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. 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. 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.