As a couple that gave up pretty much everything (house, job, community, most possessions, etc.) to follow a dream, we are always on the lookout for our tribe. We scoured the globe for badass traveling duos to share their favorite place and piece of advice in our book Ultimate Journeys for Two. We’ve made a point to pen-pal and wine-Zoom with like-minded couples we’ve met in Argentina, Norway, Slovenia, Costa Rica, and other far-off places to keep that sense of community in our nomadic lives. Pairs like this can be hard to come by, but somehow when we came to Mariposa County, we met inspiring couples left and right…a pair of advertising execs that ditched it all for a cider apple farm…health care professionals who decided they’d rather be restoring forgotten vineyards…San Francisco night club owners who decided to bring music and community to a ghost town. We were originally planning to write a traditional guide on the best things to do in Yosemite, but something bigger seemed to be brewing behind the places to stay, eat, and shop. There is a lot of heart behind these small businesses and that’s what makes them must-see places. Meet the creative couples helping make Mariposa one of the best places to explore in California!
Mariposa Museum: John & Jessie
Heading to the local museum is always a good way to understand a new place—and Mariposa’s just happens to be the Smithsonian’s pick for “Best Little Museum in the West.” Walking into the Mariposa Museum and History Center, we were transported to a 19th-century general store selling provisions for gold miners and homesteaders, followed by a Miwok Native American dwelling covered in cedar bark, and rich California history at every turn. Our guide Chris walked us through Mariposa’s many eras, from Native American tribes to Spanish settlement to Mexican territory to the gold rush era that transformed California. “Though if there is one family that revolutionized Mariposa, it’s The Fremonts.” John Fremont was an early American explorer of the West and married a politician’s daughter and accomplished writer, Jessie Benton. In the mid 1800s congress funded his survey of the Oregon Trail, the Great Basin, and the Sierra Nevadas and together they authored best-selling travel guides (basically the Lonely Planet for Conestoga Wagons lol) to help the hundreds of thousands voyaging west. The Fremonts got one of the first land grants from Mexico: “Las Mariposas.” As luck would have it, their 40,000 acres would become the heart of gold country. Their wealth and influence earned him a Senate seat and their anti-slavery position helped secure his bid as the first-ever Republican candidate for president. But his allure was always them as a pair, even his political slogan was “Fremont and Jessie too.” Forward-thinkers, adventurers, and dynamic duo, John and Jessie are the foundation of the “Mother of all Counties.”
Travel Tip: Don’t miss the Mariposa Museum’s outdoor exhibits, which include a massive stamp mill, a working blacksmith shop, and the original Mariposa Gazette offices from 1854—California’s longest running weekly newspaper. (Check out this article they wrote about us).
Little Shop of Ramen & The Local Grape:
Travis & Melissa
We walked the main street, admiring the 19th-century buildings, charming shops, and yummy resturants. In the oldest commercial building in Mariposa (est 1849) and below a neon sign that said “Gold Coin” was a ramen restaurant and wine bar. It sounded so random, we had to see it for our ourselves. The Little Shop of Ramen restaurant was juxtaposed with huge historic murals of early explorers, and floor-to-ceiling racks of California wine. “Will you be joining us for lunch?” said the co-owner Travis. When we saw vegan ramen on the menu with slow-cooked shitake stock, we were sold. Travis went on to explain the wine selection and a bit about The Local Grape. He curates the best wine selections from the eight counties that make up the Sierra Foothills AVA and is working on his very own blends with grapes he harvests from forgotten vineyards with the help of Mariposa-born and wine-making rockstar, Michael Moore. Today Travis and his wife Melissa are merging their passion for wine and Japanese home cooking with this restaurant that’s shaking up Central Californian cuisine. “Ramen is such a good food for the soul…comfort food,” says Melissa who grew up in a Japanese-American household. “And wine,” says Travis, “well, it makes you smile.” We can’t think of a better combination or a more adorable pair to bring them together.
Travel Tip: In other fun facts, ask Travis about the days when the building had an upstairs brothel and a tunnel system that went to the mines and a 150-year-old Catholic church. This place is full of amazing stories! And when it comes to enjoying the best of their cuisine, score a Tuesday reservation for their weekly Omakase dinner and wine pairing.
