Things to do in Sonora, California – Found: Hidden Gem

Perhaps the greatest privilege of being a slow traveling cat is the ability to spend time in lesser known travel destinations. As a cat I like to do the exact opposite of what people expect, which includes getting off the beaten path! Exploring the lovely town of Sonora, California alongside my favorite human has been one of my greatest travel experiences on the west coast. One of a few gateways to Yosemite National Park, Sonora is the perfect place to learn about California’s rich history, explore nature and truly experience life in a small mountain town. In order to plan your perfect trip, I am excited to share our carefully curated list of the best things to do in Sonora, California.

This article covers the following things to do in Sonora, California.

Visit Columbia State Historic Park

Things to do in Sonora California - Columbia Historic Park
Columbia Historic State Park

About 4 miles north of Sonora, you’ll find Columbia State Historic Park. This free attraction focuses on life in the United States in the 1850s. Upon entry to the park, take time to browse the main road. Here you’ll find many of the town’s original buildings. In addition to learning about life during the California gold rush era, you’ll also find plenty of fun ways to interact with the town itself.

For example, you can make your own candle, dress up for an old-timey photograph or take a stagecoach ride around the property. Finally, make sure to check out the hiking trails behind the main road. This dramatic landscape is a prime example of the unique flora of the Sierra Nevadas. 

Experience Railtown 1897

Only 6 miles south of the city of Sonora, you’ll find another popular place, the historic state park of Railtown 1897. Here, you can explore vintage trains, learn about the historic Sierra Railroad, and browse local shops.

Moreover, for $15 per adult, you can enjoy a 45-minute ride in a steam or diesel-powered train. In addition to the activities the park has to offer, the surrounding area presents the perfect ambiance for an afternoon picnic. Come get a taste of what gold country was like in the late 19th century.  

Explore Moaning Caverns Adventure Park

Moaning Caverns Adventure Park offers two cave tours – one for 45 minutes ($22) and one for 3+ hours ($110). This cave was discovered by miners in the 1840s, however, artifacts have been found that date back thousands of years. In the visitor center, you’ll find a necklace that is 8000 years old!

In addition to the cave tours, there are several above-ground activities, offering a good time for the entire family. Make sure to leave time for panning for gemstones, ax throwing, and browsing unique shops. Just 20 minutes north of Sonora, Moaning Caverns is a certainly great place for an afternoon adventure.

Hike Dragoon Gulch trail (best place to exercise: things to do in Sonora California)

You don’t have to be a hiking enthusiast to enjoy the best-known trail in the area, Dragoon Gulch. This trail is easily accessible from the western side of Sonora. The area features 3.1 miles of trail, making for a lovely stroll through the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas.

Enjoy a drink at Indigeny Reserve (best place to relax: things to do in Sonora California)

Indigeny Reserve Cider Distillery in Sonora California
Indigeny Reserve Cider Distillery in Sonora California

My personal favorite experience in Sonora is Indigeny Reserve, the area’s premier cider distillery. Located minutes away from downtown, Indigeny feels like a countryside getaway from the 1950s.

The distillery and tasting room are located on a 160-acre ranch. The picturesque property is filled with organic apple orchards, from which the cider is made. In addition to the rustic tasting room, you’ll find a lovely outdoor patio.

To accompany your picnic, you can purchase a bottle of freshly made cider or enjoy drinks by the glass. Not sure which one you want? Try them all for a tasting fee of $5.

Stroll through historic downtown Sonora 

During your stay in this lovely town, make sure to stop at historic downtown Sonora. You can park anywhere on Washington Street to enjoy a stroll through town. Here you’ll find an eclectic mix of quaint antique shops, movie theaters, live music, and some of the most unique thrift stores I have ever seen. 

Keep an eye out for historic buildings like the town’s opera house, built in 1885, the courthouse, which was built in 1898 and Sugg House built in 1857. Sugg House landed on the national historical register in 2003. Built by William Sugg in 1857, the property was occupied by the Sugg family for 125 years.

Take a day trip to Yosemite National Park

By far the most popular attractions near Sonora, Yosemite National Park is definitely worth visiting. The Big Oak Flat entrance gate is about an hour and 15 minute’s drive away. This is the most northwestern entrance to the park and provides easy access to all this park has to officer. Best known for its giant granite monoliths like Half Dome and El Capitan, this park also features natural wonders like stunning waterfalls and old growth sequoia forests. You could easily spend an entire day explore the scenic drives and taking short hikes. 

