Highway 49 weaves through the Sierra foothills and passes through historic Gold Rush towns.
South from Columbia, the Mother Lode highway—S.R. 49—runs about 100 miles to its end at Oakhurst. From there, S.R. 41 climbs north through the pines and firs of the Sierra National Forest, into Yosemite National Park, through Wawona, and down into Yosemite Valley. In these southern stretches, S.R. 49 snakes through a landscape of chaparral and grassy hills dotted with oak, and descends into the canyon of the Merced River. Along the way, it passes through towns sleepy or lively, most dating from the late 1840s and early 1850s. Each is worth a stop to poke around the historic streets and buildings. What else to do in this big vacation country? Why, hiking, river running, rock-climbing, fishing, gold-panning, swimming, mountain biking, birding, train-riding, picnicking, horseback riding and packing, golfing, and antiquing—to name a few.
Columbia: Living history every day in this excellent State Historic Park. Costumed shopkeepers, gold-panning, theater, historic hotels, restaurants, saloons, museum exhibits.
Sonora: Biggest town in southern Mother Lode. Shops in historic buildings along S.R. 49 in this busy burg. Mining exhibits and picnicking in shady Bradford Street Park. Get walking tour map at Tuolumne County Museum in 1857 jail; (209) 532-1317. St. James Episcopal Church, 1860, is a classic. County Courthouse, built 1898. Tuolumne County Visitor Center on S.R. 108/49. Several motels and B&Bs.
Jamestown: Founded 1848; today Victorian era Main Street lined with balconied buildings housing antique, gift, and mineral shops, and lodgings. Railtown 1897 Historic Sierra Railroad Shops (a state park) with steam train rides and exhibits. Gold-panning and prospecting field trips. Fanciful gazebo in the park. Several historic hotels and B&Bs.
Chinese Camp: At junction of 120 and 49; a few ruins, visitor center. Site of 1856 Chinese Tong War.
Coulterville: Small town, shops lining the covered sidewalks, many buildings from the 1850s, some in ruins, some in use. Visitors Center. 21-room Hotel Jeffery (1851); Magnolia Saloon serves dinner. Nearby, hangman’s tree and the old engine "Whistling Billy."
Big Oak Flat: Quiet town on S.R. 120, northern entrance to Yosemite; a few ruins, including the iron-shuttered I.O.O.F. Hall, from 1853.
Groveland: Main town on upper 120, northern gateway to Yosemite. 17-room Groveland Hotel; Iron Door Saloon (1852, "California’s oldest"). Nearby, rafting thrills on the Tuolumne River.
Hornitos: Pretty drive through the pastoral foothills. In the 1850s rowdy with 15,000 souls, now a quiet hamlet with ruins crumb-ling into the weeds. Old-time saloon on the tiny plaza.
Fish Camp: Lodging and food, historic railroad, stables, hiking the Lewis Trail, biking, etc.
Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad: Ride historic logging tracks through the forest in open cars behind old Shay steam locomotives, or in Jenny railcars. Thornberry Museum, bookstore. Phone (209) 683-7273.
Wawona: Historic hotel, food, Pioneer History Center, camping, hiking, picnicking.
Mariposa Grove: Grove of giant sequoias near Wawona.
Bear Valley: In the1850s a wealthy gold town; John C. Fremont lived here. Today: a few ruins, general store, and turnoff to Hornitos.
Mariposa: Two interesting museums here: California State Mining and Mineral Museum at the fairgrounds; Museum and History Center downtown; both have good shops/bookstores. Graceful 1854 County Courthouse (California’s oldest in continuous use); self-guided walking tours of historic sites. Numerous motels and B&Bs. Well-stocked Visitor Information Center at junction of 140 and 49 north.
Ahwahnee/Wassama: Wassama Round House State Historic Park: Miwok Indian ceremonial grounds near Ahwahnee; nice place to stroll, contemplate, picnic. Gathering Days in July, dances, demonstrations.
Oakhurst: Commercial center with tourist facilities, hotels, motels, cafes, shop-ping. Visitors Bureau (blue building on S.R. 41), well stocked with information, open daily. Fresno Flats Historical Park, daily 1-4 p.m.
Bass Lake: Camping, boating, water-skiing, hiking, swimming, picnicking, mountain biking.
Yosemite: After 10 weeks of closure due to this springs floods, Yosemite National Park is once again open. To learn more about this most-cherished park, visit the Yosemite Association's Web page.
This article was first published in May 1997. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.