Best Things to Do in Sonora, CA, The Hub of Tuolumne County

Located in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Range, Sonora is a charming historic town and the county seat of Tuolumne County. The town was founded by Mexican miners back in 1848 during the California Gold Rush. It’s gone through its growth and decline and is now home to just under 5,000 residents. 

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This historic Gold Rush town is surrounded by scenic beauty, including the Stanislaus National Forest and Yosemite National Park, making it a perfect destination for outdoor enthusiasts and sustainable-minded travelers. 

We spent a few days in Sonora during our recent visit to the Yosemite region and found the town to be a real gem offering a small-town charm with a wide range of fun things to do for visitors of all ages.  

We had the opportunity to explore the town’s vibrant downtown area, filled with unique shops, art galleries, and delicious restaurants, go hiking in the area, check out a number of small local businesses, and, of course, visit the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. 

More on all of that and plenty of other great things to do in Sonora, CA, below!

Whether you’re looking for a weekend getaway or planning to explore the surrounding area of Yosemite National Park and nearby cities, Sonora is a great base for your adventure. 

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Best Time to Visit Sonora, CA 

Thanks to its beautiful location in the heart of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, Sonora, California, is a destination that can be visited year-round. Each season brings a different set of attractions in Sonora and the nearby region. 

We visited in April but have put together a little season-by-season guide below. 

Spring (March–May): Spring is a beautiful time to visit Sonora. Its hills bloom with wildflowers, and the weather is great for outdoor activities like hiking, biking, and kayaking.  Spring is also a great time to visit local wineries and try new vintages.

Summer (June – August). Summer is Sonora’s peak season. It’s pleasant and sunny and outdoor activities are in full swing. You can swim, boat, fish, and attend local festivities on adjacent lakes and rivers. Summer is the biggest season, so expect crowds and increased rates.

Fall (September – November). Cooler weather and fall foliage are the biggest draws of visiting Sonora in the fall. Changing fall colours make everything more picturesque during this time of the year. Harvest time means that fresh produce and local wines are widely available. 

Winter (December – February) Sonora becomes a winter wonderland with colder temperatures and snowfall from December through February. Visitors can ski and snowboard at surrounding resorts, explore the beautiful downtown, and shop at local galleries. Winter is a nice time to relax with a hot drink by the fire.

If you want to be mindful of the impact tourism has on destinations, consider visiting Sonora and the nearby Yosemite region during the shoulder season to spread visitations and help support the local economy outside of the peak season.  

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How to Get to Sonora, CA

Sonora, CA, is located in the center of California Gold Country and is easily accessible by car, train, bus, and plane.

By plane: Sacramento International Airport (SMF) and Fresno Yosemite International Airport (FAT) are located 2 hours drive from Sonora and serve as the best arrival point for international visitors. San Francisco International Airport (SFO) , though farther away, is another option for arrival in the area. You can pick up a rental car from either airport and drive yourself to Sonora and the greater Yosemite region from there. 

If you plan on renting a car to explore the Sonora region, we highly recommend an electric vehicle like Tesla. It’s a great way to reduce your CO2 impact while traveling, but can also be a way to save on gas, especially if you can find free charging. We drove a Tesla during our visit to the region and found that many hotels and lots of attractions in the area still offer free charging and premium parking spots for electric vehicles. Plus, driving around the windy roads of Yosemite region in a Tesla is just so fun – the car is so powerful and nimble that it makes navigating those windy mountainous roads really fun!

Hertz and Enterprise have the biggest fleet of electric cars, but more and more providers are now offering EVs in their lineups, so be sure to inquire. 

By car: For those who plan on driving, there are several routes available to Sonora. Highways 108, 49, and 120 are the 3 highways leading into the town and connect Sonora with Northern California and Central Coast. By car, San Francisco is a 2-2.5-hour journey, whereas Sacramento is just 1.5-2 hours.

By train: If you prefer travelling by train, Modesto, 45 minutes from Sonora, is the nearest Amtrak station. From there, you can rent a car and drive or take a shuttle to Sonora.

By Bus: Greyhound buses run daily from San Francisco and Sacramento to Sonora. Once in Sonora, you can use Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System (YARTS) to explore the area. The  YARTS runs frequent buses to/from Yosemite National Park and around the region and is a great environmentally friendly way to get around. 

Once you’ve made it to Sonora, settle in and get ready to explore, the region offers plenty of fun things to do. Sonora is one of the 3 big hubs for visitors coming to the area to explore Yosemite National Park. But it’s worth noting that aside from the park itself, Sonora and the region of Tuolumne County have plenty to offer. So be sure to spend a few extra days to take it all in and spread the economic impact of your visit to broader areas. 

