Things to do in Tuolumne CA: the perfect family trip

Last updated on August 21, 2023

We finished our California road trip with a visit to Tuolumne County and it couldn’t have been a more perfect end to what was already an epic trip.

It turns out Tuolumne CA is the perfect place for a family vacation. And it’s now my number one recommendation for people who want to take a trip to California and get the most bang for their buck in about seven days or so.

My tip is to go to San Francisco for your big city fix, and then head east to Tuolumne for a mix of big nature at Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada, plus a dose of history in the gold rush towns.

It’s one of those ‘trips of a lifetime’ and perfect for families with kids of all ages, or indeed for couples and solo travellers too (although if you’re without kids, I’d perhaps recommend Sonoma and wine country too).

Here’s our recommended Tuolumne itinerary, including what to do and where to stay in Sonora, Pinecrest Lake and Yosemite.  It hits the three main Tuolumne highlights: Yosemite, Gold Country and the High Sierra.

Also see our guide to the best things to do in California with kids.

Tuolumne itinerary at a glance

Day 1 -2

Gold Rush Towns and Columbia State Historic Park

Day 3-4

Pinecrest Lake and High Sierra

Days 4-7

Yosemite

Tuolumne map

How to spend a week in Tuolumne, CA

Gold Rush Towns and Columbia State Historic Park

Day 1 -2

Tuolumne has a rich gold rush history and one of the highlights of a Tuolumne vacation is exploring that history and the towns that were built upon it. Sonora is one of the most popular and a good place to base yourself for exploring Tuolumne. It has a cute, historic downtown and there’s lots of accommodation to choose from. Another option is Jamestown, which still attracts gold prospectors today at Woods Creek.

A visit to gold country isn’t complete without visiting Columbia State Historic Park, an authentic living history town where you can step back in time to the days of the gold rush (our kids adored it).  

Things to do in Gold Country, CA

Columbia State Historic Park

Top of your list in gold country has to be Columbia State Historic Park. The perfectly preserved gold rush town offers the chance to experience what it would have been like to live in the 1850s.

There are historic working businesses, including a blacksmiths, a homemade candy store, a candle shop, and an old-fashioned bowling alley. And there are even docents dressed in 1850-1870 garb.

We particularly loved the charming mercantile store, stocked with modern goods but based upon the principles of what the gold rushers would have wanted.

You can also do horse and carriage rides and pan for gold, which was one of Otis’ highlights of his entire time in California (he found some gold as well as plenty of little gems!).

Railtown 1897 State Historic Park

After the gold rush, there was a second boom for Tuolumne when the Sierra Railway tracks came to Jamestown, and the cattle, lumber and rock industries benefited and boomed.

Railtown 1897 State Historic Park is a chance to experience this era by exploring the history of the railway and seeing it first hand. You can explore historic locomotives and passenger cars, and see the impressive active roundhouse.

The park has been featured in over 300 films, TV shows and commercials, so you can also see lots of movie props.

At the weekends, from April-October, you can ride vintage steam and diesel trains.

Where to eat in Gold Country

Columbia Kate’s

Get an afternoon Tea at Columbia Kate’s in Columbia State Historic Park. It’s the sweetest little tea room where you can even borrow a hat for the occasion! The afternoon tea is a lavish affair with multiple courses, including salads, sandwiches, scones and cakes.

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Flappy’s Pizza

Flappy’s Pizza in Sonora serves excellent pizza by the slice in casual surrounds. It’s great for families.

CC Taqueria

CC Taqueria in Jamestown serves some excellent and authentic roadside Mexican food. It’s cheap and cheerful and has lots of kid-friendly dishes.

Royal Olive Manor

We explain below why we recommend a stay at the Royal Olive Manor, but even without the other perks, we’d go back for the breakfast alone. Look at those pancakes! The kids (and I) were in heaven.

Where to stay in Gold Country

Royal Olive Manor

This historic Royal Olive Manor in Sonora ticks all the boxes for an impossibly charming stay. It has an interesting history filled with hospitable characters who have always opened their home to others. And that welcoming vibe endures through the current owners. They’ve updated the space in a way that preserves the guesthouse’s roots while brining it up to date with modern conveniences. Expect lots of antiques, a ‘speakeasy’ bar, sumptuous beds, and an indulgent breakfast you won’t soon forget.

It’s in the cute town of Sonora, which has lots of historic gold rush buildings and some good restaurants, cafes and boutiques.

Rooms start at $180 . Book your stay now.

Pinecrest Lake and Twain Harte

Days 3-4

Pinecrest Lake in the High Sierra is the stuff that dream family holidays are made of. The setting is spectacular with a crystal blue lake backed by magnificent, granite peaks and edged by pine forest.

It’s been a popular holiday destination for generations and is well set up with all you need for a perfect family vacation. We recommend spending at least a day there, but you could easily do a whole one-week trip.

