Driving through rural California, you’ve got your pick of sweet little towns like Sonora. You can breeze by, or maybe do a quick pitt stop, but wouldn’t it be more fun to stay a few nights and get a feel for the place? There are plenty of things to do in Sonora, California that will make your stay worthwhile.
The historic town of Sonora, California sits close to Yosemite National Park and Stanislaus National Forest. It’s smack in the middle of some beautiful country and some great places to meander.
Mr M and I were there last weekend (2017) for a particularly lovely wedding – fancy frocks and cowboy hats, a bevvy of bridesmaids and groomsmen, and a happy couple who are beautiful inside and out.
It was a perfect excuse for a road trip, and at just three hours drive from San Francisco, Sonora’s close enough to make a weekend jaunt possible.
First written in May 2017, this post was updated in February 2020. I’m updating this post in early 2020 because Mr M and I actually went back to Sonora for part of our honeymoon (yes, we’re now married). We loved Sonora so much that we couldn’t miss it on our way through to Lake Tahoe, so we stopped for two days to experience a little more of one of our favourite California towns.
Things to do in Sonora, California
Not to be confused with its namesake in Mexico, Sonora in California has a distinct goldrush flavour. Miners from the Mexican state of Sonora immigrated to California back in 1848, looking to make their fortunes, and named their new settlement Sonora.
It was first incorporated back in May 1851, making it one of the oldest cities in the state. Back then it was known as the “Queen of the Southern mines”, and a year after the first miners made their appearance in Sonora, the population had exploded to 5,000 people.
As you can imagine, there are a lot of stately homes and buildings left over in Sonora because of the good fortune experienced by some of those miners.
Sonora has that “old-timey, small town” feel to it without making you feel like you’re back in the dark ages. There are lots of fun things to do in Sonora, California, so let’s get into them!
Board a steam train at Railtown 1897
Have you ever wondered where classic films and TV shows like Back to the Future III and Little House on the Prarie were filmed? Maybe you remember Petticoat Junction, or Rawhide.
They were all at least partially filmed at Railtown 1897, which is in Jamestown – a nine minute drive from the heart of Sonora itself.
Railtown is a child, and train enthusiast’s dream come true. It has vintage steam trains and diesel engines in one State Historic Park. While you’re there you can visit the train sheds where a number of antique engines are resting, the blacksmith’s area, and the train carriage used in Back to the Future III.
But the real drawcard for me, was the ride on a steam train, complete with commentary about the area’s gold rush history, and Hollywood connections. It even does it’s own Polar Express train journey for children around Christmas time!
Address: 10501 Reservoir Rd, Jamestown, CA 95327
Train Rides: Held on Saturdays and Sundays between April and October (weather dependent)
Times: 10.30am, 12pm, 1.30pm, and 3pm
Prices: Adults $15, Youth (6-17) $10, Children (under 5) free. Members ride for free and ticket price includes park admission.
Fill up on award winning cider
Sonora is best known as wine and gold country, so you might think that the cider wouldn’t quite be up to par. But you would be wrong. So very wrong.
We visited Indigeny Reserve cider works and distillery on the recommendation of our B&B hosts. The tasting rooms and cidery (where they make the cider) sit in the middle of 160-acres of orchards, surrounded by a picnic area, antique farm equipment and hiking trails.
They don’t just do apple cider either, this place makes an array of cider flavours plus apple brandy and a bunch of fruit-infused vodkas as well. Because nothing is wasted here, even the apple pulp is mulched back into the orchards or sent to livestock farms.
We were lucky enough to get a tour of the facility by owner Jay Watson and the cidery cat. There’s lots of technical bits and bobs and interesting tidbits on the tour, which I won’t spoil for you. The overall feeling though, is that these guys really know their stuff and it shows in their product.
Their limited addition apricot cider has come in second place two years in a row at San Francisco’s cider summit.
Get outdoors in Tuttletown Recreation Area
During the summer months, Sonora and its surrounding towns in Tuolumne County get pretty warm. The mercury averages around 82 degrees Farenheit (28C) in the summer months and routinely climbs into the 90s (33C).
If you’re a fan of water sports or just want to relax in a pretty place for a picnic, you need to head into Tuttletown Recreation Area.