Our rental Tesla on the roads of Madera County
Our rental Tesla on the roads of Madera County

Let’s jump into our top recommendations!

Best Things to Do in Sonora, CA

Explore the Historic Downtown Sonora

Exploring the historic town of Sonora is a must-do for anyone visiting this California town. To be honest, you can’t really miss it, as everything in Sonora tends to happen in the downtown core. 

The California Gold Rush-era downtown has charming boutiques, restaurants, and galleries. Stroll down Washington St to check out local shops, restaurants and soak up the vibe of the town.

You’ll find that the walkable downtown has several attractions. If it’s your first time in the area, start with a visit to the Sonora Visitor Center first. Maps and area activities and attractions are available here, and the staff can offer great local advice on the best things to do in Sonora.

Check out the 1898 Tuolumne County Courthouse, now a museum. Free tours of the courthouse offer a peak into local history. The Sonora Opera Hall and Community Centre is another notable spot in town. The event venue hosts concerts, dances, and plays. 

And finally, there is the Veterans Memorial Hall, a cool Military Museum with lots of donated items and historical artifacts dating back to World War I. 

Downtown also has several restaurants, cafes, and bars, making it a fantastic place to eat or drink. Many eateries have outside seating, so you can enjoy beautiful California weather. 

READ NEXT: Things To Do In Yosemite | A Comprehensive Guide 

Downtown Sonora
Downtown Sonora

Relax at Amala Detox and Tea Lounge

Sonora’s Amala Detox and Tea Lounge is a must-visit for any tea lover. A unique concept, this part tea shop, part foot spa in downtown Sonora provides ionic foot soaks, herbal tea blends, and more.

Here you can grab a tea from their extensive tea menu and enjoy an ionic foot soak. The procedure uses free ions to relax and eliminate toxins from your body. The ionic foot bath is only $35 for a 30 min treatment.

Amala Detox and Tea Lounge
Amala Detox and Tea Lounge
Ionic Foot Soak at Amala Detox and Tea Lounge
Ionic Foot Soak at Amala Detox and Tea Lounge

Sample Hard Cider at Indigeny Reserve

If you love hard cider or want a unique Sonora, California experience, don’t miss a visit to Indigeny Reserve. This family-owned sustainable operation is set on a 160-acre apple orchard just 10 mins outside of Sonora that has become a popular hang-out spot for locals and visitors in the area. 

We arrived at Indigeny to find it buzzing with activity. Kids runnings around the orchard, families enjoying snacks and cider on the picnic tables, and no shortage of furry friends around. 

“Oh, yeah, that’s a typical day at the cidery,” told us Cassandra Hard, the Event Manager and our cider-tasting host. 

The property is popular for birthday parties, events, and other celebrations. There is disc golf on-site, biking trails and even food trucks on weekends from 12-5pm. Indigeny Reserve also organize lots of community events, like Easter Egg hunts or Halloween specials. The orchard and cidery are open year-round but become especially lively in the summer an fall with great weather and harvest. 

Hard cider tasting at Indigeny Reserve is a highlight. With 52 varieties of apples and some 30,000 trees, the cider is a true labour of love. The apples are organically farmed, hand-picked and processed on-site, with lots of sustainable practices in use to help minimize waste and reduce chemical use. 

Among 9 cider varieties, there is cider ranging from really dry to seriously sweet, with popular varieties.  Wild fermentation gives the cider a unique taste and unique blends add flavours like blackberry, pumpkin spice, and grapefruit. Don’t miss a chance also to sample their unique apple brandy. 

Indigeny Reserve, Sonora
Indigeny Reserve
Apple brandy at Indigeny Reserve
Apple brandy at Indigeny Reserve

Go Wine Tasting

Tuolumne County is home to a handful of wineries within driving distance of downtown Sonora. Inner Sanctum Cellars makes Sierra Foothills-inspired wines and offers wine tasting in a beautiful outdoor setting. 

Gianelli Vineyards is one of the oldest wineries in the region, having been in the business for nearly 90 years. The tasting room offers stunning views of the area.  

Wineries charge $5–$20 per person for wine tastings. Some vineyards provide complimentary sampling with a bottle purchase. 

Visit Columbia State Historic Park

Columbia State Historic Park offered the biggest surprise during our time in Sonora. We expected a boring museum-like park but found a living and breathing museum makes you feel like you’ve been teleported to the 19th century. This mid-19th-century gold rush village, situated just outside Sonora, has over 30 old buildings, shops, restaurants and traditional street signs.