Another option to base yourself is Twain Harte, which is also in the High Sierra and about 25 minutes from Pinecrest Lake. The town is charmingly named after authors Mark Twain and Bret Harte. There’s much to do there including skiing, fishing, biking and hiking. And the cute downtown has wine tasting, galleries, boutiques and restaurants. There’s even a mini-golf, plus bocce ball and a playground.

Things to do in Pinecrest Lake

In the summer, Pinecrest Lake is a perfect spot for swimming, boating and hiking. There are boats for hire at the Pinecrest Marina. And fishing is also very popular in the summer months

You could also just relax on the lake’s shore where there are numerous little beaches. The water is nice and shallow at the edge, perfect for little kids.

If you fancy hiking, there’s a popular 6.3km loop trail around the lake that takes about 1.5 hours to complete and is of a moderate level.

And from Memorial Day through to Labor Day, there’s an outdoor amphitheatre that screens movies.

Not far from the lake is Aspen Meadows where you can do horse riding, including trail rides and multi-day pack trips.

In the winter, skiing takes centre stage and the lake is just four miles from the Dodge Ridge Ski Area, which has runs for all levels from beginner to advanced. And there’s also Leland Snowplay where families can enjoy sledding and tubing.

Other highlights in the High Sierra include: Columns of Giants, the Trail of the Gargoyles, Donnell Vista and the Sonora Pass.

Where to eat in Pinecrest Lake and Twain Harte

Don’t miss Alicia’s Sugar Shack in Twain Harte. It’s an excellent place to pick up sandwiches and baked goods for a picnic. And be sure to cross the road and check out the view – it’s pretty epic!

Where to stay for Pinecrest Lake or Twain Harte

Strawberry Hill Cabin

We stayed at Strawberry Hill Cabin, which is just a five-minute drive from Pinecrest Lake. It’s a beautiful spot amid the trees and fulfils all those dreams of American cabin life. There’s even a fire pit for s’mores. And we loved its vintage farmhouse décor.

The owners use it themselves as a holiday cabin, so it’s perfectly set up for a family vacation, complete with toys for younger kids, and games like pool for the older ones. Plus lots of indoor and outdoor space for socialising or chilling out.

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The expansive cabin can sleep up to 10 guests with two main bedrooms (one with two doubles), plus a basement room with a double bed and two twins.

Rental starts at $400 per night . Book your stay now.

Pinecrest Lake Resort

The Pinecrest Lake Resort is directly next to the lake and offers basic cabins and motel rooms. It’s also home to a restaurant, café, snack bar, and various shops and rental places.  

Pinecrest Campground

There’s a big campsite beside the lake, Pinecrest Campground, with 200 pitches, all with a picnic table and fire ring. There are also plenty of restrooms with toilets and sinks. Make sure to book in advance.

McCaffrey Bed and Breakfast

McCaffrey House Bed and Breakfast

In Twain Harte, we stayed in the McCaffrey Bed and Breakfast, which is one of the most perfect B&Bs we’ve ever stayed in. It has all the magic ingredients: friendly owners, a homely vibe, excellent homemade breakfast, a gorgeous location amid the trees, and a charming décor filled with personality. It couldn’t be any more welcoming.

Room start at around $240. Book your stay now.

Yosemite

Days 4-7

Tuolumne County is home to over half of Yosemite National Park, including the stunning Tuolumne Meadows. We also think it might just have the best place to stay for families in Yosemite at the brilliant Evergreen Lodge.

We recommend spending at least two nights in Yosemite, but ideally three or four. And you could easily stretch it to a week, especially to have some relaxation time at Evergreen Lodge too.

Things to do in Yosemite, Tuolumne

Tuolumne Meadows

Tuolumne Meadows is a lesser-known highlight of Yosemite National Park, and one of the most photographed. The subalpine meadow is surrounded by peaks and domes and has the beautiful Tuolume River running right through it. The Cathedral Lakes hike is the most popular

As with all of Yosemite, it’s a paradise for hikers with plenty of trails to alpine lakes, waterfalls, and mountains with epic views. It’s also perfect for rafting.

There are some great guided tours you can do of the meadows, including this guided hike from El Portal. Or this one that also includes a Tuolumne Grove hike.

Hetch Hetchy Reservoir

Right next to Evergreen Lodge is the gorgeous Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, another of Yosemite’s hidden gems. As well as its functional purpose, supplying water to the San Francisco Bay Area, the reservoir is also home to spectacular views and many hiking trails.

Things to see there include the massive O’Shaughnessy Dam and the popular hike to Wapama Falls (five miles there and back, and of moderate difficulty).

Tuolumne Grove

Head to Tuolumne Grove to see some giant sequoias, including one you can walk through. It’s a there-and-back 2.5-mile hike, and the route there is super easy on smooth ground and pretty much downhill the whole way.

