestown

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Things to do in Jamestown

The home base for my trip to Tuolumne County was the historic National Hotel in Jamestown which was kind enough to sponsor me for a couple of nights, but more on that later. Jamestown is one of the two biggest draws of Tuolumne County in the summer months.

Jamestown

The city still has an old west feel with a number of buildings on its main street dating back to the 1850s, but the Jewel of Jamestown is Railtown 1897 State Park.

Jamestown is  a California Historical Landmark. Plan some time to stroll around Jamestown. There’s still one place you can pan for gold, numerous antique stores, hotels, and restaurants and, on the weekend I was there, a lovely outdoor market.

Railtown 1897 State Park

Railtown 1897 State Park

Whether or not you’ve heard of Railtown, you have likely seen it in some TV show or movie. The museum and the accompanying steam train have been featured in movies from silent films on into Back to the Future part III.

It was trains that connect to the west to the rest of the United States and eliminated the grueling and often deadly covered wagon trip to the West Coast. It was trains that hauled gold and later lumber out of the sierra Nevada in the foothills. And it was trains that brought some of the original visitors from Sacramento and San Francisco to this beautiful natural area.

Railtown 1897 State Park roundhouse

Railtown still has its original roundhouse which is a barn for holding trains plus a turn table to bring them back on the right track. You can peek inside the roundhouse to see a number of different engines including some of the original snowplow engines in the area as well as the maintenance area and blacksmith where different parts for the train could be made or repaired.

Railtown 1897 State Park history

Explore the cinematic history of Railtown in the display that talks about TV shows like Petticoat Junction, Little House on the Prairie, The Wild Wild West, and Green Acres and movies like Go West (Marx Brothers), High Noon, 3:10 to Yuma, and Back to the Future Part 3 which were filmed here. More than 200 different TV shows or movies have used the grounds, the tracks or the train in their production starting with the 1929 film The Virginian. The nickname for the train is the Movietown Railroad.

Railtown 1897 State Park

Railtown 1897 State Park

You can see much of the rail yard with an hour or less, but train aficionados should time their visit for when they can take a ride on the Sierra Railway historic steam train into the foothills. The Sierra Railway started as a train to carry lumber for the Pickering Logging Company in Standard, California. It carried logs until 1960, but added tourist trains in 1922.

Since 1992 Railtown has been managed as part of the wonderful California State Railroad Museum in Old Town Sacramento.

Admission to Railtown

* Adults – $5
* Youths – $3 (ages 6-17)
* Children – Free (ages 5 and under)

Hours

April-October: 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. November-March: 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Railtown is closed New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day.

Table Mountain Trail - Jamestown

Table Mountain

For an almost aerial view of Jamestown, climb the mesa called table Mountain to the west side of Jamestown. Table Mountain trail is a 3.8 mile out and back hike with a gain in altitude of 610 feet.

I did the hike first thing in the morning when the fog was still clinging to the Meadows, and I needed to pause and wait for deer to finish crossing the trail.

Take Rawhide Road west from Jamestown to Shell Road and turn south. I drove down Shell Road until I got to a closed gate where the table mountain trail starts. Others who arrived later, after the gate had been opened, were able to drive the rough dirt road even further down for a shorter if more intense hike. If I had done that short cut, I would missed my deer encounter.

From the end of the dirt road the table Mountain Trail wines is way up and up and up to the top of the plateau. The trail gets increasingly steep as it goes up and the last bit is a scramble over rocks the size of your head. While I did the hike solo, it’s an easy place to twist and ankle so it would probably be better to hike with friends.

Table Mountain Trail - Jamestown

The top of the mountain is surprisingly not smooth but has rocks that appear to be volcanic everywhere.

Table Mountain Trail - Jamestown

From the western edge of table Mountain you can view New Melones Lake which was still somewhat shrouded in fog on the morning that I was there in early November. The eastern edge of table Mountain looks down on Jamestown. You should bring a pair of binoculars or a camera with a good telephoto lens.

Mark Twain's Cabin

Mark Twain’s Cabin

On the road between Jamestown and Angel’s Camp in Calaveras County you can make a turn off on Jackass Hill Road to the replica of the cabin that Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) lived in when he visited the area in 1865. It was here that he penned the story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”. Access to the cabin is not allowed.