Most businesses are actually in operation, so you can pop to do some souvenir shopping, or have a meal. Employees are dressed in 19th-century costumes and reenact the era to transport you back in time. It’s a great place to learn about the town’s history, pan for gold, and experience gold rush pioneer life.

Columbia State Historic Park features the historic Fallon House Theatre, which still produces live performances, and the Wells Fargo Express Office, which was the site of one of the major Wild West gold heists. The park has various museums and exhibits about gold rush-era residents.

Entrance to the Columbia State Historic Park is free, but some museums and exhibitions charge a nominal fee. You can self-explore the park or pay for a guided tour. To see the park’s historic buildings and exhibitions, allow at least a few hours. 

The park has various eateries and gift shops. Don’t miss Columbia Kate’s Teahouse for the best afternoon tea experience. You can sit in their outdoor garden, and people watch with a tea in hand. 

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Columbia State Historic Park map
Columbia Kate's Teahouse
Columbia Kate’s Teahouse

Hike the Westside Trail

When it comes time to get outside, we recommend an afternoon on the Westside Trail. This beautiful trail lies just 12 miles from Sonora and is suitable for skill levels. The 4.2 mile (  hike starts just off Buchanan Road and takes 2-3 hours to complete.

The trail is flat, easy and enjoyable. It’s more of a walk in a park than a hike with incredible views of the Middle Fork Tuolumne River. If you are hiking in the spring, as we did, you might get lucky with some beautiful wildflowers on the trail.  

Be mindful of the environment when hiking, and be sure to stay on the trails, especially during the wildflower season. Respect the environment around you, and be sure not to trample the beautiful flowers just for the sake of a few insta-worthy photos. 

The trail also features remnants of the Sierra Railway. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, this railway carried lumber, gold, and passengers through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. 

Bring plenty of water and snacks, and be sure to plan ahead for peak-season trailhead parking.

Hike in the Stanislaus National Forest

Stanislaus National Forest is a true gem of the region. The forest is home to 78 lakes, 800 miles of rivers and streams and more than 1,000 miles of trails. Campgrounds offer a chance to stay a while and fully immerse yourself in the environment. 

But if you are only able to pop in for a day trip, don’t fret. The breathtaking views and varied terrain attract hikers of all experience levels, with trails ranging from easy to difficult. 

Here are a couple of popular trails to consider. 

Pinecrest Lake Loop Walk: This 4-mile walk circles Pinecrest Lake from the marina. It’s an easy hike with gorgeous lake and mountain views. You can swim, paddleboard, or kayak on the lake as well.

Kennedy Meadows Trek: The Emigrant Wilderness is the setting for this 8-mile round-trip trek from Kennedy Meadows Resort. The Middle Fork Stanislaus River trail offers superb fishing. The moderate trail takes 4-5 hours.

Cherry Lake to Kibbie Ridge Trail: This 11-mile roundtrip trail climbs Kibbie Ridge from Cherry Lake. It’s a hard 2,800-foot climb. However, the peak vistas are stunning and worth the effort.

Stanislaus National Forest
Stanislaus National Forest

Take a Scenic Drive

The Sonora Pass Scenic Byway (along Highway 108) is a 50-mile highway through the Sierra Nevada mountains and is one of Sonora’s most scenic trips. The two-hour drive begins outside Sonora. This byway overlooks rocky mountains, granite summits, gorgeous lakes, and alpine meadows. The Sierra Nevada wilderness makes this drive extra special.

Go skiing or snowboarding at Dodge Ridge Ski Resort

Dodge Ridge Ski Resort in the Sierra Nevada Mountains is a popular winter resort near Sonora, California.  Dodge Ridge is open December–April (weather permitting). 

The resort encompasses 862 skiable acres and offers 67 runs ranging from beginner to Black Diamond, 12 lifts, and three high-speed quad chairs. The ski resort rents skis and snowboards and offers lessons for all ages. There is also snowshoeing cross-country skiing, and snowboarding.

Dodge Ridge’s family-friendly ambiance is what makes this resort a favourite in the area. The resort offers food and accommodation options ranging from cozy cabins and more modern units.

Hike in Hetch Hetchy Reservoir

Hetch Hetchy is a hidden gem of Yosemite National Park that not many visitors know about. Located in Tuolumne County, about 1.5 hours from Sonora, Hetch Hetchy sits at a relatively low elevation compared to other Yosemite Park attractions and thus has one of the longest hiking seasons. 

The reservoir itself was built in 1938, by the same engineers that constructed the Hoover Dam. Today, Hetch Hetchy plays an essential resource role in California. It provides over 65% of San Francisco’s drinking water and 2-3% of its power, generated through turbines. 

