California is called The Golden State, and much of the year it’s true. But in spring, the landscape is dominated by rich colorful hues. Trees burst into brilliant green canopies. Orange and red poppies dot rolling meadows covered in mossy green grass. Pillowy white clouds scud across cobalt blue skies in the brisk spring breeze. Along the coast, wildflowers hide among giant sand dunes like tiny works of art, and the blue Pacific froths, its churning waves constantly changing and roaring like a beast.
Peter and I decided spring would be the perfect time to visit our son Scott, stationed at Vandenberg AFB near Santa Barbara, so we headed west to enjoy family time and explore a few California attractions—from the coast to Yosemite National Park to the legendary Gold Country. Along the way, we hoped to unplug, slow down, and be in the moment.
Spring Snow and Blooms in Yosemite National Park
John Muir: “A Place to Play and Pray In”
Yosemite National Park is an astonishing marvel, an other-worldly landscape that fills you with wonder. I once visited Yosemite with my sister-in-law, and now I was taking Peter and Scott to see it for the first time. Turns out spring may not be the best season to visit Yosemite. There’s still snow in “them thar hills.” Access to what many consider to be Yosemite’s most beautiful view, Glacier Point, was closed during our visit, due to snowy conditions. In fact, snow can linger until early June in the park’s higher elevations.
The good news was, even though we couldn’t enjoy the view from Glacier Point, Yosemite wasn’t crazy crowded in early April. We spent the day exploring Yosemite Valley from Bridalveil Falls, which were gushing, to Mirror Lake, where views of Tenaya Canyon reflected in still, placid water. We picnicked overlooking a meadow beside granite behemoths that towered over us like silent giants. But the warm sun shone, the birds sang, and the landscape fairly sparkled with the newness of spring.
We were thrilled to see a few climbers on El Capitan. They looked like tiny ants against a vast wall of granite. In the Yosemite National Park Museum, I chatted with a man who’d seen “Free Solo,” an award-winning film about a young man who climbed the face of El Capitan without safety gear! He told me it’s an edge-of-your-seat film, not for the faint of heart.
In the museum, an exhibit about John Muir was enlightening and informative. I really loved Muir’s quote: “Everyone needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to the body and soul alike.” Muir fell in love with Yosemite and was instrumental in the creation of Yosemite Park in 1890. He also convinced Theodore Roosevelt to expand the park in 1903, thereby preserving its natural beauty for generations to come.
Mariposa Grove: A Haven for Tree Huggers
Plus A River Stone Massage at Ascent Spa
We stayed near the South Gate of Yosemite at a lovely property called Tenaya Lodge, which has a rustic vibe but offers comfortable, deluxe accommodations and resort-style amenities. Tenaya offers four seasons of fun—from snowshoeing in winter to mountain biking in summer.
Our visit coincided with spring break, so exuberant kids were everywhere, enjoying the indoor pool, outdoor ice skating, and bonfires with s’mores each evening. Our spacious room was tastefully decorated, and the beds comfy. Restaurants on-site offer everything from pizza to gourmet cuisine. We started each day with the breakfast buffet and loved the fresh fruit, hearty egg dishes, and sweet pastries.
Mariposa Grove, full of towering sequoias, is a short drive away from the lodge, so one morning we decided to commune with these beautiful trees. The shuttle that takes guests from the parking area to the grove of trees and hiking trails wasn’t operating yet, so we walked the two miles up a steep paved road to see the trees. The hike was worth it. As a tree hugger, these massive specimens are mind-blowing: ancient, beautiful creations of nature, some as old as 2000 years. Hard to imagine what the planet even looked like that long ago.
Back at Tenaya, I indulged in a river stone massage at Ascent Spa. My therapist deftly worked out all the kinks and knots from my head to my toe. The smooth, heated stones provided additional therapeutic benefits as their warmth spread deep into my muscles and left me feeling renewed. The spa also offers a sauna and steam room for additional pampering.
