The Golden State has hidden gems that often get overlooked. There’s one I highly recommend adding to your Northern California road trip, and that’s Tuolumne County.

Tuolumne County isn’t as famous as other parts of California, but it’s easily one of the most beautiful, peaceful, and fun, with plenty of activities. There are hikes here that rival all of California.

Whether you’re exploring charming small towns like Sonora or Jamestown, or hiking at Pinecrest Lake, Tuolumne County will definitely not disappoint.

Want to know more? Here’s my road trip to Northern California itinerary.

Northern California Road Trip Itinerary – Summary

Before going through the ultimate itinerary, let’s start with an overview as well as some essential information you’ll want to have before starting the trip.

  • Day 1: San Francisco
  • Day 2: San Francisco to Sonora, Tuolumne County
  • Day 3: Sonora to Jamestown
  • Day 4: Sonora to Pinecrest to Groveland
  • Day 5: Groveland to Hetch Hetchy
  • Day 6: Drive Back to San Francisco (Or explore Yosemite National Park)

Alternatively, if you’re travelling from Los Angeles to San Francisco, I recommend adding one or two days to this itinerary.

Where to Start a Northern California Road Trip?

I recommend starting your Northern California road trip in San Francisco, for multiple reasons. This iconic city offers countless attractions to explore before you hit the road.

From the historic Golden Gate Bridge to Fisherman’s Wharf and the rolling hills of the city’s streets, San Francisco is a good starting point.

Plus, San Francisco has an international airport so getting in and out of California is easy, and the same goes for renting a car here.

Where is Tuolumne County?

Tuolumne County is located in the Sierra Nevada region of California, directly to the east of the Central Valley and is about a two to three-hour drive from San Francisco.

This county is renowned for its breathtaking landscapes that include parts of Yosemite National Park, historic Gold Rush towns, and countless outdoor activities.

Tuolumne County serves as a gateway to the Sierra mountains and Yosemite National Park, making it a perfect spot for nature lovers like myself!

How to Get to Tuolumne County?

Reaching Tuolumne County is straightforward if you’re coming from major cities like San Francisco or Sacramento. If driving from San Francisco, take Interstate 580 east to Highway 120 or Highway 108 east, depending on your specific destination within the county.

The drive takes about two to three hours and offers scenic views, especially as you approach the Sierra Nevada.

Alternatively, you can take public transportation, such as the regional bus from San Francisco, but I do not recommend it as there’s no direct bus to Sonora, the starting point in Tuolumne of our itinerary.

Solo Road Trip VS Joining a Guided Trip

Choosing between a solo road trip and joining a guided trip in Tuolumne depends on your travel style. A solo road trip offers freedom and flexibility; you can explore at your own pace, make spontaneous stops, and tailor your itinerary to your interests.

On the other hand, a guided trip around Tuolumne provides the benefits of expert knowledge and planned logistics. Having a guide with you can make the experience better with historical insights and taking you to hidden gems you might otherwise miss.

I normally prefer solo road trips but for Tuolumne County, I recommend joining a guided tour as the county is simply huge and it’s not easy to come up with the perfect itinerary (unless you follow the northern California road trip in this guide!).

Best Time to Visit Tuolumne County

The best time to visit Tuolumne County largely depends on what you want to do. For hiking, sightseeing, and outdoor activities, late spring through early fall/autumn (May to October) is ideal.

The weather during these months is warm and pleasant, perfect for exploring Yosemite National Park and the surrounding areas.

Winter months (November to April) transform the county into a snowy retreat, ideal for skiing and snowboarding at Dodge Ridge or enjoying cosy cabin stays.

Each season offers a unique charm, making Tuolumne a year-round destination for different types of adventures.

Ultimate Northern California Road Trip to Tuolumne County

Let’s start this Northern California road trip itinerary to Tuolumne County, starting with San Francisco!

This road trip is 6-days long and I think we’ll cover most of the highlights in Tuolumne, but if you have more time available, then you might want to spend one more day in San Francisco.

Day 1: San Francisco

San Francisco was a city that’s been about as high on my list as any, and I had the chance to visit a few years ago on my trip to Mammoth Lakes, and I was glad to be back in town for a day.

