41 and 49 are Lucky Numbers on Way to Yosemite
San Diego Union-Tribune, 2-12-2006
41 and 49 are lucky numbers on way to Yosemite
February 12, 2006
Billowing clouds reminiscent of whitecaps float over the Sierra Nevada. Bursts of flaxen sunlight burnish the rugged terrain, home to Yosemite National Park. Such grandeur can best be reached by car, but most people driving to Yosemite National Park travel straight through, never realizing that getting there can be almost as captivating as visiting the park.
The roads into the park, Highways 41 and 49, brim with places to explore, so allow yourself at least an extra day.
JEFFREE WYN ITRICH
There's love in the mountain air at the Oakahwahnee Ranch near Oakhurst. If you're going to Yosemite from the San Joaquin Valley, there are lots of attractions, giving you plenty of excuses to take a driving break.
Many travelers pass through Fresno, sidestepping one of the area's treasures – the Tower District, named for the neighborhood's beacon, the Tower Theater built in 1939.
Fresno's first suburban cinema, the Tower Theater became the dominant landmark anchoring a dynamic shopping area that emerged in 1923. The striking art-deco architecture featured backlit, etched, green-glass panels and sculptured aluminum fittings. Today the fully restored building is the only 1930's suburban theater in existence designed by Los Angeles architect S. Charles Lee (1899-1990). At night, the theater displays its true character when the 80-foot tower's linear neon tube light crowned by a luminous multicolored globe provides modern visitors with a peek back in time at 1930s panache. Now a performing arts hub, the Tower District has spearheaded a lively ensemble of restaurants, pubs, antique and specialty shops.
To reach the District, take 41 north off of Highway 99. Exit McKinley Avenue heading west. Turn south on Blackstone Avenue, then west onto Olive Avenue. As soon as you see Lauck's Bakery on your right, park the car. If it's lunchtime, treat yourself to a Bierock, a savory Fresno tradition of baked bread pockets filled with beef, potatoes, cabbage and onion. But save room for a handcrafted beer at the Sequoia Brewing Company a couple of blocks up. Choose from one of 10 brews made on the premises and served in styles from Pilsner to IPA to honey wheat to porter to stiff stout, all on tap.
Numerous galleries and Karen's Keepsakes for serious romantics offer refined browsing alongside several antique shops lining both sides of the street. When you wear out and need a respite, dodge into Teazur World Tea, a feng shui oasis.
Around dinner time, head for Cafe Rousseau, a tiny French bistro that serves five-star food at two-star prices. Standouts on the menu include the house-made tapenade (olive spread), stuffed New York steak filled with layers of cheese and prosciutto, and the decadent chocolate pot de creme, worth every inch it will add to your waistline.
Getting to Coarsegold
Back on Highway 41, head north for the Sierra foothills town of Coarsegold, a 40-mile drive.
Before you arrive, plenty of detours lie in wait. One is the Madera Wine Trail, a “gotta-do-it” diversion for wine aficionados and devotees of the movie “Sideways.” If you have time to visit only one, seek out Ficklin, producer of plushy ports as fine as any imported from Spain. Exit at Avenue 12 and look for directional signs.
If Lady Luck, not Bacchus, is your co-pilot, turn into Lucky Lane and head for the area's newest entertainment hot spot, Chukchansi Gold Casino, home to 1,800 slots, 47 game tables, roulette, a spanking new hotel, an impressive entertainment lineup and seven distinct restaurants that have significantly raised the bar on mountain dining.
City fathers aptly named Coarsegold for it's early, spirited beginnings. During California's mid-19th-century gold rush, Texas prospectors found large gold nuggets in Coarse Gold Gulch. By the mid-1860s the nugget booty dried up, but the town had established itself as a mountain travel rest stop. In 1876, builders completed the wagon road to Yosemite and sealed Coarsegold's fate as an overnight stage stop.
