Got History? Check Out California’s Sonora

If small, historic towns are your kind of California getaway, you can’t do better than a visit to one of the charming towns along Highway 49, deep in the Sierra foothills.

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 were going to settle in at the Inns of Sonora, which offers better-than-average motor lodge-style rooms just a short walk from downtown restaurants and shops. We arrived just after dark following a scenic – but long – drive along Highway 49 over from Oakhurst, south of Sonora. If you have plenty of time, this is a rewarding drive — but be prepared for hairpin curves and areas where you’re constantly climbing mountains, or driving down steep grades. 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 for dinner.

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 in nearby Jamestown, a great place for anyone who loves Western movies and their old-time 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 headquarters.

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 recently, trains here have been used for 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 in fact, all of Tuolumne County — there is plenty of California history. 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. In addition to other businesses, there are saloons, a hotel and even a stagecoach ride to give you the true flavor of the Wild West. When we were there, a local bluegrass group was dressed in period garb, strolling the streets and entertaining visitors.

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. All of the historic buildings in town have numbers posted on them that correlate to the numbers on the map. The map has a description and history of each location.

AT A GLANCE

WHERE: 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 Sacramento.

WHAT: Sonora is in a historic part of California that really helps you envision what it was like during 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 you look.

HOW: If you’re planning a visit 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 of sightseeing.

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