If you are visiting Yosemite National Park, I have some enticing ideas for things to do near Yosemite.
In addition to reveling at waterfalls, hiking Half Dome or admiring sunset from Tunnel View, explore the fascinating gold rush history in three gold country towns near Yosemite National Park.
TOP TIP: If you are visiting Yosemite during the winter, I recommend entering via Highway 140 in Mariposa as it tends to have the best road conditions since it’s at a lower elevation.
Over the past year, I’ve had the pleasure of exploring 10 California gold rush towns, immersing in the unique histories and stories each has to tell. Mariposa and Oakhurst are two of the closest gold rush towns near Yosemite.
Mariposa Museum and History Center
Located only 32 miles (45 minutes) from Yosemite’s western Arch Rock entrance, Mariposa’s Museum and History Center will enthrall you.
If you are lucky, you’ll have the privilege of seeing a five stamp mill operate. Once they fire it up, you’ll understand why so many miners lost their hearing (and sometimes fingers or arms) to this massive machine.
FUN FACT: Did you know that gold resides in quartz?!
After gold miners exhausted the “easy” gold discovered in California rivers and creeks, larger companies used these stamp mills to crush the quartz and extract the gold.
While at the museum, you can also pan for gold! This is a fascinating activity, no matter what your age.
FUN FACT: Since gold is 18x heavier than other materials, it settles to the bottom of the gold pans.
You’ll use a technique called “dipping and pouring,” which the knowledgeable docents will school you in, to find your gold. During the demonstration, you’ll also see the difference between gold and fool’s gold.
You might even find some tiny garnets too. At the end, you can take home a small glass vial with your wares.
After immersing in these courtyard activities, head inside, step back in time and revel at the historic artifacts displayed throughout the museum. Some of my favorite items include the old cash registers, wooden food and spice containers and the Sun Sun Wu ledger.
TOP TIP: I highly recommend heading to Coulterville to see the Sun Sun Wu building. More on that below.
California Mining and Mineral Museum
Now that you’ve had a chance to pan for gold, it’s the perfect time to head to the California Mining and Mineral Museum.
TOP TIP: Browse the 13,000 mining artifacts and make sure to see the “Fricot Nugget,” a 13.8 pound gold piece discovered in 1864.
Mariposa Attractions Near Yosemite
After you’ve finished at the museums, drive over to Buillion Street to see three historic sites.
Mariposa County Courthouse
The Mariposa County Courthouse, built in 1854, is the oldest operating courthouse west of the Rocky Mountains. If court isn’t in session, the kind security guards will let you visit the courtroom upstairs.
FUN FACT: The tables, chairs, and judge’s bench are all original.
After seeing the courtroom, walk down the downstairs hallway to see a safe beneath the stairs.
TOP TIP: Open the exterior safe’s door to see inner safe’s exquisite painting.
Mariposa Jail House
Built in 1858, this stone jailhouse had two stories prior to a fire in 1891. The quality of the stone work almost reminded me of a castle and appealed to my Game of Thrones obsession. However, given its primary purpose, I wouldn’t want to spend the night there.
FUN FACT: In 1935, two prisoners escaped, but were ultimately captured in Oregon.
St. Joseph’s Catholic Church
Built in 1862, this church is the oldest Catholic Church in the Diocese of Fresno. Its shape and design reminds me a bit of a black church that I photographed in Iceland.
TOP TIP: Check out the Rectory House from 1927, which is built in the Craftsman style, and pay your respects to former Mariposa residents in the cemetery behind.
Best Places to Hike in Mariposa County
Hite’s Cove Hike
If you are visiting during the spring, I highly recommend embarking upon the Hite’s Cove hike along the Merced River canyon. The trail is laden with myriad wildflowers, including poppies, lupine, paintbrush, swamp onions and shooting stars.
TOP TIP: Be careful where you step as Sierra Newts traverse the trail, making their way up from the river below in the early morning. We saw at least 15 scampering through the grasses! Also, don’t touch them as their skin excretes a toxic mucus.