Landscape surrounding Sonora California
Landscape surrounding Sonora, California

For the more adventurous traveler, Yosemite is best known for the hike to Half Dome (14-16 miles, roundtrip) and rock climbing on El Capitan. Once you are done exploring for the day, you’ll find plenty of gorgeous campgrounds in the park. You can also simply make the drive back to Sonora for the night.

Support community theater (best place to give back: things to do in Sonora California)

As a small town with approximately 5000 residents, Sonora has an outsized love of the the theater. Home to the Sierra Repertory Theatre group, Sonora hosts high quality performances at the East Sonora Theatre and the Historic Fallon House Theatre in Columbia State Historic Park. The Sierra Repertory Theatre group, referred to as Sierra Rep for short was founded nearly 30 years ago by a group of students from the University of the Pacific.

Despite being based in a small town, Sierra Rep is an extremely active program. In 2023 the group will feature 8 main productions, alongside student productions and other events. Having won awards from the the California Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts, the quality of performance is particularly high for this community theater, which typically flys under the radar.

Make a bet at the casino

Located approximately 10 miles to the west of Sonora, Black Oak Casino is a great way to spend an evening. Whether you like to play the slot machines, try your hand at video poker or engage in the table games, Black Oak Casino offers a low key, smoke-free gambling environment for everyone. Aside from the traditional games, you can also fine 3 restaurants, several bars and small, 250 seat theater called the Willow Creek Lounge

Aside from hosting musical performances from national and local bands, you can also catch the occasional comedy show. The best thing about Willow Creek Lounge, however is that all of the shows are free!

Discover local art

One of the things that makes Sonora so charming is its focus on the local arts. Running for over 9 years now, the 2nd Saturday Art Night is a program where venues across the historic downtown area host art, live music and performances from 5-8pm. During this time locals and tourists converge downtown to experience art and community against the stunning backdrop of the Sierra foothills.

Enjoy a summer concert

Surrounding area of Sonora California
A country road outside of Sonora California

As the art shows start close on the 2nd Saturday of the summer months, the town is treated to various outdoor concerts at Coffill Park. Perhaps one of the most unexpected venues in downtown, Coffill Park is located on Washington Street in between two storefronts. Just take the staircase down one level and you will suddenly be surrounded by nature.

Starting at 8pm, the free concerts at Coffill are family friendly and lend themselves to lawn chairs and a picnic. If you are in town during this special event, make sure to stop by and enjoy the long summer nights like a local.

Explore the museums downtown

Just simply being in Sonora will immerse you in the history of the area. However, for the real history buffs, there are a few museums to visit. The Veterans Memorial Hall features military memorabilia and is staffed by knowledgeable volunteers. With free admission, this is a great place to stop and learn a little bit about the town’s residents’ contributions to military service. 

The other main museum to visit is the Tuolumne County Museum. Located just a few blocks off of Washington Street, this museum tells the story of the American West. Complete with exhibits on gold mining and life on the frontier, the accompanying history collection boats over 35000 photos as well as plenty of vintage clothing and household items. Admission to the Tuolumne County Museum is also free.

Play a round of golf

For golf enthusiasts, one of the most picturesque courses in the area is located about 5 miles south of Sonora. The Teleli Golf Club (formally known as the Mountain Springs Golf Club) is by far one of the best places to practice your swing amongst the Sierra Nevada foothills. Complete with an 18-hole course, restaurant, bar, driving range and putting greens, the Teleli Golf Club is a great place to spend an afternoon for golfers of all abilities. 

Shop at the Farmer’s Market

Organic apple orchard in Sonora California
Organic apple orchard in Sonora California

Running during the summer months, the Sonora Certified Farmers Market is a great place to connect with the community. Open every Saturday from 7:30am to 11:30am, you’ll find certified vendors for a variety of fresh produce, as well as unique food vendors and products from local makers and artists.

Don’t miss this opportunities to connect with local farmers, eat delicious food and enjoy the summer weather. 

Conclusion on things to do in Sonora California 

While Sonora is a small town, it has definitely earned its place on the list of must-see tourist destinations on the west coast. This little gem has carefully preserved the history around the California Gold Rush, arguably an event that helped define western today. 

Aside from exploring the history of the frontier, Sonora is also a great place to relax. While the picturesque landscape is enough to put most at ease, you should not let it deter you from enjoying fresh cider at Indigeny Reserve among the organic apple orchards. The area also offers plenty of hiking for those with energy to burn.

Finally, connecting with the locals and really experiencing the pace of life in a small mountain town is one of the best reasons to visit Sonora. Take time to chat with the shop owners and ask questions to the museum volunteers. With so many things to do in Sonora California, you may have just discovered one of the best-kept secrets of Northern California!

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