Sierra Cider: Dana & David
On a sunny fall day, nothing sounded better than a cider tasting in a century-old apple orchard. The previous owners Beth and Dave Lancaster were quietly picking their 800 apple trees and crafting cider for restaurants for decades but their lovely orchard wasn’t open to the public until they passed the reigns to Dana Tiel and David Bailey in 2021. As a young couple who moved from LA, they’re the first to admit they had a lot to learn about farming. “We never would have taken over this farm if Dave & Beth weren’t right next door and willing to teach us how to grow apples and make great cider.” With a can-do attitude, creative advertising background, and love of event planning, Dana & David turned the brand into the destination cidery it was meant to be. We drove down their tree-lined road and immediately felt those warm and fuzzy fall vibes. Sierra Cider’s shipping-container tasting room has been revamped with reclaimed wood walls, a glass garage door, and a roof deck that looks over their 16 acres. Dana and David greeted us like old buddies and offered up a sampler of their fun blends on tap: Sneaky Tiki (rum notes), Breakfast (hint of maple), and Chunky Sweater (mulled spices, ready for the holidays). We took our flight to their patio, decorated with all things fall and pondered which game to play first…giant Jenga, Connect Four, ladder ball, shuffleboard, not to mention, hay rides and the wood-fired pizza oven were about to spark up. Sierra Cider’s tasting room may only be open on Fridays and Saturdays, but when they are…they are throwing it down with food trucks, s’mores roasting, and major events like their Tortured Orchard Halloween Extravaganza. (Follow their Instagram, these two are hysterical and clearly having so much fun down on the farm.)
Travel Tip: For an insider experience, book a private tasting and orchard tour on Airbnb Experiences, or better yet stay overnight in their Barn Loft to have the place to yourself any day of the week!
The Grove House: Nate & Rosalyn
Mariposa on a weekend means awesome acts are playing at The Grove House. The owner Nate Pyle grew up in town, went off to college in Arizona, then just as he and his girlfriend Rosalyn were graduating, a commercial space went up for sale in Mariposa. They decided to turn their love of music into a new life together. With their prime location, halfway between the music hubs of LA and San Francisco, the Pyles knew that if they created a stellar space with craft beers and farm-to-table food, they were well positioned to attract solid acts. On top of that, Mariposa yearned for a creative community space. “This town is full of incredible artists and craftsman,” said Nate. “They just needed a place to showcase their work, to find each other, and have a gathering place where all are welcome and feel safe to meet and share ideas.” During our night at The Grove House, it was a nice blend of locals and international travelers in hiking boots, gathered around their 16-tap bar and folk musicians playing acoustic and slide guitars. Nate came up to say hi and see how we liked our vegan Squashed Squash Sandwich and the Ted Nunes Band, and we felt right at home.
Mariposa Trails: Bill & Beth
After our wild night at the Grove House (and the awesomely divey Hideout Saloon), it was an early morning at the Alder Creek Trailhead. But with Yosemite National Park’s 748,000 acres and the adjacent Sierra National Forest’s 1.3 million acres, Bill King and Beth Kellner of Mariposa Trails need as many volunteers as they can get. On the side of the road, they laid out the work tools (hoes, loppers, and extractigators) we would use to tackle the invasive species and trail-crowding trees along the 22-mile trail. Alongside locals, ranging in age from 20 to 70, we slung our tools over our shoulders and walked into a side of the park most tourists never see. Along the way, Bill stopped to point out various “tree blazes,” trail markings from the region’s earliest keepers. We saw a “T” for troops, and Bill took it as an opportunity to give a reading from the area’s early explorers, detailing accounts of the bountiful flora, fauna, and towering peaks of the Sierra Nevadas. He didn’t just bring us out here for the free labor, he wanted us to fall in love with the land. “Restoring trails is a means to building community,” Bill later told me between swinging a hoe. “Beth and I love knitting people together with nature and each other…and we both like getting our hands in the dirt.” Trail maintenance is hard work, but I wasn’t about to slow down seeing this couple on their hands and knees cutting incense cedar saplings (a notorious tinder for forest fires). When lunchtime came, we sat together with mud on our faces, laughing about our battles with deerbrush roots and small victories saving sugar pine saplings. We were no longer a group of lawyers, waitresses, bloggers, and retirees, we were a crew.
Travel Tip: You can join Mariposa Trails most Wednesdays and Saturdays for these rewarding trail-maintenance hikes. Check out their volunteer work schedule and multi-day adventures with these Yosemite insiders.
Yosemite National Park: Shelly & Corey
One of our fellow volunteer trail workers was a Yosemite park ranger…who was married to a park ranger! We were so struck by the fact that Shelly and her husband Corey were already dedicating their lives to serving this wilderness area, and yet even on her day off she was doing community service for the park. As we yanked invasive species, she told me about their original dream to get stationed in Yosemite Valley with El Capitan and Half Dome looking over them. Though as fate would have it, she told me, “We now work and live in Wawona, the most beautiful quiet gem of Yosemite.” This area is the oldest settlement in the park and home to the Yosemite History Center, where cabins of many 19th-century landscape artists and early environmental advocates resided, dozens of gorgeous hikes begin, and not many tourists go. We took her advice to explore Wawona, with a fun riverbed rock scramble up to Chilnualna Falls and a dip in the beautiful Swinging Bridge swimming hole. Instead of spending all our time inside the iconic Valley, we too discovered the serene side of Yosemite.
