Like many old towns in this part of the Sierra Nevada range, Sonora dates back to the mining camps of the Gold Rush.
The town, dubbed the “Queen of the Southern Mines,” was founded by prospectors from the Mexican province of Sonora – hence the name – at a time when this part of California really was the Wild West. Gun-totin’ miners drank their profits at the saloons, recreation included bull and bear fights, and DUIs involved horses.
Today, Sonora’s historic downtown offers a glimpse into that Gold Rush past, and some very modern attractions, as well. During peak season, the sidewalks bustle, and you can’t score a table at Talulah’s without reservations. It’s a prime stopping point on the way to Yosemite, Pinecrest and Stanislaus National Forest, but Sonora is a town that deserves a visit on its own.
Here are a few of our favorite things to do there.
Never miss a local story.
Sonora’s historic downtown is tailor-made for wandering, and a half-mile stroll down Washington Street is all you need to glimpse vestiges of the past. The north end is anchored by the eye-catching Red Church, an Episcopalian church built in 1860 – and then built again in 1868 after a fire.
Meander down the sidewalk and you’ll find shops, restaurants and inns tucked inside scores of 19th- and 20th-century buildings. There’s the old county jail (1866), the Wells Fargo Building (1856) and the impressive Sonora Opera Hall, which opened on Christmas Eve 1885, with a masquerade ball and skating party. (Ten years later, it had been demoted to a carpenter shop, then a garage. Today, the restored building is a popular wedding and event spot.)
Just a few steps away, you’ll find Gunn House, which housed the Sonora Herald newspaper offices in 1854. Today, it’s a hotel with antique furniture, floral rugs and chamber pots – just for looks. The rooms have normal bathrooms, too. (New owners purchased the property in June, and some renovations are planned. No word on the destiny of the chamber pots.)
Meander at will, but make sure you stop at Legends, a soda fountain-book shop-antique store that rather defies description, so let’s try this: Imagine a grand 1850s saloon, with a glorious wooden bar that came around the Horn, but instead of booze, Legends traffics in ice cream: sundaes, splits and floats – or affogato, if you prefer your scoop of creamy vanilla with espresso, instead of sarsaparilla.
And downstairs is a veritable maze of floor-to-ceiling shelves, brimming with vintage books of every description. There are reading nooks, Persian rugs, an enormous safe, horseshoes, artists’ easels and historic memorabilia, the entrance to a mining tunnel and a burbling underground spring. Seriously.
Details: Open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily at 131 S. Washington St., Sonora.
PUZZLES AND TOYS
Sonora’s eclectic shops boast everything from Balinese masks to wooden signs proclaiming “wine time,” but we were utterly smitten by the Little Roots Toy Shop. Owners Ken and Kristen Hedges – and baby daughter Aspen – opened the shop in February, stocking it with high-quality, often handmade toys and organic cotton clothing, including matching Baby Bear and growling Mama Bear T-shirts. You’ll be hard-pressed to resist, even if your kids are grown. (There is, after all, always the possibility of grandkids, or nieces and nephews. Best to buy that irresistible, gray-and-blue striped Robbie Raccoon toy ($15.50) now.)
The toys are stocked with an eye to the 1- to 12-year-old set, but the Hedges also carry National Park puzzles from Dowdle Folk Art. Your mountain cabin – or apartment kitchen table – needs Eric Dowdle’s 500-piece Yosemite puzzle ($16.95).
Details: Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily at 106 S. Washington St.; littlerootstoyshop.com
BOURBON AND BEER
Sonora boasts a vast array of dining spots, from the wood-fired pizzas of Emberz to the gastropub fare at the Diamondback Grill and the Italian array at Talulah’s. But our favorite spot is the year-old Bourbon Barrel, a whiskey-centric bar with a stellar small plates and sliders menu and dishes that emerge seemingly by magic. We couldn’t figure out where the kitchen was.
The place has a fun, rustic vibe, with distressed wood paneling, a long, U-shaped bar and more than 100 varieties of bourbon displayed along a colorfully lit wall. Add in live music, local wines, craft beer and some seriously delicious food – do not miss the wild boar meatballs ($10) – and this is a clear winner.
Owner Doug Kennedy has more in store, too: He’s opening a beer garden later this year.
Details: Open 3 p.m. to 2 a.m. daily at 208 S. Green St.; www.sonorabourbonbarrel.com.