If you don’t want to do the full nine-mile hike to Hite’s Cove, it’s only 2.0 miles round-trip to Lookout Rock and 5.5 miles round-trip to Swirly Rock. Given how mesmerizing the designs carved into the rocks by the water are, it’s worth going to Swirly Rock to see these unique patterns and watch and listen to the powerful water churning through the valley.
TOP TIP: Be careful where you touch and sit on the trail as poison oak lurks throughout.
Best Places to Eat in Mariposa, California
After hiking, satiate your appetite at Mariposa’s various eateries.
If you are craving Mexican food, I highly recommend Sal’s Taco Truck or Castillo’s Mexican food. Both have super tasty burritos!
FUN FACT: Sal has been operating his truck for 29 years and Castillo’s has been serving customers for 66 years!
Savoury’s has a wide selection of meat, seafood and vegetarian dishes. Black bean stuffed zucchini or a chipotle linguini will hit the spot.
If you are looking for tasty carbs, refuel with Bavarian pretzels, baked mac and cheese or ahi nachos and craft beers at 1850 Restaurant.
Want to grab a sandwich and juice for the road? I enjoyed the Citrus Immunity from High Country Health Foods and Café with orange, lemon, apple, carrot, ginger and cayenne. They offer an impressive variety of vegetarian options, including falafel, veggie burgers and black bean burritos.
Want to satiate your sweet tooth after lunch? Head to Jantz Café and Bakery. The lemon bar and chocolate almond toffee bar are on point. Or, you can opt for one of their decadent pie slices (apple, boysenberry, cherry or lemon meringue.)
Stop into Little Shop of Ramen for, you guessed it, yummy ramen noodles. Handmade toasted rye noodles add extra pizazz. Vegan/vegetarian options with tofu and mushrooms are available too.
FUN FACT: The restaurant is housed in the oldest building in Mariposa, which also happens to be the only three-story adobe building still operational in California.
TOP TIP: Before you indulge in ramen, wine taste with The Local Grape, which is in the same building as The Little Shop of Ramen. I hear great things about the Butterfly Creek wines he carries. Venture to the back of the restaurant and check out the original adobe walls (housed behind plexiglass) and three murals dating from 1898 that have been recently restored.
Things to do in Mariposa, California: Best Places to Shop
Mae it Be Home is my favorite store in Mariposa as it has an eclectic mix of home goods, including goat’s milk soap, candles, syrups and indulgent blankets. Spicy ginger and mango habanero beverage mixers – yes please!
Shop for clothing and accessories in a storied brick building built in 1866. Brick Wall Boutique sells jewelry, bags and clothing made in Mariposa County.
FUN FACT: Over the years, the site has hosted a barbershop, restaurant and Bank of America.
Best Places to Stay in Mariposa
Yosemite Bug Rustic Mountain Resort
FUN FACT: Doug Shaw, Yosemite Bug’s owner, has designed each of the rooms to have an eclectic theme.
As a photographer, I personally loved the antique cameras in my Wawona room. Returning guests prefer not to specify a room so that they can be surprised by the decorations that will greet them.
TOP TIP: Make sure you indulge in at least one dinner while on site at the June Bug Café.
I salivate every time I think of the delicious sweet potato, cauliflower and spinach samosa with daal. The desserts are on point too. Both myself and another patron, who are not usually cheesecake fans, raved about the lemon cheesecake. The mixed berry and peanut butter chocolate cream pies are not to be missed either!
June Bug Café also offers trail lunches for your Yosemite day trip, which include trail mix and a cookie!
Mariposa Hotel Inn
This quaint inn, built in 1901, has six guest rooms. Throughout its history, the building has also housed a bar, variety store and other businesses.
The rooms have myriad historic elements, including stained glass windows, claw foot tubs, and hand made baskets.
Other Things to Do Near Yosemite
Visit Coulterville, California
Located 26 miles (45 minutes) northwest of Mariposa, Coulterville is another gold rush town along the Golden Chain Highway 49 worth visiting.
