“Gettin’ married”? (Or not!?)
If you are mining for that golden band on your finger and think that an old Gold-Rush-era hotel would be a romantic place to stay and dine well, or you are just digging to find a fine vacation spot for yourself alone, or with friends or family, consider Tuolumne County, California for your honeymoon (or your next California-dreamin’ vacation for that matter). Tuolumne County is not your typical honeymoon capital, and it’s not overly crowded even for tourists not on a honeymoon, which is a good thing. You’ll experience some memorable times with whomever your chose to travel. And, conveniently, Tuolumne County is on the main drag to Yosemite National Park,
You want to travel to exciting places but not be part of the herded masses. You’ve run away to be together, without friends and family, to have some special time alone – even if it’s not a honeymoon.
You won’t spot a lot of honeymooners here, panning for gold or otherwise, so you won’t be forced to tell embarrassing one-upmanship wedding stories to others who’ve recently married, too
“Tuolumne-where?” you say.
You know Tuolumne (pronounced too-all-ah-me), even if you think you don’t.
Ah! Now you remember. Sutter’s Mill, January 1848. Followed by Wood’s Creek in Jamestown (Tuolumne County), July 1848. The Gold Rush was on. Wild, bawdy and free, and located in some of the most spectacular settings in what was to become the State of California, gold cities sprouted overnight. Over 16,000 gold diggers and entrepreneurs getting rich supporting the gold mining business had moved to Tuolumne County by 1860. The entrepreneurs ended up on the winning end of the gold chase!
Fortunately for us, several of the gold rush settlements remain for history buffs and nostalgia lovers to enjoy. Four of these precious nuggets, the villages of Jamestown, Sonoma, Groveland and Columbia, and the nearby splendor of Yosemite National Park shimmer under the glorious California sunshine – an average of 325 sunny days per year.
Jamestown is a sleepy mining town offering visitors a taste of the impact of the gold rush. Its main street maintains a classic Old West architecture of false-fronted buildings and raw wood. Hollywood often uses Jamestown for period movies. A railroad museum situated on active railroad tracks includes a rare ’roundhouse’.
Sonora offers the largest ‘downtown’ of any of these three communities. It is the area’s cultural center, offering live theater, museums, dining options and several art galleries. Colorful buildings of gold-rush era Victorian architecture line the major streets. Festivals and special events provide entertainment throughout the year.
Groveland might be cast as the “Route 120 Gateway” to Yosemite. Groveland is small-town, rural America at its best. It’s probably closest to what you’d imagine for a ‘little-house-on-the-prairie’ village. The proximity to Yosemite and nearby lakes and mountains, several fun shops, restaurants and bars, hotels, the fun Iron Door Saloon, and a gold rush museum add vitality to this otherwise quiet village.
Columbia is a dynamic, inspiring, living museum, the best place to get a feel of life in the wild, Wild West of 150 years ago.
The last of Tuolumne’s commercial mines have closed, but there’s still gold to be found. However, the financial return on investment in today’s economy is just not there. For those of you who buy lottery tickets, chances of finding gold are greater than those of winning the lottery – you probably won’t get rich, but probably you will find gold.
Wood’s Creek, in historic Jamestown, offers an exciting gold-fever fix! Modern-day prospector Bryant Shock delivers the history and the gold! After being entertained by Shock’s fascinating Gold Rush 101 intro, visitors to his Wood’s Creek claim are taught the fine points of efficient gold panning. It’s fun, but it’s (voluntary) hard work. And one of our group members panned a shiny nugget valued at $90! The rest of us were thrilled when speckles of gold dust appeared in the bottoms of our pans along with fool’s gold and chips of turquoise and other semi-precious stones.
“But, Tuolumne,” you ask? “Where can we stay and find romantic fine dining that’ll be more upscale and romantic than a cookie cutter motel with a free breakfast consisting of day-old gourmet-muffins-to-go?”
Several classic hotel choices are available. Once you are in the Tuolumne area, whether your honeymoon is for a long weekend or a week or longer, or you are here for vacation, you can select any one of these hotels and stay put for your entire stay. The charm and comfort of these options will definitely give you something to write on postcards or into your diary – if you have time for writing. (When checking in, be sure to ask your front desk manager for details on their hotel ghosts.)
Two restored hotels, the Jamestown Hotel and Restaurant (11 rooms) and the National Hotel Restaurant and Saloon (9 rooms), provide romantic mid-19th-century décor with all the comforts newly married couples will find romantic – - rooms furnished with antiques and brass or cast-iron beds, claw-foot bath tubs, air-conditioning, etc. The restaurants of both establishments serve fine California cuisine in historic settings, the Jamestown presenting its 500-bottle wine cellar to compliment your traditional menu choice. You’ll enjoy both establishments!
Not far from Jamestown is a town that is also a state historic park – Columbia. Not just another ‘back-lot set’ for Hollywood’s westerns, Columbia is the best-preserved mining town in the gold rush area.
Walk arm-in-arm down romantic, historic streets. Duck into bustling saloons or small restaurants for refreshments. Observe the skills of master blacksmiths. Shop at quaint antique and gift shops. Catch a live performance at Fallon House. Or, if the hillside outlaws don’t have you frightened, take an authentic stagecoach ride through the Columbia mining areas. And, of course, there’s panning for gold, too (albeit less authentic than Bryant Shock’s).
