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Ten Winter Weather Options to Slow Down, Stay Dry and Drink-Up in Northern California’s Quaint Gold Country Towns

January 12, 2017 | Jen Lopez

The forecast for this time of year is wet weather, and while California always needs it, it’s not always a welcome sight for visitors who have planned a trip to the Gold Country area along Highway 49. The county’s main visitors center (542 Washington Street in historic Sonora) hears a familiar children’s song in visitor comments: “It’s raining, it’s pouring, I think this place is boring, what’s there to do to have some fun ‘til sun comes out in the morning.” Here are the area experts’ ten suggestions:

1. Step back in time on a museum tour. There are several museums in Tuolumne County where visitors learn about the rich Gold Rush history, view historical artifacts and discover geological sites.

  • Tuolumne County Museum is located in downtown Sonora in what was Sonora’s original Jail, which is reason alone to pop in, but the depth of their collection is astounding. Learn about the gold rush and the enterprising spirit of our county’s earliest residents. The museum is open Monday through Friday, 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. and Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
  • Tuolumne County Veterans Museum located on Washington Street in downtown Sonora displays uniforms and weapons used in past wars. This is a must-see for history buffs.
  • Columbia State Historic Park Museum. Learn about Columbia’s contribution to the Gold Rush and what everyday life was like for its residents. The museum is open daily 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. inside Columbia State Historic Park, a free state park operating as an 1850’s mining town. Enjoy a libation to warm up at the What Cheer Saloon at the City Hotel or a spot of tea at Columbia Kate’s.
  • Groveland Yosemite Gateway Museum is located at 18990 Highway 120 (adjacent to Mary Laveroni Park heading to the Highway 120 entrance to Yosemite National Park) and has a large display of mining equipment, wildlife and geology exhibits. The museum is open Sunday to Thursday from 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. While you are in Groveland, don’t miss California’s oldest drinking establishment, the Iron Door Saloon, or Charlotte Hotel’s Fork & Love Restaurant.

2. Challenge the spirits. Get in the spirit with wine and cider tastings. Many are free of charge (a welcome change from Northern California’s better-known wine regions) or charge a nominal fee for tastings.

  • Indigeny Reserve is located on Summers Lane outside of Sonora. They offer an informative distillery tour with tastings of cider, vodka and brandy, and well curated gift shop showcasing local artist works—reason alone to visit. Open Monday through Wednesday, 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., and Thursday through Sunday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
  • Gianelli Vineyards tasting room is located on Main Street in quaint Jamestown. Everything about their foothill appellation mimics that of Italy with winemaking techniques so authentic they can easily say “our wines speak Italian.” Their hours invite a long, leisurely afternoon of day drinking.   Monday through Thursday afternoons from 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 12:00 to 6:00 p.m. and Sunday from 12:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.
  • Inner Sanctum Cellars tasting room is also located on Main Street in Jamestown. They offer Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and a just-released Peach Sparkling wine. Their tasting room shows off their mettle with and industrial feel and they have a quaint patio in the back with a fire pit to roast chestnuts and marshmallows. Open Thursday from 2:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 12:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m., and Sunday from 12:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. www.innersanctumcellars.com. With such close proximity, we suggest tasting room crawling to both, followed by a lovely meal at the Historic National Hotel or The Jamestown Hotel.
  • Twisted Oak in the nearby town of Murphys takes a whimsical approach to wine tasting with their rubber chicken ranch. (You’ll see what we mean.) They have two tasting rooms, one on Red Hills Road in Vallecito and one on Main Street in Murphys. Both offer a good selection of both red and white varietals. Open Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and weekends from 12:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.
  • Ironstone Vineyards – This winery is one of the largest wineries in the region and is located on Six Mile Road in Murphys. It has a large tasting room, deli, museum, banquet rooms, amphitheater and beautifully manicured grounds. It’s Heritage Museum is a tribute to the Gold Rush, displaying artifacts from the 19th century gold mining area and from the Miwoks, early Native American inhabitants who lives in this area. The focal point of the museum is the largest Crystalline Gold Leaf specimen in the world, weighing 44 pounds. Located inside the Heritage Museum, the Heritage Jewelry Shoppe offers visitors a unique opportunity to take home a piece of California’s rich history. Open daily from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Tours are offered Wednesday through Sunday at 1:00 p.m.