It’s a city divided into districts, and first we checked out the Mission District and the impressive street art.

Also, you can’t really visit San Fran without a trip to Alcatraz. The Rock was interesting; you can take a guided tour learning about the infamous inmates and their attempts to escape. But if I’m honest I just wanted to pretend to be Sean Connery and practise my almost perfect Scottish accent; “Welcome to the Rock!”.

Then, I went to the Coit Tower and check out Lombard Street, the bendiest street in the world. The latter was pretty touristy and personally not my cup of tea, but the Coit Tower, that was amazing.

You get 360 views over the whole of the city, including the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz. I could have stayed up there for hours!

My final planned activity was a boat cruise around the harbour, and under the Golden Gate Bridge. It was a pretty fitting way to end the trip, and literally a photographers dream. If you have more time in SF, make sure to book the seaplane tour in San Francisco, which I personally took and loved!

There’s more to do in town, so make sure you tick these off the check list.

Things to Do in San Francisco

As you’d expect from the 4th most populated city in California, there are countless things to do in town, and these are some of the ones you don’t want to miss:

  • Visit Alcatraz Island – Take a ferry to explore Alcatraz, the infamous former federal prison, known for its historical significance and fascinating tours.
  • Walk Across the Golden Gate Bridge – Experience the iconic structure up close by walking or biking across, with stunning views of the bay and city skyline.
  • Explore Golden Gate Park – Spend a day in one of the largest urban parks in the world, home to museums, gardens, and picturesque lakes.
  • Ride a Cable Car – Jump on one of San Francisco’s historic cable cars for a nostalgic ride through the city’s steep hills and famous landmarks.
  • Visit the Ferry Building Marketplace – Enjoy local cuisine, artisanal shops, and farmer’s markets in this historic building on the waterfront.
  • See the Painted Ladies – Visit Alamo Square to see the iconic Victorian homes known as the Painted Ladies, with the modern cityscape in the background.

San Francisco got a bad reputation over the recent years, so if you don’t feel confident visiting on your own (note that San Francisco is overall quite safe), these are great guided tours you can join.

Where to Stay in San Francisco

There are hundreds of accommodation options to choose from in San Francisco, and these are the best properties to stay for all budgets.

Luxury: Hotel Nikko San Francisco
Hotel Nikko San Francisco
Mid-Range: Beacon Grand Hotel
Beacon Grand A Union Square Hotel
Budget: The Andrews Hotel
The Andrews Hotel

Where to Eat in San Francisco

You’ll find countless places to eat in San Francisco, and believe me when I say it’s hard to decide where to have lunch and dinner!

After visiting several times, these are the best places to eat in town:

  • Zuni Café – Zuni Café is staple in San Francisco and is celebrated for its Mediterranean and French cuisine. Don’t miss their famous roast chicken and bread salad.
  • Liholiho Yacht Club – Liholiho serves inventive dishes with Hawaiian, Indian, and Chinese influences. The laid-back yet trendy atmosphere adds to the appeal.
  • Benu – For a more upscale experience, Benu offers a tasting menu that features contemporary American cuisine with Korean and Chinese influences. This three-Michelin-starred restaurant provides a premium and unforgettable dining experience.
  • Tadich Grill – As California’s oldest restaurant, Tadich Grill offers a trip back in time with its classic San Francisco dishes like Cioppino, a rich seafood stew that reflects San Francisco’s history.

It’s worth noting that restaurants in San Francisco are known to be quite expensive, and if you travel on a budget and like Asian food, I recommend heading to Chinatown for delicious, affordable treats!

Day 2: San Francisco to Sonora, Tuolumne County

After an amazing day in San Francisco, day 2 is all about starting the scenic road trip from San Francisco to the charming town of Sonora, in Tuolumne County.

Getting from SF to Sonora takes approximately 2.5 hours, and you’ll want to leave early to stop on the road, where you’ll see countless scenic locations and viewpoints.

After checking in at the hotel (I stayed at The Sonora Inn, read more below), enjoy some free time to wander through Downtown Sonora with its quaint shops and local attractions.

