It was, as they say, a step back in time. We parked just off Parrotts Ferry Road, seeking coffee, and wandered into a town that could’ve been straight out of “Little House on the Prairie,” but in the foothills. A team of horses clopped by, driven by a guy dressed in 1850s garb. He hauled a wagon full of T-shirt-clad tourists snapping photos with their smartphones.
This is Columbia State Historic Park, incorporated in 1854 as a Gold Rush boomtown and preserved today as an educational tourist destination. Tucked into the Tuolumne County foothills about 90 minutes east of Sacramento, it maintains a working blacksmith shop, general store, livery stables, leather merchant, bakery, candy store . . . even an old-school bowling alley. (You can hear the wooden pins crashing from any point in the dusty-boardwalk town.) The shop attendants and docents dress in period wear—women in long dresses with high collars, men wearing vests and hats, often with their pants stuffed into boot tops. At various spots around town, visitors can sip sarsaparilla, dip candles, make soap, watch live theater, pan for gold, see a blacksmith at work, buy old-time candy from a big jar, admire old homes—just like during the Gold Rush days. It’s a bit amusing, though, how the time warp only goes so far. Visitors eat ice cream out of disposable containers with plastic spoons and, yes, meander around with their necks bent over their phones, connected to the park Wi-Fi. At Browns Coffeehouse and Sweets Saloon, we found coffee—available “for here” in ceramic or in a to-go cup—with a lid (did they have these during the Gold Rush?), and paid today’s prices with a debit card. Turns out the stores and restaurants in town all accept plastic.
During December, Columbia SHP has some holiday-themed events, including candy-cane making, Victorian Feast at the City Hotel, an equestrian parade, Lamplight Tours (a theatrical performance by lamplight) and Las Posadas Nativity Procession by luminary light. See visitcolumbia.com for details.
Only a couple of miles away from Columbia, the mining town of Sonora harkens back to Gold Rush times as well—particularly in its downtown area, where its main drag (S. Washington Street) teems with boutiques, restaurants, drinking establishments and a number of antiques shops. It promises to be decked out in holiday cheer this month as window displays and on-street décor celebrate the season. (The annual Christmas Parade takes place on Black Friday evening.)
Start a walking tour of Sonora at City Hall and move on to “The Red Church” (St. James Episcopal). It’s been the landmark of downtown Sonora, an unofficial mascot, since it opened in 1860; tunnels of the Bonanza Mine are accessible from inside. On your tour, you’ll see the Rother’s Corner Fire Museum (particularly interesting to consider the history of fire in the area after power outages blackened Sonora this fall), the Chinatown Memorial, the City Hotel building and lots of other historic structures. Make sure and pop into the Candy Vault, where you’ll find vintage sweets and gobs of taffy, as well as the most current flavors of Bertie Bott’s and products that could only be found today, like a massive box of Nerds.
Hang out for awhile at Eighty One coffeehouse, where the sizable baked goods collection often includes “cruffins” (croissant + muffin = cruffin), maple bacon doughnuts and vegan scones. We’ve heard it’s worth the trip just for one of the chicken pot pies, but because the menu changes often, call and check on inventory before you drive over. Another favorite for foodies: the melted cheese appetizer at Emberz Wood-Fired Foodz, a lively gathering spot, especially on weekends. Called Baked Emberz, it’s melted Swiss and Gruyere cheeses with white wine and garlic oil. Pile some of this goo on a crostini and top it with the accompanying olive tapenade, and you won’t need any dinner.
For some scenery, get out for a hike on Sonora’s Dragoon Gulch trail, recently upgraded, with more than 3 miles of walking options that range from easy to strenuous. Pick up a pamphlet about it at the visitors center downtown, or go to sonoraca.com for more info.