The name Jackass Hill does not come from some critic of Twain but predates his arrival by more than a decade. The name comes from the noise made from pack trains of jackasses that brought down gold from local mines.

The Service Station

Restaurants

Jamestown had more interesting restaurants than I had time on this latest trip. In addition to eating at the National Hotel (see below) I also had dinner at the Service Station. I visited in 2021 during COVID so I was looking for restaurants with outdoor dining. The Service Station has a beer garden in the back of the restaurant with both covered and sunlit tables. The restaurant features draft beer and wine tasting, salads, wraps, sandwiches and burgers along with a handful of entrees like steak. Sandwiches are my goto dinner since the sandwich is natures perfect food. I had the Philly Cheesesteak and fries. The cheesesteak had a beer cheese which even a non-beer drinker like me can appreciate. 

Columbia State Historic Park

Columbia State Historic Park

The other historic jewel in Tuolumne County is Columbia State Historic Park. Columbia is an actual old West gold town that is one of the best preserved towns from that era in California. There are museum displays inside a number of the buildings including a small museum about the entire town.

Columbia State Historic Park

Over $150 million of gold was taken out of the hills around Columbia and by 1852 this was a thriving town with a population of 5,000 residents. It had 40 saloons or gambling establishments but only 3 churches. It had 8 hotels, 17 general stores, and 4 banks. It had 1 newspaper and, perhaps surprisingly, 2 bookstores.

2 of the old hotels (City Hotel and Fallon Hotel) are still open and can be booked through the state park website.

Columbia State Historic Park - Columbia Mercantile 1855

You can still get food at a few establishments in the historic area. There is no gambling or show girls but you can still eat lunch in an old restaurant with a piano player playing out tunes from the era.

  • I ate most recently at the Columbia House Restaurant which is right on Main Street and serves breakfast, lunch and dinner.
  • Brown’s Coffee & Sweets Saloon offers sweets and baked goods.
  • Columbia Mercantile 1855 offers picnic items and beverages.
  • Fallon Ice Cream Parlor serves cones, sundaes, and of course, a sarsaparilla.
  • Jack Douglass Saloon boasts sandwiches, sarsaparilla and the coldest beer in town.
  • St. Charles Saloon has hamburgers, hot dogs, sandwiches, sarsaparilla, soft drinks, beer and wine.

Columbia State Historic Park

There are still around a dozen specialty shops in the town where you can pick up some candy, a personalized horseshoe or a cowboy hat.

Columbia State Historic Park

If you want to buy or sell gold, or just learn to pan it, you can visit the Matelot Gulch Mine Supply Store.

Columbia State Historic Park - panning for gold

If you’re not into reading about history you can just live it for a day. You can get a ride on a stage coach. You can watch a blacksmith work.

Columbia State Historic Park

Well there are people dressed in. Costumes including at least one person with the sheriffs badge, this is not a theme park but a state park. Don’t expect a gun fight in the street but do expect a better glimpse into 1800s California.

Columbia State Historic Park - Schoolhouse

If you have time take a walk up the hill to the old school house.

Columbia State Historic Park - Hearse

Or hike further up the hill to the Columbia Cemetery which is the final resting place for many local residence. Columbia used to have 5 different cemeteries including a “boot hill” of unmarked graves. A fight or two may have broken out in those 40 different entertainment establishments. A peak into Johnson’s livery will show you an old horse-drawn hearse used for many a local resident’s last trip.

Columbia State Historic Park

Besides the stage coach, kids will enjoy the souvenirs and a local candy shop or ice cream shop. I first visited Columbia when I was probably around five years old and while it took me many years to get back, I had great memories of visiting the area as a child.

Admission

There is no charge to visit Columbia State Historic park. It is quite popular with school groups.

Hours

Most exhibits are open daily 10 am – 4 pm Most stores are open from 10 am – 5 pm. The park is closed Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day.

Cover Apple Farm

For a nice break from exploring the history, make a stop at the Cover Apple Farm. This farm has a wonderful play area for kids and in the fall it even had a  hay bale maze.

But the main reason to visit Apple farm is for the wonderful things that can be made from apples like your local apple juice and cider or a slice of fresh apple pie. I had the triple berry instead and certainly don’t regret my choice.