Travel Tip: To shake the crowds and enjoy old-growth forest, hike the Guardian’s Loop trail above the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias and take the time to drive California’s highest highway, Tioga Pass, for incredible mountain views and the stunning Tenaya Lake.
Skydive Yosemite: Paul & Julia
I’ve always been on the fence about skydiving, but the chance to take a scenic flight over Yosemite National Park then freefall over this iconic swath of terrain, suddenly made it sound like a great idea. Butterflies were certainly circling around my stomach as we pulled into the Mariposa Airport, but the team at Skydive Yosemite has a way of putting people at ease. Co-founders Paul and Julia Wignall met working at Yosemite in 1996 and became friends over their love of adventure sports. Their paths diverged for a few years while Paul toured Europe as a super model, working for the likes of Valentino and Gucci, but he always kept in touch with Julia—who was running her own fashion brand in the States! Destined to be intertwined in life, love, and adventure, they started working in the skydiving industry together and ultimately got married and had kids. When they saw an opportunity to become the first skydiving operation in the Yosemite area, they knew it was meant to be. Julia, who’s the parachute rigger and drop-zone organizer got us ready for takeoff and Paul (who’s done over 9,000 jumps) made sure our instructors and pilot were ready to rock. “We couldn’t run this operation without each other,” said Paul. Next thing we knew, we were loading into a Cessna and soaring to 14,000 feet (their highest drop zone). We did a sweep of Yosemite Valley to see Half Dome and El Cap in all their glory and get amped for the wild ride ahead. “How do you want jump?” asked my instructor. “If you don’t want to look down, you can lock eyes with Mike and we can just backflip out the door.” Sounded sensible enough and out we went, squealing and smiling all the way down. Watch our incredible 60-second freefall over Yosemite, learning to deploy and steer a parachute, and the stoked look on our faces.
Travel Tip: Skydive Yosemite has a fully kitted out and super cute campervan for rent. Mix up your lodging and adventures in Yosemite for a couple nights with taste of VanLife!
Coulter Cafe & General Store: Dawn & Kim
Driving the historic Highway 49, the switchback road that connects California’s original gold rush towns, we reached Coulterville at the north end of the county. Once a population of 5,000 people with 10 hotels and 25 saloons, the current headcount is around 125 people. We strolled past false-front buildings with wooden balconies and swinging doors, peeked into antique stores and dusty bars, and only passed a handful of people—but each one greeted us with a “Good morning” or a “How’s it going.” Coulterville made Reader’s Digest’s list of “Nicest Places in America” and life partners and co-owners of the Coulter Cafe & General Store have a lot to do with that. When Dawn Huston & Kim Brisack moved to town in 2015, shortly after locals lost their main hangout spot in a fire, they decided to use their background as nonprofit workers and community organizers, to turn the old store into the new hub. “We saw a huge potential for the cafe to be a place where the community could come together and also attract people from metropolitan areas,” said Dawn. “We wanted it to be a place that appealed to a wide variety of people, so it was important to have vegan, gluten free, and organic options in addition to our comfort food.” Come summer weekends, they host concerts on their spacious patio, where all the proceeds go to local non-profits. “We don’t really make any money here,” said Dawn. “But it’s a good community resource. And that makes me really happy.” We went into the store for lunch and realized it was also the visitor center. What started as a mission to get a roasted-mushroom sandwich turned into a full-on trip planning session with the guy behind the counter. He sent us off with maps and a plan to camp and kayak at the waterfront sites along Lake McSwain. Dawn and Kim are currently in the process of training two of their staff to be the new owners. “Over the next two years we are mentoring them in all aspects of running a business, the specifics of the cafe/store and the importance of being a good community member,” said Kim. It’s already working.
Travel Tip: Be sure to catch Coulter Cafe’s Summer Sunday concerts and follow their Facebook page for more events like guest chef brunches. In 2023, Coulterville’s historic Jeffrey Hotel is having its grand reopening, so you can spend the night after a few drinks in their 1850s saloon.
We always say that in the scheme of the world’s prettiest places, the most beautiful come down to the people. There’s something special happening in Mariposa County, and the UNESCO World Heritage Park is just the beginning. Stay awhile and the locals’ passion for this place and their willingness to share it gives Mariposa County its special sauce.
Best Things to Do in Yosemite Nation
For more of our favorite pics and fun facts about greater Yosemite, see our Facebook gallery.
Big thanks to Yosemite Nation for inviting HoneyTrek to visit and share the story of this inspiring community! To show our gratitude to the people of Mariposa County, we have donated to the following organizations: Yosemite Climbing Association, Mariposa Trails, and The Mariposa Community Foundation.