Sonora is a great old Gold-Rush city with a large downtown containing some impressive buildings. It is attractive and lively, the "old" town but still the centre of local entertainment, commerce, government, etc.
The road to Sonora Pass (Hwy 108) starts in Sonora, CA, in the foothills. The road quickly begins winding deep into the mountains, passing small settlements like Strawberry. The first attraction on Hwy 108 is the Dardanelles, a set of sharp peaks that supposedly resemble the peaks at the Dardanelles Straits in Europe. When I was on Hwy 108, the Dardanelles Overlook was closed, but the peaks are still visible from near the road. This entire area is operated by Stanislaus National Forest
Stanislaus National Forest's Columns of the Giants is one of the more famous attractions on the Sonora Pass Highway. The Columns of the Giants resulted from volcanic activity, which left these pentagonal and hexagonal columns; this formation resembles the more famous Devils Postpile. But unlike the Devils Postpile, the Columns of the Giants are free and are much closer to the roadside; from the parking area, a short 3-minute trail leads across the Clark Flork Stanislaus River and climbs shortly to a viewpoint of the columns. Notice that some columns are at an angle and not upright like the rest.
Past the Columns of the Giants, the Sonora Pass continues climbing through forest. Eventually, views of snowcapped peaks appear, and the road emerges from forest. The road climbs continuously towards Sonora Pass; not far from the pass, it passes cirques, sharp peaks, and a beautiful alpine meadow.
At 9628 feet (2900 meters) above sea level, Sonora Pass is the second highest highway pass in California. Sitting on the Sierra Crest, the pass was first used as a route across the Sierra for wagon trains bound from Mono County's mines to the western side of the Sierra Nevada. Today it is the point where Hwy 108 crests in the Sierra. The scenery here encompasses snowcapped peaks and is spectacular. The pass, in Stanislaus National Forest, divides Mono County from Tuolumne County.
The descent from Sonora Pass is the scenic pinnacle of the Sonora Pass drive. The road winds through forests and open, green, lush meadows backed by magnificent snow-capped peaks. There are two large meadows on this section of road; it is possible to park on the side of the road where the shoulder is somewhat wider. Also note that this part of the road is unbelievably winding and twisting, with constant turns and grades up to 26%. So if you'd like to enjoy the scenery, stop on the roadside and view it, don't drive and look at the same time.
Just north of Sonora is the old mining town of Columbia. Now just a small community, Columbia was one of the most significant towns of California's gold-mining era and the Gold Rush. At one point in the 1850s it was one of the largest communities in California, butl although it stayed fairly important for a few years, its greatness was very brief and by 1860s it was petering ut, with desperate miners tearing up the town itself and digging underneath it for gold. Unlike other places such as Nevada City, which remained important gold-mining centres for many years, Columbia had entered terminal decline barely more than 10 years after the gold rush started and eventually was on the path to being a ghost town. However, due to its early importance and subsequent lack of development, it had numerous historic old buildings, a dense, undisturbed collection of Gold-Rush era architecture and stret plan. The state finally made the historic area a protected State Historic Parl.
However, it never actually became a ghost town and people still live in and around it. Although a State Historic Park, it is not actually a "park" that opens and closes (just as downtown Sonoma is a state historic park). It is simply protected and has state-operated sites of interest. There are various sites, museum, and businesses, although most activity does cater to the tourist industry.
The Sugg House was built in 1857 by William Sugg, a freed slave. The wooden frame was completed in 1880. It was used as a hotel until 1921, when changes in the state law (requiring hot and cold running water in each hotel room) made it close. Nevertheless, the house remained in the Sugg family until 1982. It is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
Built in 1885, with money from Sonora's Bonanza Gold Mine, this historic opera house has had its ups and downs over the years. It has been occupied by a number of businesses, including a carpenter shop and a garage. In 1986, the city bought the property and reopened it as an opera house. It's now available for shows and private functions. Call or email Sheala Wilkinson, Special Programs Coordinator, at the phone number or email address below.
Three miles away from Sonora is Jamestown, another historic Gold Rush town. This was the site of the first gold strike in Tuolomne County, by Col. George James in June of 1848. He was the toast of the town. However, he eventually departed, leaving behind many big debts. Attempts to rename the town failed, since the US Post Office had already listed it as Jamestown. Many locals refer to it as "Jimtown".
Highway 108 is closed, usually at the first snowfall of the year, at a point east of Strawberry. The highway re-opens again in April. There can be as much as 12 feet of snow along side the road after the highway re-opens. Sonora Pass is the most beautiful on earth...
Sonora is one of the finest examples of a mining town in the Sierra Nevada, perhaps being only surpassed by the great Nevada City. As walk along the main street look at the turrets and gingerbread work on the buildings, a sure sign of deep pocket construction during its 19th century heyday.
Built in the 1850s, the original courthouse was destroyed by fire. The present structure was completed in the 1890s.