As evening approaches, enjoy a meal across the street at The Armory, located at 208 S Green St. This dining spot offers a cosy atmosphere and delicious cuisine, providing the perfect end to your day in this picturesque part of Northern California.

Things to Do in Sonora

Sonora is the largest town in Tuolumne County and you’ll find plenty of activities to enjoy for the rest of the day, such as:

  • Explore Historic Downtown Sonora – Take a stroll through downtown Sonora, admiring and photographing the beautifully preserved buildings from the Gold Rush era and popping into unique boutiques and antique shops.
  • Visit the Tuolumne County Museum – Housed in the historic 1857 jail, this museum offers insights into the local history, from indigenous cultures to the mining and logging eras. The entrance is free, so you have no reason to skip it!
  • Enjoy Live Entertainment at the Opera Hall – Built in 1885, the Sonora Opera Hall hosts a variety of events, including live music, dances, and theatrical performances at the weekend, and that’s a great activity for a night out.
  • Go Hiking at Dragoon Gulch Trail Head – This 2.5-mile enjoyable trail is a great way to spend the afternoon. It takes about 2 hours to complete and you’ll have gorgeous views from the top.
  • Sample Local Wines at Inner Sanctum Cellars – This tasting room features excellent wines produced in Tuolumne County, and that’s a must-do for wine lovers!

Where to Stay in Sonora

There are several accommodation options to choose from in Sonora, and while I personally stayed at The Sonora Inn, these are other options worth considering.

Luxury: The Inn on Knowles Hill
The Inn on Knowles Hill Bed & Breakfast Hotel
Mid-Range: The Sonora Inn
Historic Sonora Inn
Budget: Gunn House Hotel
Gunn House Hotel

Where to Eat in Sonora

Sonora has dozens of places to eat, but these are my favourites, and I’m confident you’ll have a great meal.

  • The Armory – A trendy spot known for its lively atmosphere and diverse American menu. I’ve had dinner there and wasn’t disappointed, you must try the bourbon tasting menu.
  • El Arroyo Mexican Restaurant – A delicious spot known for its lively atmosphere and diverse Mexican menu, featuring dishes like pork belly nachos and Baja tacos. This one was my favourite!

Day 3: Sonora to Jamestown

On the third day of my Sonora adventure, I started early with a continental breakfast at the Sonora Inn, so I was well-fuelled for a day packed with local attractions.

The morning began in Downtown Sonora, a mere 10-minute drive to my first stop, the historical gem of Columbia State Historic Park. Pictured above.

After stopping twice for photos, by 11:00 AM, I stepped back in time at the St. Charles Saloon in Columbia, soaking up the Old West vibes before heading off to Indigeny Reserve. That was an authentic experience that I’ll never forget!

After a 20-minute drive, I arrived at Indigeny for an excellent cider tasting and tour, guided by the knowledgeable owner. Let me tell you, I generally prefer beer, but that cider was amazing!

Also, they have picnic tables where we had lunch, and this is simply one stop you can’t skip, as the orchards and landscape while eating were genuinely gorgeous.

Next, we made another 20-minute journey to Railtown 1897 State Historic Park in Jamestown, where we explored the iconic train station, a backdrop for numerous films. My day concluded with classic Americana fare at Jamestown Frosty, capping off the day with a burger, fries, and ice cream in downtown Jamestown before heading back to Sonora for the night.

Things to Do in Jamestown

While I discussed a few activities that I did here above, I want to add a few more below, in case you have more time in town.

  • Railtown 1897 State Historic Park: Discover the “Movie Railroad” and take a ride on a historic steam train while learning about the railroading history of California.
  • California Gold Panning: Try your hand at gold panning where the original gold rush began, and perhaps leave with your very own treasure. Expect to stay about 2 hours.
  • Jamestown Jail: Visit the historic Jamestown Jail, built in the late 1800s, and get a glimpse of the old law enforcement practices of the gold rush era.
  • Gianelli Vineyards Tasting Room: Sample some of the finest local wines in a friendly atmosphere, just about 10 minutes’ drive from Railtown 1897 State Historic Park.

While Jamestown CA isn’t a massive place, it’s the perfect place to enjoy the day, and you’ll love the authentic vibes!