Though small, the town offers a few diversions in keeping with its mining character. Visitors can pan for gold in the Coarsegold Creek under the vigilant eye of a Placer miner statue or wander around an historic village to watch crafts-people practicing their trades. Seek out Sam Coulter's music store for a look at the construction and demonstration of handmade Renaissance bagpipes, citoles, side drums, tabors, tabor pipes, wooden-frame drums, Native American flutes, and penny whistles. If he's not in his shop, you'll see Coulter wandering around in a kilt and balmoral.
Resuming the drive on 41, head 7 miles north to Oakhurst, where the terrain begins revealing the geographical majesty that awaits in Yosemite. Rolling hills give way to more imposing headlands reaching for the cerulean sky. Oakhurst might seem like just a mountain town upon first glance, but for a town this size, the hamlet lays claim to an uncanny number of outstanding restaurants from mom-and-pops to a five-star inn.
Before the Gold Rush, this area was home to the Mariposa Miwok, North Fork Mono and Chukchansi Yokuts Indian tribes who were mostly displaced by gold seekers and ranchers in the last half of the 19th century. Originally named Fresno Flats, the town was renamed Oakhurst in 1912.
Although you wouldn't think of a mountain town as a mecca for seafood, Crab Cakes prepares some outrageously tasty blue crab cakes, mountain (red) and New England style clam chowder that competes with the best of the best.
Those with loftier tastes might want to dine at the crme-de-la-creme, Erna's Elderberry House, an internationally known, five-star restaurant that caters to a high-budget clientele. Make a reservation, because at over $100 per person, this is not a drop-in inn.
41 or 49?
At this point, you have a choice. The center of Oakhurst marks the junction of Highways 41 and 49, both of which end at Yosemite Valley. Via Highway 41, the valley floor lies 45 miles from the junction. Should you choose to travel Highway 49, turning off onto Highway 140 in Mariposa, the valley floor is 62 miles away. Although the longer route, the magnificent vistas and local history make it worthwhile. You might opt to travel to the park on one road and return on the other.
Leaving Oakhurst on Highway 49, there is one exceptional detour not to be missed, especially if there are kids with you. Three miles up Highway 49, turn right onto Pamela Place. In less than a mile you'll come to The Oakawahnee Ranch, home to an alpaca herd. The ranch offers informal tours. Visitors can feed the animals, pet the babies and view the impressive alpaca wool products made there.
Back on 49, you're now on the 26-mile stretch to Mariposa, Spanish for butterfly. When you've gone about halfway, start looking for the Mariposa Coffee Company on the left side of the road in a house. This isn't Starbucks. Coffee doesn't get any better. Be prepared to spend some time sitting in the rocker and chatting with owner Gerry Caputo, who will describe why his innovative, flash-roasting process makes his coffee so different.
The first thing you will notice as you cruise into Mariposa is that the buildings still look much as they did in their Gold Rush days. The town was founded in 1849, and after several disastrous fires, early settlers rebuilt with stone, brick and adobe, still standing.
Mariposa offers antique shops, boutiques, art galleries, wineries, more than a dozen restaurants and several points of historical interest. The town has done a commendable job of retaining its bygone character without overcommercializing every old-time detail. OK, it's a bit cutesy, but good luck finding a living gold rush town that isn't.
At this point in your trip, you're ready to head into the park. Turn onto Highway 140 at the edge of town and you'll reach the park's valley floor in approximately 36 miles.
The 41 way
About 3 miles from Oakhurst, you'll reach the turnoff to Bass Lake and the Mountain House, a place for plain old, good service, a homey atmosphere and lots of well-prepared, basic menu choices. Leave room for a regional gem: The warm blackberry pie has no rivals.
No doubt you planned to see Yosemite's Mariposa Grove of stately giant sequoias. But as the largest grove in the park, it tends to get crowded. For a quieter, nontouristy visit to a grove of these e giants, pull off Highway 41 when you see signs for Road 426, just a half-mile past The Mountain House on the right side. More than 100 giant sequoias stand on 1,500 acres of the Sierra National Forest, and few but locals know it exists. Drive along the road following signs to the campground. It's usually open spring through fall.
Now you're ready for the splendor of Yosemite National Park.
Jeffree Wyn Itrich is a San Diego writer.