Hetch Hetchy is a great destination for a hike in Yosemite. It’s much quieter than the rest of the park but offers the same striking mountain views that you’d expect from Yosemite Valley. 

We came out to Hetch Hetchy with ECHO Adventure Cooperative, a worker-owned cooperative offering socially and environmentally sustainable guided adventures in Yosemite National Park and throughout the Sierra. A great company with a solid environmental mission! 

Together with our guide, Bryant, we set off on a moderately challenging Wapama Falls hike. The 5-mile (8km) hike followed the trail around the reservoir to the famous Wapama Falls. While the falls were the main attraction of the hike, we were just as taken aback by the views of Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River that opened up as we got closer to the waterfall. 

Along the way, Bryant shared a number of interesting facts about the reservoir, the trail and the vegetation on the trail. We saw bear scat along the trail but, unfortunately, didn’t see the bears that day. However, learned that the area is frequented by black bears. 

The hike to Wapama Falls was a perfect half day adventure for us, but a few other hikes are also available in the area. 

The 16-mile round trip trail to reach Smith Peak is a challenging ascend with 3,300 feet in elevation gain. It is the highest point on the Tuolumne side of the park and offers unparalleled views of the park.  

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Overlooking the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River from Hetch Hetchy
Overlooking the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River from Hetch Hetchy
Wapama Falls, the main attraction of our hike in Hetch Hetchy
Wapama Falls, the main attraction of our hike in Hetch Hetchy

READ NEXT: On Wapama Falls Trail in Hetch Hetchy Reservoir

Where to Eat & Drink: Best Restaurants in Sonora, CA

There are about 20 restaurants dotted around Sonora, offering a good mix of cuisine and setting. Many of the restaurants have sustainable practices, sourcing ingredients from local suppliers and keeping their menus seasonal. 

Since we only spent a few nights in Sonora, we didn’t get a chance to try them all. Here are the ones we did try. 

Sonora Armory was our favourite spot in town. This fun, lively restaurant gave us happy summer vibes with its spacious outdoor eating area. They have a good assortment of beers on tap and great pub cuisine. We had a delicious burger and wings, but it was their loaded nachos that stole the show. They have live music on weekends, making this a fun place to spend an afternoon. 

Delicious meal at The Armory in Sonora
Delicious meal at The Armory in Sonora

Emberz Wood-Fired Foodz is another great spot and a local’s favourite. They are famous for their wood-fired pizzas but offer a good menu with other options, including salads, sandwiches, and entrees. Don’t miss their oven-baken Emberz cheese and stuffed jalapenos. 

Our feast at Emberz in Sonora
Our feast at Emberz in Sonora

Standard Pour is a hip and popular gastropub less than 10 mins outside of Sonora town. They have a great selection of crowd favourites, like their fried brussel sprouts, loaded fries, and salads. The setting is casual, the servers are friendly and the overall atmosphere is great. 

Our meal at the The Standard Pour
Our meal at the The Standard Pour

Sugar Shack is a cute little bakery and cafe about 20 mins outside of Sonora, on Hwy 108. The spot is another local favourite, famous for its breakfast burritos, baked goods, and good coffee, and tea. Convenient spot to grab some lunch to go if you are looking for picnic to take on your hike. 

Where to Stay in Sonora

We split our time in Tuolumne County between an eco-friendly AirBnB and the beautiful Evergreen Lodge. If you are looking for a place to stay in Sonora itself, there are also a couple of hotels, but we found this adorable country house to be the perfect spot to rest after our days of exploration. 

Sonora Eco-Friendly Straw Bale House

The Sonora Eco-Friendly Straw Bale House is a unique and environmentally conscious vacation rental located just a few minutes drive from downtown Sonora. This charming house was built using sustainable materials like straw bales, clay plaster, and reclaimed wood. It’s powered by solar panels and designed to be energy-efficient, making it a perfect retreat for eco-conscious travelers, like us. 

The house has 3 bedrooms and one bathroom, making it suitable for up to 6 guests. The interior of the house is cozy and welcoming, with a fully equipped kitchen, a comfortable living room, and a dining area. We loved their fully loaded game cabinet – there was every game you could think of, plenty to keep you and the whole family entertained for hours. If only we were traveling with family to take advantage of this! 

The house is set in a peaceful surrounding, with frogs singing just outside of your door and deer roaming in the area. There is an outdoor patio and grill. The property also has a garden and fruit trees. A perfect spot to call home during our time in Sonora! 

Have you been to Tuolumne County? What other things to do in Sonora, CA would you add to this list? 


Disclaimer: We visited Sonora as guests of Visit Tuolumne County, but, as always, all opinions expressed in this article are our own. 

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