Off the beaten track; hidden gems close to San Joaquin County

Winter will soon officially arrive, along with holiday houseguests and kids soon to be out of school. What to do, for outings for a day, or longer? Here are several destinations within an hour for day tours, or a bit further for multi-day tours that are just right for winter months – offering usually sunny and mild weather.

Sugar Pine Railroad Engine #3, on display in Sonora park along Hwy. 49.

Start with Sonora, just 60 miles east of Stockton, long a crossroads, first for Miwok Indians traveling in and out of the Sierra or along the Sierra foothills route.  When gold was discovered in Coloma in 1848, the ensuing Gold Rush brought the largest migration in history as thousands of Argonauts poured into the Mother Lode region.  Sonora emerged as a commercial hub of placer mining, businesses, restaurants, saloons, banks and hotels to support the miners.

The old City Hotel stands along Hwy. 49 in Sonora's busy retail district.

The Sonora Historical Society has turned the old jail into a most interesting museum of what made Sonora a hub of the gold rush in the mid-1800s and beyond. Sonora, a foothill’s metropolis, offers a quaint mile-long stretch of old Hwy. 49 replete with cute shops and nifty restaurants. The old jail, now museum, is just up the hill from the historic county courthouse.

Eves of the old Westside Lumber Company stand in eerie silence in Tuolumne City; shuttered for over 50 years.

Just six miles away, Tuolumne City is that unique “almost a ghost town” fueled both by gold rush fever and lumber mills in its heyday. You’ll find vestiges of the huge Westside Lumber Mill and Sierra Railroad that made this a city to be reckoned with in the in the first half of the 20th Century.

On your way back to the valley on Hwy. 108, stop in Jamestown at the delightful Railtown 1897 Rail Museum, where kids and adults can prowl historic locomotives, passenger cars and a caboose.

Railtown's Engine #3 in shot from old film.

Railtown features an operating steam railroad, complete with 100 year-old steam engines, the oldest continuously operated roundhouse in the West and movie history literally dripping from the rafters, all decked out for the holidays!

We recently paid Railtown’s modest admission, and wandered through the old station’s waiting room, noting many of the movies like “High Noon” that were shot using the Sierra Railroad’s vintage steam engines and rolling stock.  We were met by a cheerful docent for the afternoon tour, where we could climb up into the cabs of several mammoth steam engines, marvel at the huge drive wheels and learn what was a “sand dome” (the portion of the locomotive loaded with sand, for sprinkling sand on snowy tracks for additional traction).

The Hazel Atlas Sand Mine portal is part of Black Diamond Preserve.

For another unique destination, head west 55 miles to Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve, located a few miles south of Antioch. Who would’ve guessed that California’s coal mining powerhouse was in the hills near Mt. Diablo, which from the 1850s to early 1900s produced 4,000,000 tons of coal for railroads, Delta steamboats and home heating?

The preserve contains several old coal mines (open for weekend tours), where over 900 miners were employed for 50-some years. Towns including Somersville, Nortonville, Stewartville and two more blossomed in the district, home to miners, their families, merchants and saloon-keepers (more than 100 found their final resting place in Rose Hill Cemetery in the hills). At the peak of operations in the late 1870s, the coalfield’s population was the epicenter of Contra Costa County.

Rose Hill Cemetery is final resting place for over 100 miners and their families within Black Diamond Preserve.

Scores of mines were tunneled into the foothills, with miners digging shafts yielding tailings (waste rock piles) still visible from miles away. The Pittsburgh Railroad serviced the mining district, taking coal to Pittsburgh docks where it could be shipped to San Francisco, Sacramento and Stockton. Because the coal was of marginal quality, oil and gasoline helped shutter the mines in the early 1900s.

Along the way stop at the John Muir National Historic Site in Martinez, the home where Muir spent many years while he was working to found the Sierra Club and save Hetch Hetchy Valley (in Yosemite) from being dammed for water for San Francisco.

Machete Ridge forms the backbone of Pinnacles National Park.

For a longer outing, one of our newest national parks is just 2.75 hours to our southwest. Pinnacles National Park, jutting up from the Gabilan Mountains south of Hollister, CA, offers the rugged remains of an ancient volcano – a volcano located 160 miles south, near Los Angeles!  Located on the San Andreas Fault, Pinnacles is moving a few inches north each year, distancing itself from its mother volcano!

The park offers a stunning landscape of rugged spines, deep canyons, eerie talus caves, verdant foliage, streams and wildlife from deer, wild turkeys and bob cats, to the majestic California Condor with wingspans up to seven feet.   If you want your kids to appreciate the power of nature, this park offers dramatic evidence of the effects of heat, water and wind constantly wearing away at this alien landscape. Scenic, with plenty of miles of trails and two talus caves for exploration, the coastal mountains keep the park relatively warm and sunny in winter. The park offers several campgrounds or overnight in Hollister.

For more info: Sonora Chamber of Commerce,, (209) 694-4405; Tuolumne County Chamber,, (209) 532-4212; Railtown 1897,, (209) 984-3953; Black Diamond Mines Preserve, East Bay Regional Park District,, (888) 327–2757; Pinnacles National Park:, (831) 389-4486.

Read more from Tim Viall’s travel blog, follow him on Facebook or Twitter; or, email him at Happy travels in the west!

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