Inner Sanctum Cellars Basecamp

Inner Sanctum Cellars Basecamp

The wine industry in Tuolumne County is relatively small compared to many California counties. But what they lack in numerical superiority they make up for and quality and hospitality.You can try the Italian wines at Gianelli Vineyards or for a wonderful relaxing experience head to base camp.

Basecamp is a second act career for owners Pete and Karen Luckhardt. Pete used to be a local fire fighter for 28 years, but before his knees gave out he switched into the wine business. His great uncle had done wine production when he was a kid and after working someone with the previous owners of Gianelli Vineyards he and Karen decided to start their own winery.

Inner Sanctum Cellars Basecamp

Inner Sanctum Cellars does not grow their own grapes, but purchases grapes from friends from 3 minutes to an hour away. The Luckhardts started with a wine tasting room in Jamestown in 2010, but during Covid moved up to a more spacious area near her to Columbia which allows for outdoor tasting, events like weddings, and Friday night concerts. Before Covid they had concerts with up to 250 guests and can park up to 100 cars on their back 40.

The base camp tasting menu favors both French and Spanish varietals. If the wines of the winery have a character, attends towards open, uncomplicated and welcoming… just like the owners.

Inner Sanctum Cellars Basecamp

I tasted everything from their white Verdejo, to the red Tempranillo, to a peach champagne. All the wines are made for taking home and drinking not for storing in your seller. A number of the wines would be great party wines like the 2018 Tempranillo or the 2017 Syrah and would be real crowdpleasers.

One of the most surprising wines was the 2019 ISC Basecamp red blend. It is a blend of 70% Tempranillo and 30% Reserve Cabernet which had a surprising sweetness. I would describe it as a red wine for white wine lovers who want to explore more.

Inner Sanctum Cellars Basecamp

If you are visiting with kids, ask about the chickens and the two dwarf sheep in the back. These sheep were traditionally used to graze the weeds between the vines. They were two short to reach up and eat the grapes.

Inner Sanctum Cellars Basecamp

Not a fan of wine? The taproom has 8 local beers or ciders on tap.

Chinese Camp Store and Tavern

Chinese Camp

One of the nearby historic towns in the area is Chinese Camp. It is a very tiny town. The city limit signs are nearly back to back. There’s a post office and the eclectic Chinese Camp Store and Tavern. Chinese Camp Store and Tavern is a combination tavern, convenient store, souvenir shop. You can buy a beer, a bag of tricks chips or rocks. The store has a lovely picnic area in the back.

Chinese Camp Store and Tavern

To explore more of the history of Chinese camp stop along Highway 120 at the Chinese Camp historic marker and learn more about the area. Chinese Camp looks like it has seen better days but it has also seen worse. It was created, as the name suggests by, Chinese miners attracted to the area by the gold rush. . It was is the home of the first Tong War, a battle between rival criminal gangs among the Chinese community.

About 15,000 – 20,000 of the Chinese immigrants to the area stayed to work on the Union Pacific Railroad.

Chinese Camp

Chinese Camp

Nowadays there are a number of old ruined buildings down the block from the Chinese Camp historic marker. Take five or 10 minutes And walk past the old post office or some of the old buildings while they are still standing.

Red Hills Recreational Management Area - Serpentine Loop Road

Red Hills Recreational Management Area – Serpentine Loop Road

Before my trip I looked into popular trails in the area and one of the ones that I explored was the 3.5 mile loop trail called the Serpentine Loop Road. This hike is into the scrub brush in the Red Hills Recreational Management Area. This is not a hike for vast vistas but I enjoyed this relatively easy trail. The trail has 347 feet of elevation gain and virtually no shade. So bring your sun protection and a full water bottle.  The last part of this trail is on the shoulder of Red Hill Road which doesn’t have a lot of extra space for hikers.

Groveland and Yosemite National Park

Lake Don Pedro

Lake Don Pedro

If you continue on highway 120 from Chinese Camp you will pass the northern spur of Lake Don Pedro. The morning I last drove that route the lake was covered with early morning fog and filled with the calls of Canadian Geese. Lake Don Pedro, New Melones Lake and other lakes up and down the foothills of the Sierra Nevada are an important part of California’s water system. In a state where it seems like one out of five years is a flood year and the rest are drought years, water management is not an easy problem. These lakes also provide places for boating and fishing for tourists and locals.

