Of all the road trips out of San Francisco, the ride to Yosemite is one of the most satisfying. You can start your morning off in one of the most hectic cities in America, battling traffic and tolls, then slowly but surely peel back the layers until you’re literally in the middle of nowhere. The wilderness of Yosemite National Park is a great escape for city dwellers, and since it’s less than four hours away, factoring in additional stops along the way is the move. Whether you’re fascinated by old Gold Rush towns or craving a nature preserve pit stop before the park itself, here are five of the best places to break up the drive.
Oakdale Cowboy Museum
Right about the halfway mark of the drive sits Oakdale, the home of the Cowboy Museum. Established back in 1995, this homage to the Old West is a local gem that highlights just how prevalent rodeo culture once was in Oakdale. With the goal of “conserving the heritage of the American West,” as well as the preservation of California’s own unique history, this small collection of cowboy memorabilia and vintage artifacts like trophy saddles and bronc reins is housed in a former Southern Pacific train depot. Completely free to the public, and open Wednesday through Sunday, the two primary exhibits are the Rodeo Gallery and the Ranching Gallery, with other rotating shows and events available on a seasonal basis. Far less formal than a traditional museum experience, this place lets you touch and interact with the items, and even includes a cowboy dress-up photo op for kids. While you’re in town, swing by Cafe Bravo for some eats that food writer Nikki Miller-Ka calls “not fancy but very solid, very good food.”
Merced has always prided itself on being “the Gateway to Yosemite,” and it’s still one of the best places to stop and stretch your legs before getting to the park. Head to Vista Ranch to relax in a gorgeous outdoor preserve just 10 minutes from the city. With outdoor picnic areas, a vineyard (with a tasting room in a 1910 farmhouse), corn maze, wood-fired pizza on the weekends, and even a pumpkin patch in October, there’s enough to do here to justify a full-on pit stop if you prefer to break the drive up. Head into town and grab a room at the new boutique hotel El Capitan, part of Merced’s restored historic downtown scene. If your timing is right, this detour can also include a journey through the superbloom of nearby almond blossoms.
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Located just outside Yosemite, many people cite Mariposa as their favorite part of the trip. This kitschy, old-fashioned town is mainly just a little street filled with great shopping, food options, and even a couple of places to stay if you want to extend your trip before or after a visit to the park. This tiny enclave, with buildings dating back to the 1850s, is one of the few towns left in America without a stoplight. While they aren’t five-star experiences, local bed and breakfasts like the Yosemite Miners Inn and Mariposa Hotel Inn are appealing for their historic charm and small-town feel.
Columbia State Historic Park
This smaller state park is actually a completely preserved Gold Rush-era town. Back in 1945, the state legislature turned the town into a state historic park in order to showcase what was typical in the area back then, and it remains a popular place for Yosemite visitors to time travel back to the 19th century. With stagecoach rides, a standard guided tour, a ghost tour for the brave, a museum, and two restored Victorian-period country inns (the Columbia City Hotel and the Fallon Hotel), there’s no shortage of entertainment here. Plus, it’s another stop that’s completely free to the public.
Lee Vining Canyon Scenic Byway
If you’re in the mood to keep the drive going, consider one of the many, many options for cruising through stretches of beautiful wilderness right before Yosemite officially begins. Lee Vining Canyon is a short but picturesque route that borders the park’s east side. These are some of the prettiest 12 miles in the area, so begin at the Tioga Pass Entrance and head east on the 120. After pausing at Tioga Lake, get back into the car and finish up the switchbacks and canyon curves for some truly unbeatable mountain views.
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