Where to Stay in Jamestown

For the second night in Tuolumne County, I went back to Sonora Inn, but in case you prefer staying in Jamestown, here are some of the best properties to consider.

Note that there are no luxury accommodation in Jamestown, but the mid-range and budget options are pretty nice.

Mid-Range: The National Hotel
The National Hotel
Budget: Jamestown Railtown Motel
Jamestown Railtown Motel

Where to Eat in Jamestown

Here’s a couple of recommendations for food in Jamestown!

  • Morelia Méxican Restaurant: At Morelia, you’ll have delicious, authentic Mexican food such as tamales and carnitas, and the Margaritas cocktails are great.
  • Jamestown Frosty: Enjoy a classic American meal at this local diner, serving up burgers, fries, and milkshakes in a nostalgic setting. I had a great meal and I’m sure you will too!
  • Woods Creek Café: This is yet another American restaurant that’s sure to satisfy your hunger. Biscuits and gravy, hearty, delicious breakfast, and ham and cheese omelette, you’re in for a treat!

Day 4: Sonora to Pinecrest to Groveland

Day 4 of my road trip began with a morning drive to Pinecrest, right in the Stanislaus National Forest.

We got to Pinecrest Lake around 9:00 AM, you could spend the morning hiking the lake and enjoying the beautiful lakeside views. Instead we chose to rent a motorboat to save some time for the Cleo’s Bath hike, one of the lesser known hikes in Northern California.

I suggest allowing 2-3 hours for the hike, and you’ll need good hiking boots for the last part which gets steep and technical. But oh man it was worth it! I suggest checking out the video for the best shots of Cleo’s Bath.

You can also explore the nearby Dodge Ridge Mountain Resort, a stunning ski resort where you can go hiking in the summertime.

Early afternoon, we drove 35 minutes to Cover’s Apple Ranch for a 1:00 PM lunch – this was much needed after some outdoor exploration. I highly recommend the apple juice and the homemade apple pie!

In addition to that, there’s a train you can ride and a petting zoo, and that is great if you’re doing this Northern California road trip as a family. Or you have Dave with you, who loves a train ride!

Post-lunch, we headed to Groveland and we spent the afternoon exploring the town of Groveland, visiting local shops and the oldest continually operating Saloon in California, The Iron Door Saloon (a must visit!).

The day concluded with dinner, beer tasting, and trivia at Around the Horn Brewing Company in Groveland, which provided a relaxing and engaging evening.

Things to Do in Pinecrest and Groveland

Groveland and Cleo’s Bath at Pinecrest Lake were the highlight of my 3rd day out in Tuolumne County, but this an extensive list of things to do in both Pinecrest ad Groveland and you’ll want to consider them:

In Pinecrest:

  • Hike Around Pinecrest Lake: Enjoy a scenic hike around the lake, offering beautiful views and a moderate trail suitable for all ages.
  • Visit Dodge Ridge Mountain Resort: Whether you’re skiing in the winter or hiking in the summer, this resort offers year-round outdoor activities.
  • Watch a Movie at Pinecrest Amphitheatre: Catch a family-friendly movie under the stars at the outdoor amphitheatre during the summer months.

In Groveland:

  • Stroll Through Downtown Groveland: Discover Groveland’s historic charm by visiting local shops, cafes, and museums. Don’t miss the Iron Door Saloon!
  • Taste Local Brews at Around the Horn Brewing Company: Enjoy craft beers and participate in trivia nights at this popular local brewery.
  • Golfing at Pine Mountain Lake Golf Course: Take a round of golf on this picturesque course, known for its challenging layout and stunning views.
  • Explore Yosemite National Park: Take a short drive to the nearby entrance of Yosemite National Park, one of the country’s most famous natural landmarks, for breathtaking hikes and views. More on that to come.

Where to Stay in Groveland and the Yosemite Gateway

Hotels and motels right in Groveland are limited. I stayed at Lillaskog Lodge, a little out the downtown area, but so peaceful. And imagine the view from here with your morning coffee.

The one thing to consider with Lillaskog Lodge, is you’ll need a large group of you to make it worthwhile, there’s a lot of beds!