Your Columbia experience is enhanced by resident families who add authenticity to the atmosphere by dressing in period costume and walking the streets with tourists. Don’t be surprised if the local sheriff stops you to chat about the lack of rain.
If spending your honeymoon nights in a living museum sounds exciting, check out the beautiful accommodations at Columbia City Hotel. The 24 rooms have been updated with modern conveniences, but every effort has been made to restore each one to its 19th century splendor. The main dining room has received Wine Spectator Magazine’s award for their fine wine selection. Bon Appetit Magazine says the dining room is “a sanctuary of good taste for discriminating travelers”. City Hotel has a beautiful sister, Fallon, just down the street. Rooms at the historic Fallon Hotel are equally charming.
Now that you’ve gambled your future with each other, or your vacation budget to “where?”, you may be ready for an exciting casino experience at Black Oak Casino. This 24-hour non-stop gaming center near Sonora opened a new 165,000 square foot facility in January, 2005. Slots and video game machines plus table games provide unlimited options for winning the family fortune. (Strip poker not permitted, even for newlyweds.)
Enjoying the natural scenery of the countryside surrounding Jamestown, Columbia, Sonoma and Groveland, wine enthusiasts will be enthralled by the musty grape-scents of tasting rooms at some of the world’s top wineries. There are several fine, small, independent wineries whose award winning vintages are sold only at their tasting rooms or featured at local restaurants. (When visiting Columbia City Hotel, I enjoyed a fabulous Petit Verdot from Becquet Vineyards; one of those wines that make you say “wow”!)
A visit to the extraordinary Ironstone Vineyards can be an all-day event, particularly if you include a picnic. The tasting room has a fine deli where you can create your picnic spread to accompany one of those bottles of wine you bought. The Ironstone estate is known for its outdoor concerts and classic antique car shows in the winery’s exquisitely manicured gardens. Additionally, Ironstone offers a wide range of quality ready-to-drink red and white vintages. Ironstone also hosts weddings and receptions in the gardens or in their spacious indoor facility.
Although there is a lot more to Tuolumne County than Yosemite National Park, if most of your plans include activities in or near the park, consider the Groveland Hotel, a true nugget in the town of Groveland. The rooms and suites are meticulously decorated in 1850′s furnishings, modern baths and showers have been added. The restaurant at the Groveland is one of the finest in the area, and the owners treat the restaurant and their prized wine cellar like their own children – except that you, their guests, are the ones who get spoiled.
If you spend several days at the Groveland, across the street from the Groveland you will find another dining option at The Hotel Charlotte. And next door, be sure to check out the Iron Door Saloon. Built around 1852, its iron door was designed to keep fire inside the granite-walled, sod-roofed building to protect nearby buildings if this one should burn. There’s a hip younger crowd for staff, and live entertainment attracts a faithful clientele.
And now that you’ve assured yourself that you have a memorable place to sleep (and flirt with ghosts) and can dine in restaurants with critically acclaimed menus, world famous wines and impeccable service, you ask what else is there to do besides lounging in these fabulous rooms?
The golden nugget of Tuolumne is Yosemite National Park. If you newlyweds are campers (or you’re campers but not newlyweds), and cuddling in a sleeping bag with Mother Earth as a mattress is your idea of a memorable honeymoon suite, a tenting area (frequented by aggressive bears) is available (reservations required).
Miles of public roads and bicycle trails meander through the park, providing many opportunities to enjoy its beauty. Senior travelers and the young can all find a trail that meets their needs. Yet, I can think of only one more exciting option for exploring Yosemite Valley than on a bicycle or horseback, and that would be to scale the side of one of the massive stone cliffs. On a sunny afternoon, you may see (if you can see that far up!) tiny specks that are five or six rock climbers dangling thousands of feet in the air. Oh, my vertigo!
Other activities include photography classes offered by the Ansel Adams Gallery, floating down the peaceful Merced River in your personal rubber raft, relaxing with a quiet secluded picnic among the Queen Ann’s lace in one of Yosemite Valley’s verdant meadows, and a quiet, escorted tour in an open air tram. Click on the photo of the Buffalo Soldier for interesting information on Yosemite’s history.
Most towns outside the park are a minimum of 30 miles away from Yosemite’s gate. Yosemite Valley and the grand El Capitan are another 20 miles past the gate. The trip entails winding mountain roads that may be choked with the slow-paced traffic of excited sightseers. Your trip in or out may take more time than you think. (In July, from The Groveland Hotel to the Valley took us about 1 ½ hours, visiting only two scenic turnouts for about 10 minutes each.)
Tuolumne County presents a challenge to a travel writer – to effectively present its vast offerings. The area is referred to as “the great unfenced” which further attests to the diverse travel opportunities in the untarnished West. There are more options than a vacationer would want to cover in one trip to Tuolumne County, and since it is a four-season destination, there are at least three more reasons to come back when this trip is done.
So, how do you get to this place with the funny name – Tuolumne County, California?
If you are flying to California to visit the Tuolumne area, I recommend Oakland airport. But, airfares being so volatile, shop around and check for San Francisco and even a more distant Sacramento. However, if fares for San Francisco or Sacramento are only a few dollars less than Oakland, you’ll find that driving time and highway congestion will be reduced if you select Oakland. Tuolomne County is about three hours’ drive from the San Francisco Bay area.
And as your dreams assist with planning this vacation, let the thrill of finding gold be part of those dreams and push you this way! Especially at today’s gold prices!