Located just 16 minutes drive west of Sonora, Tuttletown Reacreation Area is hugged by New Melones Lake and a perfect place to bring the kids for a paddle in the water and a barbecue.
It helps that New Melones lake as a 12,500 acre surface area, and is the fourth largest reservoir in California – you’re not going to feel crowded or hemmed in here.
There are activities for everyone though, including fishing, water skiing, jet skiing, sailing, kayaking, canoeing, and horseback riding. We had an hour or so before our train left the Railtown 1897 station, so we chose to go on a short hike in the recreation area.
Address: Reynolds Ferry Road, Sonora
Cost: Entry fee $8 per day, boat launch fee of $10 (includes entry fee), camp for $22 per night.
Visit Mark Twain’s cabin
Way back in December 1864, Mark Twain arrived to staynear Sonora with miners Jim and Steve Gillis.
The trio stayed in a small cabin on Jackass Hil Road, near Tuttletown Recreation Area. Twain arrived as a riverboat pilot, and a failed miner, but he didn’t realise that he would leave having written the short story that would make him famous throughout the United States, and the world.
Twain’s real name is Samuel Langhorne Clemens, but he published “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” using the name Mark Twain and it stuck. He first heard the jumping frog story in a saloon in nearby Angels Camp, and scribbled it down to embellish on later.
The original cabin burned down in the 1890s, but the fireplace and chimney remained. The cabin that currently stands in its place was a replica built in 1922.
Address: 20788 Jackass Hill Rd, Sonora.
Stroll down Sonora’s vintage main street
I’m not particularly into shopping, especially when it’s the non-internet kind, but Sonora’s South Washington Street isn’t that annoying kind of shopping.
The street is filled with quaint little shops that you wouldn’t see at the local strip mall – it really is a bit of a blast from the past. There’s Rick’s Cobbler Shop, antique shops that stretch back and sell everything from plates and cups to books and vintage hats, art galleries, boutique clothing stores and a plethora of eateries and saloons to choose from.
My favourites were easy to pinpoint though. Who can walk past an old-fashioned lolly shop (candy store) and not go in? The Candy Vault actually has a vault, where I’m hoping that Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory plays on loop. At least it was when we visited – you also can’t not sing along with the Oompa Loompas.
While I was stocking up on Salt Water Taffy for the sister-in-law, Mr M’s dad found some old fashioned Horehound candy. I’ve since found out that Horehound is a plant used in cough drops to soothe sore throats.
Then it was on to Legends Books & Antiques, Old Fashion Soda Fountain – talk about crow barring quality into one attraction. The underground portion, which now houses rare secondhand hardcover books, used to be a mine shaft. If you love the musty smell of old books, get yourself here.
Gold rush ghost town
History is my thing, and the historic gold rush town of Columbia brings it to life. Just a few minutes drive north of Sonora, Columbia was founded in 1850 after the Hildreth brothers (George and Thaddeus) found gold in the area.
Today the town is more than four blocks of nineteenth century sights, smells and sounds. Main street is lined with stores purveying everything from candy to mining equipment.
The local blacksmith forge is still flaming and turning out tools, mailboxes, horseshoes and other trinkets. You can watch candy being pulled, twisted, shaped and cooled before going next door to get yourself some sugary treats.
With gold panning, stagecoach rides, old-fashioned bowling and town tours, there’s plenty to keep kids and adults occupied. Don’t miss the tiny jail tucked behind the fire station or the school house further up the street.
When you get hungry there’s saloons, restaurants, ice cream parlors and tea houses to choose from.
Where to eat in Sonora, California
You’re not going to go hungry here. There are plenty of great places to stop for a snack, a drink, or a full-blown meal that won’t break the bank.
After sitting in traffic for three hours on Friday afternoon, we were hungry. Luckily for us, Mr M’s parents had already scouted the local restaurants and were advised to book a table at Talulah’s Restaurant.
There’s so much to say that I don’t quite know where to start. While it’s described as “fine dining”, Talulah’s is so far away from having a stuffy vibe. The decor is warm, inviting and relaxed – three traits that are well reflected in the serving staff.
We were lucky enough to be waited on by Dom, who I’m pretty sure has dibs on the coolest guy in Sonora title (it’s not a low bar, there are some characters). Quick-witted, attentive and accommodating, he would have been the star of the evening if it weren’t for the food.