FUN FACT: Coulterville was established in 1849 to supply services to gold miners in the area.
I actually stopped here on my drive to Mariposa from San Francisco. Since it’s only 140 miles (2.5 hours) from San Francisco, I found it to be an ideal place to stop and break up the drive. If you are keen to explore other gold country towns near Yosemite, my gold rush town road trip itinerary will help you plan.
Historical Sites in Coulterville
Starting your visit at the Coulterville Museum will give you a deeper appreciation for Coulterville’s history. Since it’s built on the site of the Coulterville Store and Hotel (circa 1851), the museum contains an intricate and painstakingly crafted hotel replica.
Other museum highlights Include:
A miniature stamp mill, which provides a great preview for the five stamp mill you can see operating at Mariposa Museum and History Center.
- Baskets and arrowheads from the Miwuk tribe
- An old organ in a reconstructed parlor
- A beautiful Chinese mah jongg set (which delighted me after reading so much historical fiction highlighting this tile game)
- Old pharmacy and food containers
TOP TIP: Be sure to explore the outer courtyard and barn, which contains a historic firetruck, wagon and hearse – all in great condition. In spring time, the outdoor stamp mill is enveloped by vibrant orange poppies! Don’t forget to take a picture of the “Whistling Billy” train out front.
This volunteer led museum is open Thursday to Sunday from 10AM to 4PM.
Coulterville Town Highlights
Once you’ve whetted your historical appetite, wander across the street to explore Main Street.
On the corner, you’ll be greeted by the formidable Hotel Jeffery with 30” rock and adobe walls, established in 1851, and the Magnolia Room (an old saloon). Although they are currently closed, the hope is they might someday re-open under new ownership.
FUN FACT: Both John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt stayed at the Hotel Jeffery.
Across the street from Hotel Jeffery, you’ll find the general store, which originally served as a blacksmith shop.
FUN FACT: During boom times, Coulterville had 5,000 residents, 25 saloons and 10 hotels to provide entertainment and housing for the miners working in the area and travelers heading to Yosemite.
On Main Street’s east side, some highlights include:
- The former E. E. Warne store, which now sells antiques on the first floor and serves as a B&B on the upper floor
- The Bruschi brothers warehouse, which sold meat and general merchandise
- The I.O.O.F Hall, which still hosts functions today
On Main Street’s west side, be sure to visit:
The Coulter Café and General Store, housed in a former family home, offers lunch, snacks, wine and cold drinks. Glean tourist information here, including a Coulterville town map. Stock up on snacks for your Yosemite and gold rush town road trips. I highly recommend the Yosemite peanut butter cookies!
Cakewalk is a boulangerie where you can pick up sweet treats.
After you’ve refueled with food, take a short drive or walk down the street to the Sun Sun Wo building, which served as a general store from 1851 to 1920. Ledgers from Sun Sun Wo can be seen in the Mariposa Museum and History Center. Fortunately, the building’s adobe walls and dirt ceiling allowed it to survive the fires that ravaged Coulterville.
If you have the time and energy for another 30 mile (30 minute) detour, head along Bear Valley Road to Hornitos.
TOP TIP: During the spring, this drive is lined with myriad wildflowers. After ascending through all the switchbacks, stop at the top to appreciate the view of the valley and river below.
If you are a chocoholic like I am, you can see the remnants of an adobe building where Domenico Ghiradhelli produced his famous and delicious Ghiradhelli chocolates before relocating to San Francisco.
You can also see the old Galgiardo & Co General Merchandise store. Cool off with an ice cream or soda here after browsing the gifts and art they sell.
Conclude your journey through these three gold rush towns with an 18 mile (27 minute) drive back to Mariposa.
I hope I’ve given you some ideas for fun things to do near Yosemite in these three former gold rush towns! If you want to check out other gold rush towns along the Golden Chain highway my gold country road trip itinerary will help you plan.
Thanks to Yosemite Mariposa for hosting me – all opinions and reviews are my own!