As early as 1919, filmmakers recognized the area as a valuable and convenient source for location filming. Gold rush era buildings with wood plank sidewalks and slamming screen doors, Main Street with a Wells Fargo Express office, white picket fences and grand hotels stood ready for their close-up. The area is still rich in natural features and vintage architectural styles, big sky landscape, rushing rivers and lakes, and one key ingredient – abundant California light. Producers and directors discovered that almost any type of scenery in the United States and beyond could be replicated on film in Tuolumne County.
Along with film crews, came movie stars who stayed in local inns, bed and breakfast nooks, city mansions and sprawling ranches. Some accommodations had their own starring role. The Wilson-McConnell house in Columbia, circa 1878, is where Marshall Will Kane (Gary Cooper) tried to recruit Sam Fuller (Henry Morgan.) Columbia State Historic Park has been transformed into the far away cities of turn-of-the-century New York and Chicago. In the television series, Little House on the Prairie, the historic town became Sleepy Eye, Minnesota, and in the classic western, High Noon, it was known as Hadleyville.
Today, Columbia State Historic Park is free to visit, with businesses like fifth-generation Nelson’s Candy Store, blacksmith, candle-maker and other merchants conducting their crafts, in period clothes. Visitors may choose rare accommodations in two hotels within the state park, and enjoy numerous festivals and parades, take a stroll along Main Street or catch a ride on an authentic stage coach.
Possibly the biggest star in Tuolumne County movies, television series and commercials is Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, also known as “The Movie Railroad.” The state park is home to one of the most photographed locomotives in the world, Sierra #3. While featured in almost every film using steam engine locomotives, and a weekly television show Petticoat Junction, perhaps its most famous scene was pushing a DeLorean time machine down the track in Back to the Future IIIwith Michael J. Fox. Today visitors to the park can view movie memorabilia and clips of the engine’s roles, and see Sierra #3 up close while touring one of the last remaining working roundhouses in America.
Self-guided tours of other filming locations are easy with the county’s Movie Map, available at both Visitor Center locations: downtown Sonora and Chinese Camp. Tuolumne County Film Commission aids production crews with accommodations, scouting needs and permits. Contact the Film Liaison at 209-533-4420 for more information.
About Yosemite’s Tuolumne County
Tuolumne (rhymes with “follow me”) County, located 133 miles/200 km east of San Francisco, is a pristine, scenic expanse reaching into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Gold was discovered in Tuolumne County in 1848, setting off the major gold rush of 1849.
The main highways leading to the picturesque drive from the San Francisco and East Bay Area are Highways 108 and 120 from the west and Highway 49 from the north. The State Highway 120 entrance to Yosemite National Park is considered the “front door” of the park for the San Francisco Greater Bay Area.
The Stanislaus National Forest, Yosemite National Park, and other surrounding areas provide natural vistas and settings for hiking, water skiing, horseback riding, rafting, camping, snowmobiling, boating, snow skiing, fishing and other outdoor activities. Seven restored historic hotels, four golf courses, numerous and varied dining establishments, historic saloons, five wineries and hard cider distillery, train rides, casino, seven museums, two state historic parks, five live theaters, and many bed-and-breakfast inns are among the many other attributes that make the county a year-round vacation destination. www.visittuolumne.com.