Tuolumne County
By Ann Nelson



Close your eyes and imagine one of the most beautiful places in the world, complete with soaring granite cliffs, tumbling waterfalls, lots of trees, rushing rivers, pristine lakes, and rolling meadows. This place is not far, only a few hundred miles from Southern California.

Tuolumne (pronounced ‘Too-all-a-me’) County is one of California’s original counties. There is so much open territory here, it is called “The Great Unfenced.” Nearly half of the county is unsettled. The National Forest, the Sierra Nevada, and the Emigrant Wilderness occupy a major portion of the county. Yosemite National Park is just down the road. Close to 95 percent of the park’s 1,169 square miles is a wilderness area. Stanislaus National Forest offers 811 miles of rivers and streams with 18 species of fish.

Not only is this area spectacular in its beauty, it is rich with history. Tuolumne County is where the Gold Rush started in 1848. Native Americans had lived here for several thousand years until that time. After the gold rush began, new towns sprang up wherever a piece of gold was found. By 1860, 16,000 people had moved here, all seeking to make their fortune.

Miners and merchants came from as far away as Chile, the Hawaiian Islands, Germany, England, Italy, France, Australia, China, and Mexico. People from the east coast flocked here, and many brought their slaves. The ethnic mix, coupled with greed and a loose lifestyle, brought tumultuous times, violence and lawlessness. Much to my surprise, despite high expectations, only a few struck it rich. Most men came alone, planning to send for their families later. In most cases it never happened. Miners spent or gambled most of what they made. By 1980, for example, the Gem of the Southern Mines had produced more than $1 billion in today’s  dollars.

There are four main towns making up Tuolumne County. We spent our first night in Jamestown at the Palm Hotel, an 1890 Victorian Bed and Breakfast. Jamestown is a sleepy mining town with the Old West architecture. I sat on the front porch wondering what it must have been like to live here over a hundred years ago. It is apparent the innkeepers, Anita and Ken Spencer, have a passion for what they do. They know the history and the stories of so many years ago. I sat quietly and listened. Back then the old hotels and B & B’s housed thousands of men. The rooms were tiny, many without windows. Room and board in those days usually cost only $5.00 a week.

I walked one block down to Main Street, and was filled with awe and curiosity as I explored the brick and stone buildings, Victorian homes, historic inns, saloons and churches. The broken down barns and old-fashioned farmhouses were the perfect subject for my black and white photo collection. Ancient shade trees, beautiful gardens and history surrounded me.

Later that afternoon we took a short drive out to Clovis Ranch. The first apple trees were planted here in 1890. Located on Cherokee Road in Tuolumne County,  Clovis is famous for “The Mile High Pie,” made with 10 cups of apples. While you’re here you may be lucky enough to have Joe Cover, a handsome man with piercing blue eyes, give you a tour of the grounds and the orchards. Joe is one of the owners and loves to talk about apples. I never knew learning about harvesting, and the storing and growing of apples could be so interesting. There are hundreds of varieties and they all grow at different times of the year.

The second day of our trip we made a short drive to Groveland where we planned to spend the night. Checking into the 156-year-old Groveland Hotel late that afternoon was an experience in itself. Mr. Mosley, the spry 80-year-old innkeeper, hauled my bulging suitcase up the steep staircase.

Prior to handing over the room key, he informed me that it may be a good idea to call downstairs before I turned on the shower. Apparently my shower and the kitchen dishwasher could not run at the same time. Like the featherbed and the creaky old stairs, this little anomaly just added to the charm of the place.

Dining in the old restaurants with ancient oak bars, wooden plank floors and tin ceilings made for adventurous evenings. Many of these buildings are now situated over old gold mines. The telling of ghosts stories occupied much of our time.

The larger-than-life spirit of these places seemed to enhance the flavors of the food. The roasted butter nut squash soup at The City Hotel, the blackened wild salmon with a yogurt-dill sauce at The Hotel Charlotte, and the deep fried cheese cake at The Grove-land Hotel are all standouts!

My trip would not have been complete without a visit to Railtown. Ever since my beloved father treated me to a special train ride from Washington D.C. to Baltimore for my 12th birthday, I’ve been hooked on trains. There was no better place to indulge this fantasy than visiting Rail-town. The Sierra Railway was integral to the growth and progress of the gold rush days.

Mr. John Rand, a volunteer for over 10 years is equally enthralled with trains. His enthusiasm was contagious as he explained the mechanics and intricacies of these historical steam trains. In those days the trains hauled lumber, cattle and mining material. The passenger train seats were plush and passengers never had to ride backwards. The seat backs could be changed to face either direction. I have never seen a modern train car with this interchangeable feature!   

If you make reservations ahead of time, you might be fortunate enough to ride in the locomotive with the conductor. Prepare yourself for the heat. Temperatures of the steam can reach over 700 degrees! Roundhouse tours are offered daily throughout the year. Actual train rides are offered on weekends April-October, and for special events.

Another highlight of this trip was spending an afternoon at Dodge Ridge snowshoeing and cross-country skiing in the mountains. The experience of meandering through a snowfilled  path in the forest was quiet, enlightening and invigorating. Dodge Ridge offers downhill skiing with 12 lifts and 60 green, blue and black diamond trails. We ended the day with a dose of extra excitement. The slopes closed early due to thunder and lightning on the mountain.

There is an old theory that implies when we understand our roots, we understand ourselves. This trip filled with history, wonder and excitement, has brought me a little closer to putting all the pieces together.
Ann Nelson is a freelance writer, presently residing in San Diego, CA.



Tuolumne County
Visitors Bureau
(800) 446-1333

Dodge Ridge
(209) 965-3474

Cover’s Apple Ranch
(209) 928-4689

1897 State Historic Park
(209) 984-3953

Palm Hotel
(209) 984-3429

The Groveland Hotel
(800) 273-3314


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