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WILDEST WEST; TRAVEL; Rhian Lubin dodges Yosemite Valley and rides into Tuolumne County, to discover it's just the place for a rowdy Brit cowgirl.

Byline: edited by PAUL MCDAID

Every year, about four million tourists visit California's Yosemite National Park in the stunning Sierra Nevada mountains - and you can be sure most of them will head straight for the famous Yosemite Valley.

It's where you'll find postcard CAP Rhian a cowboy landmarks El Capitan, Half Dome and Yosemite Falls - although you'll struggle to get a photo without someone else in the shot.

But canny folks can swerve the crowds by taking the road less travelled through Tuolumne County, the gateway to the north of Yosemite and the gold rush towns of the High Sierra. Away from the hordes you'll find hiking trails, lakes, rivers and majestic mountain ranges where you might not even pass one person - even in the peak season.

We began our hike from Hetch Hetchy, a crystal clear reservoir supplying water to San Francisco a two-and-a-half hour drive away, and followed the shoreline to the breathtaking Tueeulala and Wapama Falls. Even though it was September, temperatures soared to 30C, so the moderate five-mile walk was plenty enough exertion for me, but keen hikers will be spoilt for choice with the multitude of trails here.

In the afternoon we took a short drive to Yosemite Valley and admired the iconic peaks of El Capitan and Half Dome from glorious viewpoints.

FITS tries on traditional hat It had been a long day and we were ready to head back to our very own covered wagon at family campsite Yosemite Pines. Recreating the pioneering spirit was no hardship though as our spacious glamping wagon came well-equipped with the 21st century home comforts of a fridge, microwave, air con/heating and comfy beds for a good night's sleep.

The next morning we departed for idyllic Pinecrest Lake, an hour's drive away. In the midst of the Stanislaus National Forest it's the perfect setting for a spot of trout fishing, sailing and kayaking, or just simply relaxing on the sandy beach.

It's well worth hiring a kayak to explore the lake but leave plenty of time if you're aiming to reach the other side - it's wide (double kayak hire from PS23 per hour and half-day from PS46, pinecrestlakeresort.com).

After refuelling with a delicious lunch at pizzeria Mia's, it was time to saddle up and get into the cowboy spirit at beautiful Kennedy Meadows Resort. High in the Sierra Nevada mountains, the ranch offers guided horse rides including a 75-minute trot through the Upper Meadows and across the river, along with two-day trips and more ( from PS19pp, kennedymeadows.com). And even if equestrian pursuits aren't your thing, you can always stay back at the ranch and settle down by the river with a good book and a beer.

Then it was westward ho for a 90-mile drive to the heart of California's Gold Country and the town of Sonora, which looks like it's straight out of a classic Western movie.

Our base, the Sonora Inn built in 1896, has played host to Hollywood A-listers over the years including Grace Kelly and Drew Barrymore (thesonorainn.com).

After an early dinner (restaurants tend to close by 9.30pm), we couldn't resist a nightcap at one of the town's lively bars. Perched on bar stools in a saloon we slammed back beers, feeding the old jukebox with quarter dollar coins - probably annoying the local punters into the bargain!

Nursing sore heads next morning we wandered to the farmer's market to grab a breakfast of burritos and home-made apple juice.

Strolling along Sonara's Washington Street, lined with thrift stores and vintage shops, we stumbled on a very modern detox spa. After days in hiking boots, an Ionic Footsoak at Amala Detox & Tea Lounge was heavenly (PS27, amaladetox.com).

Then next stop was the Indigeny Reserve, a cider works and distillery up in the lush hills of Sonora.

Even if cider isn't your tipple of choice, it's a picturesque spot for a picnic amongst the organic apple orchards and pumpkin patches.

Alcohol also played an integral part in the evening when we joined an art class at Brush and Cork, run by Californian artist Judy Grossman. The painting party (bring your own drink and snacks) was true to its motto 'A little wine, a little paint, a lotta fun!' even for a novice like me, and everyone gets to take home their 'work of art' (two hours from PS27 for two hours, brushandcork.com).

For our final day we headed three miles north of Sonora to Columbia State Historic Park, actually a working town which boasts the largest collection of gold rush-era buildings in the state - some town scenes from High Noon were filmed here.

Time seems to have stood still in Columbia, and we learned about the Gold Rush era from merchants strolling round in 1850s attire.

For a flavour of the Wild West you can visit a gold mine, learn to pan for gold, and at weekends you can even ride shotgun on a stagecoach (entrance free, parks.ca.gov).

Then take the weight off your feet and have a bite to eat at Columbia Kate's Teahouse which serves up American classics such as chicken pot pie and slices of meatloaf.

Last on our whistle-stop tour was Railtown 1897 State Historic Park in Jamestown where we saw the steam engine that starred in Back to the Future 3 and a few Western classics, and took a scenic train ride through Gold Country (weekends April-October, from PS12 adults/PS4 children/free for under-fives, includes park entrance, railtown1897.org).

Back in San Francisco waiting for our flight home, we all agreed we'd struck a rich seam of top experiences during our travels in Tuolumne County. Pure gold, in fact.

Get there USA Pinecrest Hetch Hetchy Sonara Reservoir Jamestown Yosemite 10 miles Valle

Icelandair flies to San Francisco from Gatwick and Heathrow via Reykjavik starting at PS296 return. icelandair.com

Glamping accommodation at the Yosemite Pines RV Resort in Groveland, California, starts at $139 a night. yosemitepinesrv.com

Rooms at the Sonora Inn in Sonora, California, start at $75 a night. thesonorainn.com

Car hire at San Francisco starts at around PS140 a week with rentalcars.com

Tourist info: visittuolumne.com TIME ZONE UK -8hrs CURRENCY US$ PS1 = 1.28 BEST TIME TO GO Golden great all summer long.

Sat on stools we slammed back beer and fed a jukebox with quarters

CAPTION(S):

WET'N'WILD Hetch Hetchy reservoir

MASTERSTROKE At Brush and Cork

l we to CAP FITS Rhian tries on a traditional cowboy hat

LANDMARK El Capitan in Yosemite

BIG COUNTRY Rhian, left, in the northern section of the Yosemite Valley. Far left, a horse pulls a carriage in Sonora

POT OF GOLD Stanislaus National Forest PSt N

SUN DOWN Giant cacti dot the area
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Nov 10, 2018
Words:1124
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