Sonora, visitor-friendly cross-roads of Gold Rush and lumbering history!




The stately Curtin Mansion, built in 1897, was home for Senator J.B. Curtin, attorney and candidate for CA Governor in 1914.

The Sugg-McDonald House dates to the mid-1850s, built on the property of a former slave; it is in process of being renovated. 
The old City Hotel, opened in 1852, anchors the historic downtown Sonora business district.
Sugar Pine Railroad Engine #3 worked the Sierra for many years, bringing logs out of the mountains to the huge mill in Standard, on edge of Sonora.
Coffill Park, a pleasant and cool urban oasis, is just steps off Washington Street in the center of the historic business district!

Sonora, just 60 miles east of Stockton, has always been a crossroads, first for Miwok Indians traveling in and out of the Sierra or along the Sierra foothills route.  When gold was discovered in Coloma in 1848, the ensuing Gold Rush brought the largest migration in history as thousands of Argonauts poured into the Mother Lode region. 

The route now known as Highway 49 echoed with pick axes as miners worked their way along creeks and tunneled into hillsides.  Gold Rush towns sprang up overnight, and Sonora emerged as a commercial hub of placer mining, businesses, restaurants, saloons, banks and hotels to support the miners.

It also quickly became the center for logging and lumber-mills; growing continually to become the regional center than it is today.

Now is a fine time to visit; days are warm, nights are cool, the aspens in the Sierra and other deciduous trees are turning colors; Sonora makes a spectacular center of the Sierra foothills universe.

The town offers a huge wealth of its historical perspective – locals truly treasure and preserve their history!  You will discover this by talking to the docents and volunteers at the numerous museums and merchants in scores of historic businesses. Conveniently, the town also provides a wide variety of visitor amenities – from great restaurants, local theater and pleasant places to spend a long weekend.

We were offered an historic city tour by Bonnie Summers, both a Stockton and Sonora resident and a volunteer docent at the Sonora Historical Society.  The society is wonderfully located in the old Sonora Jail, just up the hill from the stately old courthouse.  “Get set for a great tour of the history that made Sonora what it is today”, she noted as she piled me and my pal Gary into her vehicle for an impressive tour of museums and surrounding countryside.

In several hours, she toured us along Washington Street/Hwy. 49 as it cuts through the city and shared stories of some of the scores of beautiful Victorians that line the tree-shaded streets.  We also took a detour into the higher foothills to the east (where her family homesteaded 160 acres in the 1920s), through the very pretty Apple Ranch Valley area and explored the interesting facility, Indiginy, producing acclaimed Brandy and hard cider in a beautiful setting.

The old Sonora jail (now the Tuolumne Historical Society/Museum) was first built in 1857, burned and was rebuilt more stoutly in 1866, serving continuously until replaced in 1960.  Inside, each of the 10 old jail cells serve as “mini-museums”, focusing upon Native American forebears, early miners and townspeople, weapons of the day, importance of water to mining and agriculture and other more recent facets of the town’s history.  While at the Society, pick up a copy of the “Sonora, a Guide to Yesterday” and “Tuolumne County Museums” brochures.

Other museums are nearby: the Sonora Fire Museum, 125 N. Washington, the Veterans’ Memorial Hall and Military Museum, 158 W. Bradford and St. James History Room, 42 W. Snell.  Six cemeteries circle the old city; get a map from the Historical Society!

Old Victorians line most streets; we toured past the Sugg-McDonald House, built in 1857 on property of a former slave, William Sugg.  Along W. Bradford Street we trekked past eight vintage houses, dating from the late 1800s, including a beautifully restored 1897 beauty, the home of J. B. Curtin, attorney, State Senator and 1914 candidate for Governor.

Downtown’s Washington Street/Hwy. 49 features dozens of historic buildings, including Serventes (Sonora’s only cast-iron front building, dating to 1856), the Wells Fargo building (1856), the City Hotel (1852) and spectacular Opera Hall (1885).  Walk this 6-8 block stretch of history and stop at Coffill Park, a green oasis on Sonora Creek where a 22 pound nugget was found!

Visitor amenities abound along this compact downtown route, including restaurants, bakeries, theaters and hotels.   We stopped for lunch at the Diamondback Grill, a delightful spot in the midst of our tour. Along this quaint stretch of yesteryear is the old Gunn house, a well-regarded hotel and the Sonora Inn (now a Days Inn).

Sonora also quickly developed as a lumbering center with several huge saw mills nearby including the Standard Mill adjacent to Sonora and Westside Lumber in Tuolumne City, just six miles southeast.  These mills built narrow gauge railways deep into the Sierra; Shay Engine #3, a 60 ton locomotive that began operation in 1910, is on display at the entrance to the Mother Lode Fairgrounds on Stockton Road, just a mile from downtown.

Evening entertainment is flush in the area, with the town sporting the old Opera House, three theater companies as well as Fallon House Theatre in nearby Columbia.  And, Black Oak Casino, five miles away in Tuolumne City offers entertainment, dining and lodging.

What’s nearby: Tuolumne City, home to Westside Lumber, a fine tour destination to discover the former grandeur of “lumber as king” in the Sierra; Columbia State Historical Park, just four miles to the north, perhaps the best preserved of all the Gold Rush towns; historic Jamestown, and Railtown 1897, both just off Highway 108 to the west of Sonora.

How to get there: From Stockton, it is 60 miles, about an hour; go east on Hwy. 4 to Copperopolis, then go southeast on the O’Bryne Ferry Road, then east on Hwy. 108 to Sonora.

Dining options: In addition to those mentioned, consider the Standard Brewery in a building of the former Standard/Pickering Lumber Company, the Red House, Gus’s Steakhouse, and the nine restaurants in Black Oak Casino, including the Seven Sisters (casino is in nearby Tuolumne City).

What to bring: Binoculars, camera, good walking shoes!

To plan your visit: Make your first stop the Tuolumne Historical Society Museum, 158 W. Bradford,, 209.532.1317.  Also contact the Sonora Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 3084, Sonora, CA  95370,, 209-694-4405; and the Tuolumne County Chamber, 222 S. Shepherd St., Sonora,, 209.532.4212.

For more inspiration on other travel destinations in California and the west, see my blog, http//, or contact me at 

Happy travels in the West!

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