Every year, about four million tourists visit California’s Yosemite National Park in the stunning Sierra Nevada mountains – and you can be sure most of them will head straight for the famous Yosemite Valley.
It’s where you’ll find postcard landmarks El Capitan, Half Dome and Yosemite Falls – although you’ll struggle to get a photo without someone else in the shot.
But canny folks can swerve the crowds by taking the road less travelled through Tuolumne County, the gateway to the north of Yosemite and the gold rush towns of the High Sierra.
Away from the hordes you’ll find hiking trails, lakes, rivers and majestic mountain ranges where you might not even pass one person – even in the peak season.
We began our hike from Hetch Hetchy, a crystal clear reservoir supplying water to San Francisco a two-and-a-half hour drive away, and followed the shoreline to the breathtaking Tueeulala and Wapama Falls.
Even though it was September, temperatures soared to 30C, so the moderate five-mile walk was plenty enough exertion for me, but keen hikers will be spoilt for choice with the multitude of trails here.
In the afternoon we took a short drive towards Yosemite Valley and admired the iconic peaks of El Capitan and Half Dome from glorious viewpoints.
It had been a long day and we were ready to head back to our very own covered wagon at family campsite Yosemite Pines.
Recreating the pioneering spirit was no hardship though as our spacious glamping wagon came well-equipped with the 21st century home comforts of a fridge, microwave, air con/heating and comfy beds for a good night’s sleep.
The next morning we departed for idyllic Pinecrest Lake, an hour’s drive away. In the midst of the Stanislaus National Forest it’s the perfect setting for a spot of trout fishing, sailing and kayaking, or just simply relaxing on the sandy beach.
It’s well worth hiring a kayak to explore the lake but leave plenty of time if you’re aiming to reach the other side – it’s wide (double kayak hire from £23 per hour and half-day from £46).
After refuelling with a delicious lunch at pizzeria Mia’s, it was time to saddle up and get into the cowboy spirit at beautiful Kennedy Meadows Resort.
High in the Sierra Nevada mountains, the ranch offers guided horse rides including a 75-minute trot through the Upper Meadows and across the river, along with two-day trips and more (from £19pp).
And even if equestrian pursuits aren’t your thing, you can always stay back at the ranch and settle down by the river with a good book and a beer.
Then it was westward ho for a 90-mile drive to the heart of California’s Gold Country and the town of Sonora, which looks like it’s straight out of a classic western movie.
Our base, the Sonora Inn built in 1896, has played host to Hollywood A-listers over the years including Grace Kelly and Drew Barrymore.
After an early dinner (restaurants tend to close by 9.30pm), we couldn’t resist a nightcap at one of the town’s lively bars. Perched on bar stools in a saloon we slammed back beers, feeding the old jukebox with quarter dollar coins – probably annoying the local punters into the bargain!
Nursing sore heads next morning we wandered to the farmer’s market to grab a breakfast of burritos and home-made apple juice.
Strolling along Sonara’s Washington Street, lined with thrift stores and vintage shops, we stumbled on a very modern detox spa. After days in hiking boots, an Ionic Footsoak at Amala Detox & Tea Lounge was heavenly (£27).
Then next stop was the Indigeny Reserve, a cider works and distillery up in the lush hills of Sonora.
Even if cider isn’t your tipple of choice, it’s a picturesque spot for a picnic amongst the organic apple orchards and pumpkin patches.
Alcohol also played an integral part in the evening when we joined an art class at Brush and Cork, run by Californian artist Judy Grossman.
The painting party (bring your own drink and snacks) was true to its motto ‘A little wine, a little paint, a lotta fun!’ even for a novice like me, and everyone gets to take home their ‘work of art’ (two hours from £27 for two hours).
For our final day we headed three miles north of Sonora to Columbia State Historic Park, actually a working town which boasts the largest collection of gold rush-era buildings in the state – some town scenes from High Noon were filmed here.
Time seems to have stood still in Columbia, and we learned about the Gold Rush era from merchants strolling round in 1850s attire.
For a flavour of the Wild West you can visit a gold mine, learn to pan for gold, and at weekends you can even ride shotgun on a stagecoach (entrance free).
Take the weight off your feet and have a bite to eat at Columbia Kate’s Teahouse which serves up American classics such as chicken pot pie and slices of meatloaf.
Last on our whistle-stop tour was Railtown 1897 State Historic Park in Jamestown where we saw the steam engine that starred in Back to the Future 3 and other western classics, and took a scenic train ride through Gold Country (weekends April-October, from £12 adults/£4 children/free for under-fives, includes park entrance).
Back in San Francisco waiting for our flight home, we all agreed we’d struck a rich seam of top experiences during our travels in Tuolumne County. Pure gold, in fact.
Book the holiday
- Icelandair flies to San Francisco from Gatwick and Heathrow via Reykjavik starting at £296 return.
- Clamping accommodation at the Yosemite Pines RV Resort in Groveland, California, starts at $139 a night.
- Rooms at the Sonora Inn in Sonora, California, start at $75 a night.
- Car hire at San Francisco starts at around £140 a week with rentalcars.com.
- Tourist info: visittuolumne.com
Time zone UK – 8hrs
Currency US $ £1 = 1.28
Best time to go: Golden great all summer long.