Groveland

By the time you reach Groveland you have climbed to over 3,000 feet in elevation thru a winding highway 120. The scenery in Groveland is now wooded and this is the entry town in Tuolumne County for Yosemite National Park. From Groveland you are only 24 miles from the Big Oak Flat entrance to the park.

I tried the Little Golden Children’s Forest Hike outside Groveland but without a brochure for this nature hike, I can say that I would recommend it. If you are planning on entering Yosemite then a more interesting hike would be to the Tuolumne Grove, not long after you enter the park.

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite is an amazing place and can easily be added to your trip. Certainly explore the wonders of the Yosemite Valley, but if you come from late spring to early autumn, don’t ignore the northern part of the park with Tuolumne Meadows. The road to Tuolumne Meadows continues to Tioga Pass and Mono Lake and the ghost town of Bodie State Park on the other side of the Sierras. This northern route through Yosemite is closed in winter.

Dodge Ridge

Winter Activities in Tuolumne County – Dodge Ridge

There is one ski area in Tuolumne County which is Dodge Ridge. I learned to ski at Dodge Ridge as a kid and have fond memories of the area. Before I was a skier, we would make trips up to Pinecrest in the winter with other families and would bring inner tubes to go tubing down the local hills. Tuolumne County is a year-round destination.

Where to Stay in Jamestown – Historic National Hotel

As I mentioned above, I spent the weekend as a guest of the Historic National Hotel in Jamestown which has been in operation since 1859. It was one of the first wooden buildings in town, with most of the original establishments being run from tents. The original guests may have been a bit rougher than the current clientele but with better hats and mustaches.

The bar still has a working cash register dating back to 1881… but the cash register can’t ring up anything greater than $6.95.

The National Hotel started as a bar, hotel and restaurant and remains one to this day. It survived at least two major fires in Jamestown including a fire in 1901 that destroyed several blocks downtown and a fire in 1927 which destroyed the building next door.

The hotel was fined more than once during prohibition for illegally serving alcohol which it continues to serve to this day… but with less problems from the law. You could also find legalized prostitution here until the 1930s and slot machines until 1949.

Continue the fine tradition of the hotel by getting a drink in the bar, a glass of wine with dinner or, better yet, get your alcohol poured over a  dish of Bananas Foster and set a blaze at your table as part of the dinner menu.

The restaurant of the National closed in 1946 and did not reopen until the hotel was purchased by the current owners in 1974.

One of the more popular meals at the National Hotel is Sunday brunch. And with this plate of “Outrageous French Toast” on the menu, I can see why.

My visit was in 2021 and I still eat as many meals outside as possible. I ate dinner in one of the 3 dining rooms but brunch out on the patio before the place started to fill up. Behind the garden is still an old gold mine shaft, but it has been covered up.

The rooms are tastefully decorated with a local teddy bear in my room, which is good because I had not brought mine from home. The room had an en suite bathroom. Indoor plumbing did not come to the National Hotel until a single bathroom was added in the 1920s. In room bathrooms were first added to some rooms in 1979-80. In the 1990s, the number of rooms shrank from 11 to 9 so that all rooms could have bathrooms added.

The wi-fi and internet connection is likely also added since 1859. I had a good connection and was able to stream a TV show from my Tivo at home. I imagine back in 1859 one would have to be happy with Netflix movies on DVDs delivered via the Wells Fargo Wagon… although I could be mistaken.

The National Hotel is busiest in summer when tourists come to the region in greater numbers, but is open all year long. Jamestown is at 1,400 feet so usually will not get snow in winter.

The National Hotel says that they have a friendly ghost named Flo but I can neither confirm nor deny this claim.

Things to do in Tuolumne County - California Gold Country | Things to do in Jamestown CA #california #gold #jamestown #columbia #tuolumne #things-to-do-in #places Things to do in Tuolumne County - California Gold Country | Things to do in Jamestown CA #california #gold #jamestown #columbia #tuolumne #things-to-do-in #places

by Chris Christensen

Chris Christensen is the creator of the Amateur Traveler blog and podcast, and a co-host for This Week in Travel podcast.

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