I don’t know what was in the salad dressing, but I can confirm that it’s tasty and I wanted more salad. Except I had shrimp linguine waiting for me – to say the pasta servings are generous would be an understatement. I wasn’t the only one who couldn’t finish their plate.
We topped it all off with a brownie for dessert, and even though I didn’t have room for more pasta, there was a space in my dessert stomach.
The Standard Pour
The Standard Pour came highly recommended from a couple of volunteers at Railtown in Jamestown, so we figured we couldn’t really go wrong.
On Standard Road in Sonora, the Standard Pour seems to be an institutions with the locals, and it’s one of those places that feels welcoming to everyone.
You won’t be disappointed by the meals or the portions – I ordered a chicken salad and was worried that I’d still be hungry (salad isn’t a meal, we all know that), but there was enough food on my plate for two dinners.
Mr M opted for a burger and fries, and I don’t think he got through it all either. It’s fair to say we were both very happy with our choice of dinner and beers. I forgot to mention that the Standard Pour is known for it’s selection of craft beers hailing from California, Oregon, Utah, and Colorado.
They have 18 draft selections so you’ll be spoiled for choice. And being in an area that prides itself on wine, there is also a great selection of tipples from local wineries.
The history of The Standard Pour is pretty interesting. Back in the Gold Rush era, the land was owned by rancher Jim Lyons. Lyons was said to have been a good-natured man, but he fell victim to a swindle by William and James Blakely – two brothers who owned then sold a quartz mine , making them rich.
When Lyons realised that the pair had swindled him out of his land near Sullivan’s Creek, he saw red and shot and killed William Blakely. James Blakely lost an arm in the incident.
Where to stay in Sonora, California
Having visited Sonora twice now, we have tried two separate accommodation options in the area.
The first was Bradford Place Inn & Gardens bed and breakfast for a weekend stay, but the second was at the Country Inn Sonora, which was more of a budget option, since it was the first stop on our honeymoon road trip through Northern California.
Bradford Place Inn & Gardens
Mr M had never stayed in a B&B before and I tend to avoid them when I’m travelling, for some unknown reason. After staying at the Bradford Place Inn & Gardens though, we’ll be changing that.
Affordable and adorable, the Inn has gorgeous rooms with beautiful antique furniture that make you feel as if you’ve stepped back in time. We stayed in the Tuolumne Room and Mr M’s parents nabbed the spacious Bradford Suite, so we had a good sticky beak at all the finishing touches.
Of course the real stars are owners Gail and Jeff Pedrick, who seem to really enjoy working together. They were both formidable chefs as well as being a pleasure to chat to. Do yourself a favour and try the Creme Brulee French toast. If you’ve got room for more there also seems to be an endless supply of cookies and pastries in the dining room.
Country Inn Sonora
There isn’t any point in comparing the Country Inn Sonora with Bradford Place Inn & Gardens, because they’re catering to two completely different travellers.
The Country Inn is a comfortable room to sleep in and get ready for a day of exploring. It has all the ammenities you’ll need, including WiFi, since phone reception isn’t fantastic in Sonora, depending on your provider.
While Bradford Place Inn & Gardens was right in the middle of the action, Country Inn Sonora is about one mile away from downtown. It wasn’t an issue for us, since we had our car and we were driving places anyway.
Each room has a coffee maker, and you can get snacks and ice from vending machines. The Country Inn also has a pool that is open seasonally.
It was a great, cheaper place to stay, that still offered all of the ammenities we needed. We weren’t fussed with frills and fancies because we weren’t going to be hanging around the room to enjoy them.
A road trip wouldn’t be a proper road trip without a couple of stops along the way. You need a stretch, a drink,some goats to pat and koi fish to feed.
That’s where Oakdale Cheese and Specialties comes in. Look for the signs on State Highway 120 in Oakdale and you’ll stumble across a gem. Putting the animals aside for a second, this is where award-winning cheese is made!
These guys know their cheese – their aged gouda was given first place in the “Dutch-style” cheese category and their cumin gouda won best flavoured gouda at the United States Championship Cheese contest.
Apart from gorging on delicious cheese and ogling their cheese-making floor and drying racks, you can have a picnic outside under the trees. With the company of a pond full of koi, some curious goats, a lama and some chickens.
Sonora is about a three hour drive from San Francisco, or 130 miles (209 kilometres) away.
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