Spring Skiing at Dodge Ridge
Exploring California’s Gold Rush Country
Our adventure continued in nearby Tuolumne County (pronounced too-all-uh-me), which hugs the northwestern border of Yosemite National Park. It’s where much of the 1849 California Gold Rush occurred, and strike-it-rich stories abound in the county’s gold-mining towns. We wanted to learn more about the history and heritage of this region, but before getting started, we headed up into the mountains to play in the snow.
Actually, I’d hope to do some horseback riding while we were in this natural wonderland. I’d read that half-, full-, and multi-day pack trips are a popular option for visitors to the area. However, I was once again thwarted by Old Man Winter, so we opted to try spring skiing instead. Our destination was a ski area called Dodge Ridge, and as we drove up into the clouds, snow appeared by the side of the road, and soon we were face-to-face with snow-covered slopes that looked rather steep to me.
I hadn’t skied in a while, so my first thought was I needed a lesson. Luckily, I was able to join the 10 a.m. group, and after some patient coaching from my instructor, I got my ski legs back and began to enjoy myself on the bunny slopes. Peter and Scott, meanwhile, headed to higher, more challenging terrain, and after a few hours swooshing down the slopes, we were done. I may not be the world’s best skier, but I love getting out there and doing my best.
We stayed in Sonora, a cute town named after the miners from Sonora, Mexico, who settled here during the Gold Rush. Our lodging was the Bradford Place Inn, a beautiful, historic B & B close to downtown. The room featured comfy beds, a claw-footed bathtub, rose-studded wallpaper, and lots of windows. Breakfasts were the highlight of our visit, graciously prepared and served by our hosts.
Going to California without sampling local wine is like going to bed without a pillow. We stopped in Inner Sanctum Cellars for a tasting of their Spanish-style wines. Karen, the owner, explained how the name came about. “It’s an inside joke,” she said and told us the idea came up at a party and refers to the circle of friends who become smitten by their wines. It’s easy to get smitten. The sparkling wines were especially tasty, but my favorite was a red featuring the tempranillo grape. The winery has a spacious outdoor area, where concerts take place seasonally.
Step back into the Past in Columbia
Don’t Miss Railtown 1987 State Historic Park
Tuolumne County is ideal for history buffs. Our visit coincided with the opening of Railtown 1897 State Historic Park in nearby Jamestown. On this special weekend. free train rides were on tap, so families and RR enthusiasts lined up early to secure a spot. The old-fashioned train filled up, and toot-toot, we were off on a 45-min. ride through pastoral countryside.
Back at the park, we explored the roundhouse with a few locomotives on display. Peter and Scott were intrigued by the blacksmith shop, where parts of all sizes are forged and shaped. Just like back in the day, if something on one of the park’s trains breaks, new parts need to be pounded into shape, using old tools and know-how. Many of the docents at the park had spent their lives learning about trains. They looked the part with engineer’s caps, faded overalls, and red kerchiefs around their necks.
In nearby Columbia State Historic Park, you can step back in time to a real Gold Rush town. It looks like a movie set, but in fact, the whole town is authentic. The cool thing is the businesses are all operating, selling goods to local residents as well as souvenirs to tourists.
We popped into Columbia Clothiers & Emporium, and Peter eyed a silk top hat longingly—he’s a bit crazy about hats. I asked, “Where would you wear a hat like that, Peter?” He couldn’t answer, so we left the hat on the shelf.
Other businesses lining Main Street include a book store, bakery, saddlery, and candy store. You can also stay in a hotel right in the historic village. In summer stagecoach rides are available, as well as lots of family activities, like panning for gold, music, and storytelling.
We capped our visit with a stop in St. Charles Saloon for some fabulous pizza and local craft brews. It’s a popular spot for locals, and we loved the cool, western vibe.
The next morning as we got ready to head south, we chatted with the innkeeper, about how she and her husband liked living in Sonora, after having spent most of their lives in the Bay area. “We love it,” she said.
Peter and I often talk about moving to a small town one day, and Sonora is now on the list. We love the climate, the mountains, and the recreational activities in Tuolumne County, not to mention its proximity to Yosemite National Park. I guess you can say Peter and I are “California Dreamin.”
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