3. Lace up some history at Long Barn Lodge for Ice Skating. Families have been coming to this rink for generations, once an actual barn housing the miners’ mules during winters, on Highway 108. The ice skating rink is open daily 10:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Both the experience and the price is vintage:   $8.50 plus $2.50 for skate rentals. 

4. Go antique and thrift store shopping. There’s nothing better than wild weather outside for permission to stay inside poking around previously owned finds. The county has a variety of both antique stores and thrift stores. A good place to start is the Good Stuff on Pesce Way, just off Highway 49 next to ARCO AMPM in Sonora.

5. Go down under and stay dry – View beautiful geologic formations in one of several underground caverns.

  • Moaning Caverns is located in Vallecito (just 15 minutes from Sonora) on Parrotts Ferry Road, offering a trip into their cavern via a three-story spiral stair case. They also offer cave rappelling and gem mining, and in good weather, outdoor zip lining.  Open Monday through Friday from 11:00 a.m.  to 4:00 p.m. and weekends from 10:00 a.m.  to 5:00 p.m. Tours cost $17.50 and are every hour on the hour. For the month of January, they are offering a “Get Fit in a Cave” special to save 20% on cave tours.
  • California Caverns is located in Mountain Ranch (about an hour’s drive from Moaning Caverns) and offers several room/chambers in a cave system to view. They are open Monday through Friday from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. and weekends from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Tours cost $17.50 and are every hour on the hour. For the month of January, they are offering a “Get Fit in a Cave” special to save 20% on cave tours.
  • Mercer Cavern is located in Murphys (30 minutes from Sonora) on Sheep Ranch Road and offers several rooms and chambers in a cave system to view. It is relatively flat and open for visitors with mobility needs. Open daily from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.

6. Go cosmic bowling at Black Oak Casino Resort. Their 24-lane Brunswick Bowling Center is open daily beginning at 9:00 a.m. and offers Cosmic Bowling Friday and Saturday beginning at 6:00 p.m. A full game arcade and Sports Grill completes the visit.

7. Play indoors for a while at Black Oak Casino Resort. The casino has a special penny slot area to pass the time without spending a fortune.

8. Enjoy local art – even some made by you.  There are several galleries in downtown Sonora, Jamestown, Twain Harte, Groveland and many spots along the way. At Brush and Cork, visitors can paint their own masterpiece by following the step-by-step designs of owner Judy Grossman, who refers to the experience as “Grown Up Paint By Numbers.”  (The grown-up part is the BYOB to enjoy a bottle of local wine…) Visit the website for hours and special painting class themes.

9. Visit Cover’s Apple Ranch for Mile-High Apple Pie. Along with ranch tours, a petting zoo, family-owned Cover’s best asset is a restaurant for generous portions of comfort food like biscuits and gravy, French toast, soups, salads and wonderful sandwiches. Wash it down with their hand pressed cider and save room for a piece of mile-high apple pie made in their bakery for dessert.

10. Take in a play. Sierra Repertory Theatre kicks off its 2017 season on February 18 with “Sister Act” in East Sonora and April 14 with “Noises Off” at the Historic Fallon House Theatre. Tickets are $28.00 – $35.00 with matinees making them a fun way to get out of the cold, while seeing first-rate live theatre at unheard of prices.

Tuolumne County is located just 2 ½ hours from the San Francisco Bay Area, making this area an easy day trip, but the area’s abundance of unique lodging beckons a stay overnight – or two. Book directly from the visitor website at VisitTuolumne.com for the options of hotels and motels, cabins and bed and breakfasts, casino hotels and historic inns.

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