Gold Rush town is chock-full of shops, antiques
By CARY ORDWAY
If stories of Donner Pass and snowy blizzards in the Sierra Nevada are
you at lower elevations during the winter months, try venturing just a little
ways into the Sierra foothills for a rewarding stay in one of the charming
historic towns along scenic Highway 49.
The hills and vegetation in this part of California offer great relief from
the monotony of the San Juaquin Valley just a few miles to the west. The country
roads are crooked, all right – and Highway 49 probably is the worst offender
here – but the trees, streams, meadows and frequent vistas are a treat for
anyone who loves to travel scenic byways.
The town of Sonora was our recent choice for a base of operations in this
gorgeous countryside. Perhaps the most scenic town in the area, Sonora has a
long main street of western storefronts with plenty of nearby historic homes,
not to mention a couple of spectacular church steeples that make it great for
taking pictures. Sonora is chock-full of antique shops, as well as small, but
interesting shops and restaurants.
Sonora’s a good place to get a real dose of California history and will be
much more interesting for your kids than textbooks. This is a land where the Old
West was made up of miners, ranchers and loggers and where families on the
frontier lived out primitive lives you see depicted in Hollywood westerns. Gold
was discovered near Jamestown in July 1848 and, if you can imagine, there were
as many as 20,000 residents living in this part of the state back when town
populations were more often counted in triple digits.
We had planned to settle in at the Inns of Sonora, which offer nicely
furnished motor lodge-style rooms that are just footsteps from the downtown
restaurants and shops. We arrived just after dark following a scenic – but long
– drive along Highway 49 over from Oakhurst, south of Sonora. This is a
rewarding drive if you have lots of time and you don’t mind
hairpin curves in sections where you drive down a mountain and then back up
another mountain. For those with less time, an easier way to reach Sonora is to
drive the 99 freeway up (or down) the San Joaquin Valley to Modesto and then
east to Sonora via Highways 108 and 49.
First order of business was to walk a half a block over to the Outlaws BarBQ
and Steakhouse, a fun place with its big, authentic western bar and a cheerful
proprietor – Paul Kennedy – who, in fact, looked like he was one of the James
Gang. Friendly staff and out-of-this-world barbecue ribs made this a good choice
After a cozy night at Inns of Sonora – with plenty of time spent in our
in-room Jacuzzi – we dropped in for a big, tasty yet inexpensive country
breakfast at Miner’s Restaurant, also downtown. Then it was off to Railtown 1897
or what they call "The Movie Railroad." It’s located in nearby Jamestown and is
a fascinating stop for anyone who has enjoyed Western movies with those loud and
powerful steam trains. If you saw a movie with an old-time steam train, chances
are the engine and cars came from Railtown 1897, where there is a wall of movie
posters illustrating just how many movies featured the trains kept here at this
facility. The facility actually is the former Sierra Railway shops and
Historic trains and steam engines are on tracks throughout the property and
visitors can take their time following sidewalk trails to various parts of the
facility. You can walk right up and look inside the roundhouse where several
engines were under repair during our winter-time visit. Just a few talented
mechanics are charged with this responsibility and seeing all of this up-close
makes you appreciate just how challenging it must be to keep all of this old
equipment operating properly.
There are plenty of movie stars at Railtown 1897. For example, Locomotive No.
3 has appeared in nearly 50 motion pictures and more than 20 television series,
and is still used in the movies today. Most recent use includes the movies
Back to the Future III, Unforgiven and Bad Girls. Many of the
passenger coaches and cabooses you see also were used in various films.
Just as an aside, Railtown 1897 is operated by the state along with the
California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento, one of the country’s best
railroad museums. That 100,000-square-foot museum features many actual railcars
as well as various real locomotives. A train station replica allows you to see
what a 19th Century station was like and, in spring and summer
months, the museum offers steam train rides.
Back in Sonora and surrounding Tuolumne County, California history is never
far away. We visited nearby Columbia State Historic Park, a theme-park like
reconstruction of a real California gold rush town. This is like the historic
parks you hear about on the East Coast where people dress in period
costumes to take you back to earlier days. Gold was discovered in 1850 in
Columbia, and the town quickly grew into a bustling base for miners seeking
their fortunes. Today, the park has a complete Main Street with reconstructed
storefronts that actually have real stores and shops inside. There’s a
blacksmith shop, a couple of saloons, a hotel and a even a stagecoach ride in
addition to many other small businesses. When we were there, a local bluegrass
group was dressed in period garb, strolling the streets and entertaining
Another historic attraction in the same general area is the Tuolumne Museum,
which blends local history from the early Me-Wuk tribes and the Gold Rush
period. Open only on weekend afternoons, the museum displays many typical family
items from the period, including clothing, health care items and family photos.
A scale model of a local railroad and its route are set up in an adjacent room.
And the thing about a visit to Sonora is that there’s an additional treasure
trove of history just in the next county. Calaveras County was memorialized in
The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, a short story that was
actually Mark Twain’s first published work and the piece that eventually made
him famous. Today, Angels Camp – about 16 miles from Sonora -- reminds us about
Twain and his story every May, drawing more than 2,000 "frog jockeys" who
compete to see whose frog can jump the farthest.
The Mark Twain connection is a big one for Angels Camp and, just like "the
Birds" has become a cottage industry for its filming location, Bodega Bay, the
Mark Twain short story has put Calaveras County and Angels Camp on the map. All
manner of frog memorabilia are offered locally, and more than one business has
the word frog in its name. You can even visit the cabin where Mark Twain lived
for the few months he was staying in the area.
Anxious to share its history, Angels Camp offers visitors a map for a walking
tour of the town. Each of the historic buildings in town – and from what we
could tell, they’re ALL historic – has a number posted on the front of the
building to correspond with the numbers on the map. The map has a description
and history of each location.
AT A GLANCE
Sonora is in the heart of California’s Gold Country and easily accessed from
Highway 99 using west-east highways you can get at various points south of
WHAT: Sonora is part of Gold Country, a historic part of California that
retains much of the flavor and charm of the mid-1800s gold rush period.
WHEN: Any time of the year, although there is some mountain driving and
most roads are narrow and windy, so spring, summer and fall would be best.
WHY: The scenic beauty of the area – hilly, mountainous and forested – is
a feast for the eyes, while the history of the area is visible almost everywhere
HOW: To plan a trip to Sonora, contact Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau at
800-335-1333 or visit
www.thegreatunfenced.com. For information on lodging at the Inns of Sonora,
call 800-251-1538 or visit
www.innsofcaliforniasonora.com. Tip: Ask for one of the rooms with the
built-in Jacuzzi – they’re especially large and you’ll love soaking after a day
Photos by Cary Ordway, Sandi Ordway
Captions, from top: Picturesque Sonora Main Street; one of Sonora's
signature steeples; a historic train at Railtown 1897; Paul Kennedy, proprietor
of Outlaws BarBQ and Steakhouse
Cary Ordway is president of Getaway Media Corp and publishes a website focusing on California vacation ideas. Please visit California Weekend for more information on California travel .
Photo credits: Cary Ordway, Sandi Ordway