It was the scent in the air that did it, plucking me out of the Suzuki’s seat and transporting me back to the distant past. Not physically, of course. But my brain kept reporting I’d been swept away to relive a fond childhood moment buried deep in my subconscious. Riding along the Sierra Nevada foothills through California’s Gold Rush country, the particular combination of local trees, bushes, flowers and grasses surrounding us made my brain fold back on itself and suddenly I was 11 years old once again, trudging along a dusty wooded path at Boy Scout camp–a surreal moment to be sure. But also a pleasant reminder about the many small, unexpected joys we discover with motorcycle travel.
My wife Katie and I are native Californians but strangely enough we’ve never visited the Gold Country together, nor have we toured Yosemite National Park as a couple. So we started by spending a few nights along State Route 49 in the vicinity of Jamestown, Sonora, Columbia and Twain Harte, an area chockfull of historic sites and a wealth of varied activities–not to mention world-class riding roads. The open road always beckons to motorcyclists, so we riders enjoy striking our own balance between seat time and tourist/vacation activities. For this trip, Katie and I agreed on keeping a distinctly leisurely schedule since there’s so much to do and see in the area, but also because we both wanted to try and find some old haunts from our childhood years.
A hot highway drone north from our Southern California abode brought us to Merced, which served as our jumping-off spot for the good stuff as we traced two-lane roads eastward. We took flat, straight State Route 140 to connect with Route 49 at Mount Bullion on our way to Jamestown. Here, 49 is simply spectacular: fresh pavement, rising and falling twists and turns, and virtually no traffic. In short, riding bliss.
Jamestown gave us a warm welcome, in part due to the hot weather, but this little town offers an engaging, quiet, old-time feel to the place with plenty of stops for refreshments and window-shopping. But here’s the big find: Railtown 1897 State Historic Park with its tribute to steam-powered locomotives. Railtown gives a whole new meaning to the notion of big-displacement iron as the 26-acre park includes historic locomotives, a working roundhouse, belt-driven machine shops and a horde of train-related parts, signs and memorabilia scattered throughout. Steam train rides are available on weekends April through September, and if you’re a film buff you might recognize Sierra No. 3, a steam engine circa 1891 that appeared in many movies, such as “High Noon” and “Back to the Future Part III.”
Nowadays, nearby Columbia State Historic Park is a working town filled with historic re-creations including a blacksmith shop, an historic saloon, stagecoach rides, a gold-panning stop where you can try your luck and the Fallon Theatre, which still stages performances. We stayed in the Fallon Hotel, one of the two historic hotels still operating in Columbia, but my favorite stop had to be the ice cream shop located right between the hotel and theater. Our biggest disappointment is that we couldn’t stay longer to just soak in the atmosphere. Also close by, the town of Sonora is bigger and busier than Jamestown and Columbia, and offers much more to see and do (and buy!). Twain Harte, in turn, feels small, sleepy and relaxed, so pick the one that best suits your mood.
All of these stops proved delightful, but we also scheduled time to just roam around local roads on the V-Strom 1000 too. We both spent our childhood years growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, and this portion of the Sierra could be easily reached for day trips throughout the year. And so I had to ride up State Route 108 to revisit the place where I first strapped on snow skis, Dodge Ridge. At nearby Pinecrest Lake, Katie and her family spent summer days trout fishing. And up the mountain we stumbled upon the Strawberry Inn, the lodge where Katie’s parents made their first stop on their honeymoon in 1947, on their way to Idaho for more fishing. For no reason at all we decided to go poke around on Old Strawberry Road, which meanders around on the north side of Route 108, crisscrossing the South Fork of the Stanislaus River. Understand that while 108 is a great road for motorcycling, the entire area is laced with miles and miles of back roads that don’t even show up on large-scale maps. It’s fun and easy to set up looping day rides along deserted byways, and again we only wished we had more time to just go see what’s on the other side of the mountain.
Eventually, it came time to literally head over the mountain as we rode Route 108 up and over to Bridgeport in the Eastern Sierra along U.S. Route 395. Although you’re smack dab in the middle of Big Country–Sonora Pass sits 9,624 feet high–it’s only 97 miles between Sonora and Bridgeport with an approximate driving time of 2 hours–no sweat at all on a bike. A portion of this gorgeous expanse of high-mountain goodness suffered greatly at the hands of the huge Donnell Fire in the summer of 2018 and although the scars will last for a long while it’s still spectacular country. A short hop south on U.S. 395 led us to State Route 270 and another California State Historic Park, the gold-mining ghost town of Bodie. The final three miles to Bodie turns from paved road to dirt, which the V-Strom handled easily, even with our two-up load. Once a thriving town of 10,000 people, Bodie is now preserved in a state of “arrested decay,” and no food or gasoline is available so come prepared.
Our overnight stop at the Double Eagle Resort in June Lake had us wishing for a longer stay, but early in the morning we rode to the shores of Mono Lake to meet with Nora Livingston, a naturalist and guide with the Mono Lake Committee (monolake.org). Nora shared some of the history and ecology of the area that includes unique tufa tower limestone formations, and an ancient saline lake that covers more than 70 square miles, holding trillions of brine shrimp and alkali flies that nourish millions of migratory birds every year.
From U.S. 395, Route 120 traverses 9,941-foot Tioga Pass as you enter Yosemite National Park, which is indeed one of the greatest natural wonders in the world. Low speed limits and tons of vehicular traffic slow your speeds–so just go slow! You’ll want to take in the awe-inspiring views anyhow, and plan on making lots of stops to enjoy the vistas fully. In fact, it’s best to bring a lunch along so you can just hang out at one of the many scenic pullouts along the way and take in the views.
Canny readers will note an ongoing theme lurking in the background of this story: our continuing wish to spend more time enjoying the area. If we could do it all over again each overnight stay would last two nights to allow more time for exploring and whimsical stops. Especially when considering the many incredible secondary roads in the area, we barely scratched the surface. Nonstop twisty, turning mountain back roads, gorgeous mountain scenery and virtually zero traffic outside the main roads in Yosemite. What’s not to like about that?
In fact, maybe next time I can go looking for that old Boy Scout camp I remember so fondly….
Thanks to some help from the good folks at the Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau (VisitTuolumne.com) and the Mono County Tourism bureau (MonoCounty.org), we tapped into some excellent options for overnight stays, all with plenty of history, atmosphere and memorable surroundings.
Fallon House in Columbia State Historic Park: Situated right in this California State Historic Park, a night here feels like you’re immersed within a Wild West movie. parks.ca.gov
The Inn on Knowles Hill in Sonora: Sited on a picturesque hilltop overlooking Sonora, this bed and breakfast features lush appointments creating a turn-of-the-century experience, plus a sumptuous breakfast. knowleshill.com
McCaffrey House Bed and Breakfast Inn in Twain Harte: Spacious and well-appointed rooms in a secluded wooded setting, located just off Route 108. mccaffreyhouse.com
Double Eagle Resort and Spa in June Lake: Spacious cabins, spa services and a fly fishing pond for guests up in the high Sierra combines mountain living with full-on resort facilities. doubleeagle.com
Groveland Hotel in Groveland: Modern renovations make this historic hotel a delight, one that’s within easy reach of Yosemite National Park. groveland.com