The gem in this Gold Rush town: Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, where December brings The Polar Express. This hourlong ride on a vintage steam train, which includes hot chocolate and cookies, brings the famous story to life with several of its characters onboard. The ride concludes at the “North Pole” with Santa coming aboard to hand out silver sleigh bells. While you’re in town, wander through Main Street’s shops and check out the historic Jamestown Hotel, which reopened this year. Not only a gorgeous property, it’s a restaurant serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. The menu includes a mean pasta puttanesca, rich and tomatoey and perfect with a stiff local Cab. The hotel shares owners with the recently expanded Chicken Ranch Casino, located just outside of town near Tuolumne Table Mountain (a distinctive flat, lava-formed “inverted valley”). While you’re out here, check out the trail at Table Mountain—a 2.7-mile moderate loop, and an opportunity to admire fall color that hasn’t yet blown away.
A few wineries dot the hills around Sonora and Jamestown, and several tasting rooms invite visitors in to taste whites and reds for a minimal or even no fee. For something different, though, we traveled outside of Sonora into the countryside, to a lovely verdant area called Apple Valley (the Diestel turkeys purchased at Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op for Thanksgiving came from a ranch out this way—you’ll see signs) so we could taste some Indigeny Reserve Cider. (This refreshing stuff is served at Golden 1 Center.) We crossed the covered bridge at the end of a road that passed apple orchards and discovered a cozy, classy tasting room. Several flavors of small-batch cider (extra crisp, blackberry and a harvest blend), an apple brandy and vodka were available for tasting the day we visited.
Out near the very small community of Tuolumne, Black Oak Casino Resort beckons folks eager to play the tables or the slots, sit down to filet and lobster, take in a concert or just stay the night for a great price. The 148-room hotel has rates that start at $109 a night, and the popular RV park starts at $60 a night.
East of Sonora on Highway 108, the village of Twain Harte (named for authors Mark Twain and Bret Harte) tucks into the mountains with several restaurants, a few shops, a golf course and mini golf. It’s a quiet spot right in between the higher Sierra and the foothills—it can get snow, but doesn’t always.
We booked a cabin at Gables Cedar Creek Inn, lured by the lush grounds that hug the Twain Harte Golf Club. We also liked the idea of a full kitchen in case we got tired of eating out. At first, our cabin was underwhelming, with broken window blinds and a weary loveseat. But the place grew on us. Cedar Glen is a longtime family-owned operation, and updates were in progress during our late-summer visit. As the days went by, we looked forward to returning from our jaunts afield to our cozy little cabin (Birch, $99 a night) with its gas log heater, king-size bed with checkered comforter, and the television with an almost ridiculous number of channels and digital streaming services. Also, the full kitchen came in handy. The Twain Harte market up the road has the best—the best—seasoned deli turkey in the world (called Twain Harte turkey), and we happily made sandwiches and soup from scratch one night, then sat outside at the picnic table beneath the market lights. That would probably be a bit chilly in December, but so peaceful beneath a big moon. Restaurants in town worth a try include The Rock, Eproson House and CiBO Famiglia (the bread and butter and sea salt!). Caffé Blossom is a must-stop for morning espresso drinks and pastries.
Continuing east on Highway 108, travelers will climb in elevation, heading deeper into the Stanislaus National Forest. Stop in Mi-Wuk Village at Zoe Coffee House for a yummy berry crepe and head for Long Barn to ice skate at Long Barn Lodge’s rink. Go further on up to the Pinecrest/Strawberry area to ski/snowboard at Dodge Ridge, with 1,600 vertical feet, 67 runs and a family lodge with children’s snow sports center, day-use lockers, Wi-Fi and, of course, food. The Pinecrest area, typically busy in summer as visitors come to camp and hike at the lake in the forest, transforms into a winter wonderland lovely for snowshoeing. Also in the area, Leland Snowplay is a staple for winter fun with groomed tube runs served by lifts, so all you have to do is slide back down and ride back up and do it all over again.
For more information about visiting Tuolumne County, go to visittuolumne.com.