By CAROLYN BOTELL, for The Union Democrat
State Highway 120 covers 206 miles — from Manteca in the west to Benton in the east — and offers an incredible range of geography and activities for the adventurous. You could traverse the entire highway from end to end in a day, but why would you when there is so much to see and do along the way?
Let’s take a journey along this historic road and sample just a few of the attractions and recreational opportunities along the way — which include not only Central Valley charm and Gold Rush history but Yosemite National Park, Mono Lake and the high desert of eastern California.
The western terminus of Highway 120 is Manteca. Known as the “heart of California,” it has always been a major junction in the highways and byways of California’s great Central Valley.
An original pack route for early miners, then supply route for the Hetch Hetchy Water Project, Manteca today is the jumping off point for modern day adventurers and is the roadway connection between the hustle and bustle of the San Francisco Bay Area and the tranquility of the Sierra Nevada mountain range.
With a tag line of “Hook, Wine and Sneakers” and the label “Family City,” you know Manteca is a friendly and fun place to stop and rest as you plan your next leg of the Highway 120 Adventure.
Founded in 1861 as a small agricultural community, more than 3.75 million annual visitors now pass through town, stopping at Bass Pro Shop for outdoor gear or to Big League Dreams for baseball and soccer events.
Take time to tour the Historical Museum or view more than 18 artistic wall murals, try wines at DFV Vineyard tasting room and gift shop or check out more than 48 dining options from casual barbecue to elegant-modern California cuisine.
Don’t forget a quick side trip for shopping at the outlet stores — all the big names are there.
With five hotels offering choices from high-end spa suites to more economy accommodations, Manteca is a great place to rest before heading down the road on your Highway 120 Adventure.
Heading east, Highway 120 travels to the former rail town of Escalon, which dates back to the 1920s. With a population under 10,000 people, Escalon has some real small town charm to offer travelers.
Here you can visit the Barn for fruit and produce, plus gifts, delicious pies and lots more, and then enjoy a family picnic at Escalon’s very own Main Street Park, the home of a historic caboose.
Be sure to shop the many businesses located in the historic buildings across from the park, before exploring the Escalon Historical Museum.
Take a detour along the side streets of Escalon as you go through town, where quality of life and family are integral to the entire community, so that you don’t miss anything on this part of your Highway 120 Adventure.
Next up on your journey is the city of Oakdale. As you enter this quaint cowboy town, you will see the famous Oakdale Cheese Factory on the left.
The roadway then crosses over the Stanislaus River and heads towards the center of town, where Highway 120 makes a left turn and joins up with Highway 108.
Right near this four-way intersection, you will find the Cowboy Museum and several historic buildings that are among the oldest in the area.
Founded in 1871 and known as the “Cowboy Capital of the World,” Oakdale is home to not only many world champion cowboys but to several signature events, including the Oakdale Chocolate Festival, Climbers Festival and Salmon Festival, to name just a few.
As you exit the town you will see the arena where the annual Oakdale PRCA Rodeo is held each April and where many world champion cowboys started their careers.
After leaving Oakdale, the small historic town of Knights Ferry on the Stanislaus River, scene of the famous Stanislaus Indian wars, is just a very short detour off the highway. This Gold Rush town features the longest covered bridge west of the Mississippi River, as well as the oldest operating general store in California, and offers many outdoor activities such as river rafting, hiking, fishing, gold panning.
After you pass Oakdale and Knights Ferry, the road climbs further into the Sierra Nevada foothills. After a while, Highway 120 makes a right turn and heads east, while Highway 108 continues on towards the historic areas of Jamestown, Sonora and Columbia and across beautiful Sonora Pass.
But that is another journey — right now we are taking that right turn and continuing on our Highway 120 Adventure.
The first of the classic Gold Rush era towns you come to on this stretch of Highway 120 is Chinese Camp, known as the site of the Tong War and featuring several historic buildings dating back to the mid 1800s and mining days including the Wells Fargo Building, where miners took their gold for weighing and deposit.
Next you will pass the northern arm of Lake Don Pedro, offering all manner of water sports, from fishing to jet ski rentals near the community of Moccasin, where it is great family fun to stop and feed the fish at Moccasin Fish Hatchery.
Now the road climbs, and the official state highway veers left and up New Priest Grade, while along the right hand side of the canyon you can see the steep and tortuous Old Priest Grade, originally an Indian path and later a wagon train road.
After cresting the grade at Priest Station, you pass through the small town of Big Oak Flat, once called Savage’s Diggings (after James D. Savage) during the Gold Rush era.
Be sure to stop and read the many historical markers along this entire section of your Highway 120 Adventure.
The largest of the authentic Gold Rush era towns along the western part of Highway 120 is Groveland, and the locals refer to the highway as Main Street as it passes through town.
There are shaded picnic tables and public parking next to the historic 1895 jailhouse, which is near the west end of town by the Yosemite Highway 120 Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center at 11875 Ponderosa Lane.
From May to October, the visitor center has a Yosemite National Park ranger on site to sell park entry passes and offer detailed advice about visiting the park and taking advantage of all that Yosemite has to offer.
In the middle of Groveland, you have Mary Laveroni Community Park right next to the Groveland Yosemite Gateway Museum and Library, with public restrooms, picnic tables with barbecue grills, a children’s play area and a skate and roller blade park that includes basketball courts, plus a stage and bandstand that are used for town events all year round.
Groveland has a lively music scene, a farmers market from May to October, and events of all sorts and sizes even during the winter months.
The Southern Tuolumne County Historical Society publishes a walking tour of Groveland, which points out noteworthy buildings and locations around town, and just a short drive off of Highway 120 there is a championship 18 hole golf course with driving range, and an equestrian-riding center, which are part of the community of Pine Mountain Lake open to the public.
