Yosemite and the Sierras

Yosemite is close to several charming communities in the Sierra Nevada mountains

California is so unbelievably rich with magnificent scenery and sophisticated vacation destinations, it can prove challenging to set aside time to see them all. For example, plenty of travelers who regularly visit Los Angeles and San Francisco still haven’t explored one of the state’s most stunning locales, Yosemite National Park, which makes for a fantastic weekend adventure. There’s plenty for nature lovers to see and do here (from river rafting to skiing to camping), but Yosemite also sits close to several charming communities in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, where you’ll find gay-friendly inns and historic hotels, excellent but underrated wineries and art galleries, and a smattering of intriguing historic attractions.

Two of the region’s counties make particularly good bases for exploring: Calaveras (where Mark Twain penned “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County“) and Tuolumne (which rhymes, more or less, with “follow me”). Although set high above the San Joaquin Valley and accessed via twisting mountain roads, the region is relatively easy to reach from several major California cities, including Sacramento (100 miles) and San Francisco (130 miles). From Los Angeles, it’s a longer drive (360 miles), but, at about five or six hours, still manageable.

Sonora, founded as a mining town in 1849, is the largest community in the region, with a population of about 5,000. Here you’ll find a handful of appealing hotels, some good restaurants, and a first-rate theater scene you might not expect in such a rural area. You can see top-notch plays produced by the Sierra Repertory Theatre company, which stages plays throughout the year at both the East Sonora Theatre and Columbia State Historic Park’s Fallon House. Downtown Sonora’s Stage 3 Theater is another excellent venue.

Sonora also has several cool and funky antiques shops and galleries, such as Antiques Etcetra and Jake + Lulu’s Pet Boutique. Legends is a cute bookstore and antiques shop with an inviting coffeehouse upfront, where you can stop for ice cream or espresso. With its mix of no-nonsense workaday businesses and up-and-coming boutiques, unpretentious Sonora feels a bit like Guerneville, in the Russian River – inviting but free from excessive commercialism. On Saturday mornings from mid-May through mid-October, the town hosts a farmers market where you’ll find everything from local honeys and preserves to baked goods produced by an area Mennonite sect.

Visitors can also check out a handful of attractions, such as Railtown 1897 State Historic Park (whose vintage trains have appeared in countless movies) and Columbia State Historic Park, whose preserved Gold Rush-era commercial district abounds with shops and eateries, plus two hotels and a theater. You can even pan for gold at the California Gold Co., where a guide teaches you everything you need to know about becoming your own prospector.

Calaveras County has developed an increasingly strong reputation of late as a wine tasting region. In the small town of Murphys, you can tour the area’s most renowned winery, Ironstone, which occupies a former gold-stamping mill set in a lush green valley. Have lunch (perhaps a panini stuffed with smoked salami, red peppers, and provolone) in the excellent deli, and sample wines in a handsome tasting room anchored by a 42-foot limestone fireplace. The garden-laced grounds are popular for weddings and commitment ceremonies, and an amphitheater hosts pop and rock concerts in summer. Other notable winemakers in the area include Twisted Oak Winery and Chatom Vineyards.

Undoubtedly, the region’s signature attraction is Yosemite National Park, whose magnificent landscape has been immortalized in photographs by Ansel Adams and paintings by Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran. The park, which was established in 1890, comprises an amazingly varied terrain, from the peak of 13,114-foot Mt. Lyell to the valley floor, which sits at an elevation of 4,315 feet. In 2007, Yosemite unveiled a new $1.2 million visitor center with imaginatively rendered exhibits interpreting the park’s many natural features. Although you don’t want to miss viewing such dazzling icons as the El Capitan granite cliff, Sentinel Rock dome, or 2,424-foot-high Yosemite Falls, set aside some time to visit some of the park’s less-visited sights. One such off-the-beaten-path gem is Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, which was built in 1923 to provide water and electricity to the 2.5 million Californians who reside in San Francisco and surrounding counties.