Therefore I recommend these amazing properties, right at the Gateway to Yosemite National Park. And I’m not biased, but Rush Creek is my favourite!

Rush Creek Lodge
Firefall Ranch
Evergreen Lodge
Budget option: Yosemite International Hostel
Yosemite International Hostel

Where to Eat in Groveland

Like I said before, I spent the evening at Around The Horn Brewing Company, and here’s an overview of what they offer, as well as other places for dinner.

  • Cocina Michoacana: For some Mexican treats, you’ll love Cocina Michoacana. Succulent carne asada, nachos, and fajitas. Couldn’t recommend it enough.
  • Two Guys Pizza Pies: If you’re in the mood for some pies, then this is the best option. Amazing pizza, breadsticks, and you can’t go wrong with the chicken mushroom pie!
  • The Horn Brewing Company: Great beer, food and snacks, and you might even get here on time for bingo or trivia!

Day 5: Groveland to Tuolumne Grove to Hetch Hetchy

On this last day of a Northern California road trip through Tuolumne County, I started with an early breakfast at Mountain Sage in Groveland, a quaint cafe that opened its doors at 7 AM.

It’s just a 20-minute drive from Lillaskog Lodge, making it an easy and relaxing start to the day. Fuelled by good coffee, the next stop was Miller’s Off-Road Adventures for a morning Jeep tour.

Truth be told, this Northern California road trip has been amazing so far, but this was such an awesome and fun activity! We explored the Stanislaus National Forest driving my favourite car in the world, the Jeep Wrangler.

As an alternative you can also go horse-riding (or horseback riding!) in this area.

By midday, I was ready to slow down a bit, enjoying a leisurely lunch at Evergreen Lodge before heading to Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. You’ll see Evergreen Lodge as a recommendation for somewhere to stay above. I highly recommend the Smore’s Old Fashioned!

Although we had limited time at Hetch Hetchy, the views were unforgettable, and I couldn’t imagine coming to Tuolumne County without a stop here. And don’t miss the walk around the lake to the stunning Wapama Falls.

Did you know? Hetch Hetchy Reservoir is officially part of Yosemite National Park, but outside of the entrance. Meaning you don’t need to pay the park entrance fee to visit.

The day concluded with a relaxing evening at Rush Creek Lodge and Spa, where I had a tour of the property, a soothing spa session, and a succulent dinner. One of my favourite places to stay in the area and right on the doorstep to Yosemite National Park.

Visiting Hetch Hetchy is a wonderful way to experience a quieter side of Yosemite National Park, and I highly recommend stopping by when in Tuolumne County.

Yosemite National Park

Now it’s unlikely you’ll find yourself in this region of Northern California and not planning to visit Yosemite National Park. It’s one of my favourite places in the USA. The purpose of this guide is to suggest more things to do in the area.

I really recommend entering Yosemite through the Tuolumne entrance. That way you can pick a few things from this list and take your time. Whatever you do, please don’t visit Yosemite on a day tour. You’ll miss so much.

Using this entrance also allows you to head to Tuolumne Grove, home to a collection of giant sequoias, including the famous Dead Giant Tunnel Tree.

This less-visited grove offers a peaceful 2.5-mile round-trip hike through a forest of sugar pines and firs, and that was yet another incredible highlight on this Northern California road trip.

Of course, if you have more time available, you could extend this Tuolumne County itinerary for a couple of days and explore Yosemite. You could even spend a week here. I’ll just save that for another article.

Day 6: Drive Back to San Francisco

Day 6 marked the final chapter of my Northern California road trip as I prepared to drive back to San Francisco. We did in fact stop at Yosemite National Park once more, driving the ring road and hiking the Lower Yosemite Falls.

The drive back was a reflective 150 miles, retracing the winding roads through the Sierra Nevada foothills and into the energy of the Bay Area.

The city’s iconic San Fran skyline greeted me like an old friend. I genuinely had an amazing time in Tuolumne County.


This was the ultimate road trip through the diverse terrains of Northern California – from vibrant cityscapes to relaxing lake views, Tuolumne County is one area you don’t want to miss on the way to Yosemite.

Whether you’re seeking solitude in nature or want to experience the gold rush era, this road trip is one that you must consider.

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