So, whether you have an hour, a week, or a lifetime to spend, Groveland is a must on your Highway 120 Adventure.
After you leave Groveland, Highway 120 enters the Stanislaus National Forest. The Capitol Christmas Tree in Washington, D.C., came from this forest only a few years ago.
The small town of Buck Meadows is near Rainbow Pool, a popular swimming hole on the south fork of the Tuolumne River.
From the Rim of the World vista point, you can see the middle fork of the Tuolumne River, and the main Tuolumne River which carries a “Wild and Scenic Waterway” designation and offers world-class whitewater rafting and kayaking.
The massive devastation of the recent Rim Fire can also be seen from this point.
Highway 120 enters Yosemite National Park at the Big Oak Flat entrance, elevation 4,872 feet. Just before the entry gate, you will see Evergreen Road going left from the highway. This takes you to a little visited section of Yosemite called Hetch Hetchy, which is a great side trip if you enjoy waterfalls, wildflowers and hiking with less crowds.
State Highway 120, also known as “the Northern Gateway to Yosemite,” technically becomes a federal road and changes its name upon entering Yosemite National Park. At the park entrance, it becomes Big Oak Flat Road, which leads into Yosemite Valley.
At Crane Flat, a few miles south of the entrance station, the highway turns left and becomes Tioga Road, traversing the Tioga Pass, which is closed during winter months depending on the weather.
Yosemite National Park is one of the most famous locations on the planet Earth, the first land in the United States set aside for public enjoyment by President Lincoln during the Civil War (which was the founding legislation for the National Park Service by the way), and a place of such varied and natural beauty and wilderness it astounds the mind and challenges the body.
Two of the three groves of giant sequoias in Yosemite are along this road — the Merced Grove just a short way in from the gate, and the Tuolumne Grove at Crane Flate.
At Crane Flat, our journey continues to the east, over Tioga Pass with an elevation of 9,945 feet above sea level, and on to the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada.
Along the way, be sure to stop at the day use picnic area of Yosemite Creek along the road, to see Yosemite Falls — before it falls! — at Olmstead Point for the view of Half Dome from the side and rear, and at Tuolumne Meadows to stretch your legs a bit.
Pristine alpine lakes, meadows awash with wild flowers, granite expanses swept clear by the glacial age, abundant wildlife, fast moving rivers and streams, snow covered mountain peaks and wide open vistas are just a taste of what Yosemite has to offer during your Highway 120 Adventure.
When you exit the park’s eastern gate, State Highway 120 resumes and drops quickly in elevation down to the town of Lee Vining on Highway 395.
Be sure to visit the Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve at the south end of Mono Lake, where you can see the world famous tufa towers.
Also plan on stopping at the Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area Visitor Center at the north end of Lee Vining, which offers movies about the Mono Basin, a bookstore and gift shop, and many excellent exhibits.
Keep going north on Highway 395 for a half day side trip to the ghost town of Bodie, which is maintained in a “state of arrested decay” by California State Parks and is considered the best, most well preserved historic ghost town in the United States, attracting visitors from all over the world.
Towards the south end of Lee Vining, you will find the Chamber of Commerce and Mono Lake Committee Information Center, with a picnic area outside, a film about Mono Lake, and a great selection of local books, artwork and souvenirs.
Stroll the main street of Lee Vining to stretch your legs, have a bite to eat and do some souvenir shopping, before heading on to the last leg of your Highway 120 Adventure.
Highway 120 makes a left turn, just a few miles south of Lee Vining, shortly after one end of the June Lake Loop intersects with Highway 395 on the right.
If you have an extra hour or two to take in the June Lake Loop, it is a lovely drive especially in autumn for the fall colors. This road, Highway 158, is also closed in winter.
As you go east on Highway 120 — again subject to winter closures — be sure to stop at South Tufa, where you can see Mono Lake’s tufa rock formations, and if you have time, visit Panum Crater, which offers interesting geology and a great view of Mono Lake.
Further along Highway 120 going east, you enter into the largest stand of Jeffrey pine trees in the world. There is a top notch informational display about this forest and the old lumber mill that stood near the road and provided wood for Bodie back in the mining days.
Remember to “stop and smell the trees” because the cracks in the bark of a Jeffrey pine smell like butterscotch (some people say vanilla), before you continue on to the historical town of Benton Hot Springs — population 13 1⁄2, according to historical marker as you enter town.
Once a thriving town of 5,000 or more inhabitants, the natural mineral springs provided relief for the aches and pains of mining work, and today’s travelers can still enjoy a good hot soak, complete with lodging and campsites, at the Inn at Benton Hot Springs.
And then finally we reach the eastern terminus of Highway 120, at the town of Benton, also known as Benton Station, where the road meets Highway 6 on the way to and from Las Vegas.
And there you have it, Highway 120 from end to end.
You can see that it has much to offer, including a wide range of geography and history, a vast array of recreational activities to satisfy the young as well as the young at heart, something for the outdoors enthusiast or those seeking a spot for quiet contemplation, not to mention anyone who enjoys great food, wine tasting, and some spa-style pampering.
Let us remind you to really take your time as you travel Highway 120 across central and eastern California, through the farm and ranch lands of the Central Valley, the Gold Rush towns in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, the high mountain roads of Yosemite National Park, and the stark and unique landscape of the eastern Sierra and high desert area.
So, take a few days or a few weeks, visit during every season, and come back again and again over the years.
Your Highway 120 Adventure awaits.
For more information about Highway 120 in Tuolumne County, contact the Yosemite Highway 120 Chamber of Commerce at 962-0429 (www.groveland.org) or the Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau at 533-4420 (www.tcvb.com).