Based on the popularity of the "road guides" to the Ebbetts and Carson passes that I wrote earlier this summer, here's a guide to another great route -- Sonora Pass. If you're looking for something to do over Labor Day Weekend, Highway 108 over 9,624-foot Sonora Pass is a great choice. It's also a gateway to stunning fall colors in late October.
Roughly following an ancient route used by Native Americans and later by pioneers, Highway 108 begins in Modesto and ends at U.S. 395 on the eastern slope of the Sierra. The drive is one of my favorite roads in the state and there are plenty of interesting places to stop along the way. For an extended trip you can easily return over another Sierra pass. If you're interested in the history of the area, pick up a copy of The Great Highway 108 Audio Motor Car Tour, a $10 audio CD produced by the Three Forests Interpretive Association, at any Stanislaus National Forest ranger station.
Railtown 1897 State Historic Park
Located in Jamestown, Railtown offers rides through the foothills on trains pulled by historic steam locomotives. You can also tour the historic roundhouse. Special events are offered throughout the year (www.railtown1897.org/209-984-3853).
Washington Street, Sonora's "Main Street," is one of the best preserved historic business districts in the Mother Lode. It's a fun place to explore, have a meal, and spend the night. The Tuolumne County Museum on Bradford Street has a great collection of Gold Rush history.
Columbia State Historic Park
Sonora's northern Gold Rush neighbor is a both a state park and a living town. The old downtown area is closed to vehicles and the buildings are occupied by historically-themed stores, restaurants and hotels. This is a great family destination with stagecoach rides, docent-led tours, theatrical productions and frequent special events (parks.ca.gov/?page_id=552/209-588-9128).
Another popular family destination, the lake offers meals, supplies, lodging, camping and cabin rentals (pinecrestlakeresort.com/
209-965-3411). Outdoor movies are offered on summer evenings. The lake is open to fishing, boating and swimming. A wide range of watercraft can be rented. A 4-mile paved trail rings the lake and makes for an enjoyable walk. Horseback riding is available at nearby Aspen Meadow Pack Station (aspenmeadowpackstation.com/209-965-3402).
Downhill skiing at Dodge Ridge (www.dodgeridge.com/209-965-3474), the SnoPark east of Strawberry (ohv.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=1233), the downhill tubing park at Leland Snowplay (snowplay.com/cms/209-965-4719) and ice skating at Long Barn Lodge (www.longbarn.com/209-586-3533) provide great wintertime recreation. Snowshoes and cross-country skis can be rented at Dodge Ridge. Highway 108 closes a few miles beyond Strawberry after the first major snowfall.
Trail of the Gargoyles
This is a great little hike to see oddly shaped volcanic formations that hang off the edge of a cliff like the gargoyles on a medieval cathedral. You can hike up to 3 miles if you explore both of the directions on the trail. Be especially careful with children due to the steep drop-off. The trailhead is located at a left turn on Herring Creek Road, 6.7 miles from Highway 108.
Stop here for a very short walk to a grand view of the surrounding mountains and Donnell Lake.
The dead-end road along the Clark Fork of the Stanislaus River offers campgrounds, fishing and trails for hiking and horseback riding. The 8-mile round trip hike to Boulder Lake is a good choice for a challenging hike.
Columns of the Giants
This easy, paved, completely flat half-mile trail leads to the base of a cliff where columnar granite formations have broken away creating a massive pile of broken pillars, much like Devils Postpile National Monument. Look for the parking area between Dardanelle and the Pigeon Flat Campground.
This is by far my favorite summer resort in the upper elevations of the Sierra. The lodge offers supplies, hot meals, rustic cabins and horseback trips into the Emigrant Wilderness. Nearby campgrounds and fishing along the Middle Fork of the Stanislaus are also popular (www.kennedymeadows.com/209-965-3900).
The road gets narrower, steeper and windier beyond the Kennedy Meadows turnoff. There's a viewpoint at the pass, but some of the turnouts before and after are just as impressive.
Three miles below the summit, the 5-mile road to Leavitt Lake is a great way to see a beautiful lake and some alpine scenery if you have four-wheel drive and high clearance. ... Six miles below the summit, stop to see a pretty waterfall; best in late spring or early summer.
The campground is a great basecamp for short hikes to nearby lakes and excellent fishing. Leavitt Meadows Pack Station offers trips into the adjacent Hoover Wilderness (www.leavittmeadows.com/530-495-2196).
Over 15 campgrounds are available along the route and dispersed camping is allowed in most areas. Some sites can be reserved at www.recreation.gov. A variety of lodging options can be explored by going to www.sonorapassvacations.com. For additional information about the route, check out the annual Stanislaus National Forest visitor guide: www.3forestsus/stanislaustraveler_2012.pdf.
Adam Blauert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.