This part of California has experienced something of a dining boom over the past decade, with several restaurants in the region specializing in local produce, game, and wines. In downtown Sonora, you’ll find Banny’s Cafe & Wine Bar, an airy spot where California-inspired Mediterranean fare awaits. Try the spinach salad topped with Humbolt Fog goat cheese, pancetta, and sherry-mustard vinaigrette, or chorizo-and-clam paella with roasted red pepper. A 15-minute drive east of town, the Tuolumne Me-Wuk tribe opened Black Oak Casino in 2001. As gaming facilities go, this one is airy, pleasant, and well-ventilated (there’s even a smoke-free section, as well as a state-of-the-art bowling alley). But it’s also home to the stellar Seven Sisters restaurant, which you shouldn’t miss even if you’re not a fan of gambling. Typically memorable dishes include smoked buffalo tenderloin wrapped in bacon with red-currant sauce, and sake-glazed char-grilled prawns with tangerine vinaigrette.

You weren’t seriously hoping to find a gay bar in this part of the world, were you? Indeed, the area is bereft of gay hangouts, but you will find some funky and fun saloons drawing an eclectic bunch. Downtown Sonora’s lovably raffish and weird Servente’s is the kind of place where groovy hippies and rowdy bikers knock back cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon. In tiny Groveland, the nearest community to Yosemite, check out the Iron Door, which is the oldest continuously operated saloon in the state, drawing as diverse a crowd as any joint in Tuolumne County.

There are a number of hotels and B&Bs in these parts that enthusiastically court the gay market. For sheer romance, it’s hard to beat the McCaffrey House, a beautifully furnished, contemporary (and pet-friendly) mountain home with eight elegant but unfussy rooms decorated with Amish quilts, well-chosen antiques, and pine and iron beds. Super-friendly, well-traveled innkeepers Stephanie and Michael serve a lavish breakfast each morning. In downtown Sonora, the handsomely restored Gunn House contains 12 reasonably priced, nicely kept rooms with period antiques. Perks include a substantial breakfast and use of a heated pool, and downtown shops and restaurants are a short walk away.

Just a 25-mile drive west of Yosemite’s Big Oak Flat Entrance in the charming village for which it is named, the Groveland Hotel is the only Monterey Colonial-style building in the Sierras, an adobe structure built in 1849 and meticulously restored by engaging owners Peggy and Grover Mosley in 1990. Opt for Room 15 if you’d like a chance to visit with a resident ghost, Lyle (all of the warmly furnished rooms are named for quirky and mostly local characters). The Groveland’s intimate Victorian Room restaurant is another of the Sierras’ truly great dining destinations, with a superb wine list and well-crafted contemporary fare – try the mixed grill with venison, quail, duck-and-foie-gras sausage, and a blueberry-balsamic glaze). Another gay-friendly option in the same village, the Hotel Charlotte has simple but pleasant, moderately priced rooms.

For sheer opulence, it’s hard to beat Yosemite’s famed Ahwahnee Hotel, which was built in the late 1920s and contains 99 plush rooms (plus another 24 adjacent cottage units) with Native American-inspired decor. Many rooms take in classic Yosemite views, from Half Dome to Yosemite Falls, but keep in mind that you’ll pay more than $500 nightly to stay here. Just outside Yosemite’s western boundary, for as little as one-fourth the price, you can stay at one of the region’s better-kept secrets, the secluded Evergreen Lodge, a pine-shrouded, 15-acre compound consisting of 70 rustic but casually chic cabins set around a rambling 1920s restaurant and tavern serving very good food. Enthusiastic young owners poured $10 million into a major renovation in the early 2000s, but the real draw here is the friendly, knowledgeable staff, who can set up every imaginable type of adventure, from guided bike trips to fly-fishing lessons. Evergreen even offers a “custom-camping” experience – one to four guests get their own sprawling, mesh tent with comfy air-beds, linens, and a full slate of amenities (plus use of all resort facilities). It’s the perfect way to gaze at the stars over Yosemite, even if you’re a bit squeamish about encounters with nature.