Problem is you have to climb that hill on the route back, which makes it a bit more difficult, especially when it’s hot. That said, it’s still a fairly easy hike option – just allow for more time for the route back. You don’t need advance reservations for Hetchy Hetchy and it’s free to enter.

The valley floor

The most famous parts of Yosemite, such as Half Dome and El Capitan, are centered around the Valley Floor, which isn’t in Tuolumne County. It is, however, only about 30 minutes from Evergreen Lodge, so we recommend including it within your trip.

You can easily see the highlights in a day, but you’ll need longer if you’re keen to delve a little deeper or do some of the longer hikes.

For a day trip from Evergreen Lodge, we recommend driving to Tunnel View for that classic valley view, and doing one of the shorter hikes, for example to lower Yosemite Falls (a really easy one-mile hike suitable for wheelchairs and strollers).

In the high season, you need a pass to enter Yosemite during peak hours, which must be booked in advance.  Find more details and book tickets on the Parks website.

Where to eat in Yosemite

If you’re spending the day exploring Yosemite, a picnic is your best option as there are very few dining options available, even on the valley floor, and there will likely be big queues, especially in the high season. Plus you’re unlikely to find a more beautiful picnic spot!

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For our other meals, we ate at Evergreen Lodge, which has a fantastic menu of elevated family favourites including pasta and top notch burgers.

Also make sure to get some ice cream from the Grove Mercantile in Groveland. It makes for a perfect stop en route to Yosemite.

Where to stay in Yosemite, Tuolumne

Evergreen Lodge

We stayed at Evergreen Lodge, a classic forest resort that’s a dreamland for families. It’s filled with fun things to do for kids of all ages, and is the ideal place to retreat after a day exploring the park, or for a few days of rest in between.

The lodge celebrated 100 years in 2021 and is exactly what I imagine when I think of my ideal American holiday camp. There are wooden cabins amid the forest, nightly s’mores, fun activities for kids (we did some geode smashing!), a saltwater pool with a view, and seemingly endless hidden corners with fun to be had, from woodland playgrounds to bocce ball.

The food is also excellent with elevated family classics like burgers and pasta, plus more unique dishes too.

One standout feature of the lodge is that it runs a cool, paid internship programme for inner city kids, helping the interns to gain useful employment skills as well as driving licences and more. And it has good environmental credentials too.

Evergreen Lodge is just 20 minutes’ drive from the entrance to Yosemite (we were on the valley floor in about 45 minutes). It’s also right next to the entrance to Hetch Hetchy.

Rooms start at $250 per night. Book your stay now.

Evergreen Lodge has a sister property, Rush Creek Lodge, which is much more upscale and known for its impressive spa facilities.

Groveland

You could also stay in the cute town of Groveland, which is the northern gateway to Yosemite and the easiest route to the park from San Francisco and Northern California.

Groveland is a gold rush town and home to the oldest saloon in America.

There are also plenty of activities there besides Yosemite, including Pine Mountain Lake, Lake Don Pedro and the Dodge River Mountain resort.

The Groveland Yosemite Gateway Museum provides useful info about the park from May to September.

There are plenty of places to stay in Groveland and beyond along Highway 21.

Guided tours in Yosemite and Tuolumne County

If you’d like to do a guided tour in Yosemite or Tuolumne Grove, here are a few recommendations…

See more inspiration is our post filled with family vacation ideas.

Our California travel guides

We also have detailed guides to loads of California destinations that can help you plan even more. They’ll especially suit you if you’re a bit like us, keen on discovering the creative side of a destination and in pursuit of all the best cafes, ice creams, doughnuts, bookshops, murals and beauty spots. And we have lots of family guides if you’re travelling with kids.

Road trips: California Road Trip | Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip | San Francisco to Seattle road trip | San Francisco to Seattle road trip

Handpicked travel guides: Laguna Beach | Mendocino |San ClementeSan Diego  | Santa Barbara  | Santa Cruz|Shasta Cascade and Redding Sonoma |Tuolumne County Yolo County

California family travel guides: California with kidsLos Angeles with kids | Sacramento with kidsSan Diego with kids | San Francisco with kids

California accommodation guides: Joshua Tree Airbnb | Laguna Beach Airbnb | Hip Palm Springs Hotels | Palm Springs Airbnb | Palm Springs VRBO | San Diego Airbnb | Santa Cruz Airbnb | Santa Barbara Airbnb |Santa Monica Airbnb | Sonoma Airbnb | Venice Beach AirbnbHip San Francisco Hotels

California attraction guides: How to get the most out of Disneyland with toddlers | The ultimate guide to Universal Studios with babies and toddlers

If you’re heading elsewhere in the USA or even worldwide, see more of our family travel tips here.

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