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The Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad takes visitors through the Sierra National Forest near Oakhurst, California
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From fabled forests to towns boasting rich history, this central California region has a heart of gold.

Deep in the center of California, ancient forests, mountain foothills and picturesque towns converge in Madera County, easily reachable from the state’s largest cities. Well-known as the southern gateway to Yosemite National Park, Madera County has a long and fascinating history. Even its name tells a story. “Madera” is the Spanish word for “wood,” a connection to a bygone era when loggers harvested lumber in the region. During the California Gold Rush of the mid-1800s, prospectors traveled from afar in hopes of striking it rich. Today, Madera County still beckons to adventurous spirits seeking to explore its stunning woodlands and historic communities.

Mariposa Grove: Where the Trees Have Names

Located in the southern portion of Yosemite National Park, Mariposa Grove is home to more than 500 massive sequoias, including trees that have been given names such as the 3,000-year-old Grizzly Giant and the collapsed tree known as the Fallen Monarch. Some trees have grown together, such as the Bachelor tree located beside a trio endearingly named the Three Graces.

This grove of graceful giants is rich in history and cultural significance. In fact, the USA’s National Park System took root in this very forest when then-U.S. President Lincoln signed legislation in 1864 to protect Mariposa Grove for future generations of visitors to California.

Park at the Welcome Plaza and ride the free shuttle to the grove in the spring, summer and fall, and explore walking trails designed to allow you to experience this majestic forest without damaging its fragile infrastructure. In the past decade, Mariposa Grove has undergone a large-scale restoration focused on sustainable tourism, benefiting trees and visitors alike. The trails are open year-round, though Mariposa Grove Road closes to shuttles in winter.

Gargantuan sequoias trees stand majestically in Mariposa Grove

Gargantuan sequoias trees stand majestically in Mariposa Grove
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Strike it Rich in Coarsegold Historic Village

Set in the forested foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Coarsegold Historic Village dates to the mid-1800s, when prospectors found the first coarse gold nuggets that lent the bucolic mountain community its unusual name. This small town, which is tucked right off the highway, offers a gold mine of activities to visitors.

Dine at the Wild Fig Kitchen and grab a beverage at Zanders Coffee before exploring the local shops showcasing everything from art to antiques. This community embraces unusual merchandise and one-of-a-kind wares, resulting in a flea market-style shopping experience where every trip reveals another gem.

For the ultimate antiquing opportunity, plan your visit during the Peddler’s Antique and Collectible Show, which is held in Coarsegold twice a year at the beginning and end of summer. Looking for a more unusual option? Visit around Halloween, at the end of October, and attend the annual Coarsegold Tarantula Awareness Festival, now in its 26th year. You may find a treasure more valuable than gold when you visit this eclectic and welcoming town.

Rustic charm at Coarsegold Historic Village

Rustic charm at Coarsegold Historic Village
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Ride Into History Aboard the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad

Board the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad and take a ride back in time. This narrow-gauge railroad features two historic steam engines dating to the early 20th century that take visitors on an open-air ride through the Sierra National Forest, home of sugar pine trees. During the one-hour loop through the forest, a guide narrates the history of steam locomotives and discusses the railroad’s connection to logging, once this region’s chief industry. Afterwards, check out the Thornberry Museum to see artifacts or follow a prospector as you learn how to pan for gold.

Roots run deep here: The same family has owned and operated the train and surrounding attractions for several generations, with the goal of preserving the history of this area and showcasing its natural beauty. Seasonal operations begin in early spring and run through late November.

Getting There

Fly into Fresno Yosemite International Airport (FAT) and rent a car. Madera County is about an hour drive from the airport, and it’s about a two- to five-hour drive away from most major California cities including Sacramento, San Francisco and Los Angeles.