Sonora is a launching point for the great outdoors: Yosemite National Park and the Sierra are nearby. But a developing downtown is making this town (population about 5,000) in the foothills of Tuolumne County a destination. Miners from Sonora, Mexico, settled the town 170 years ago. It was incorporated in 1851, making it one of the oldest in California. Sonora's Old West charm remains, but its historic buildings now house art galleries and antique stores, a taproom and a tea lounge. A farmers market runs Saturday mornings May 19 through Oct. 20, and the downtown shops stay open late to host live music and art exhibits on the second Saturday of each month. The tab: A room with two queen beds at Black Oak Casino Resort's hotel cost $164 a night, lunch at Yoshoku was $45 and a bottle of organic hard cider at Indigeny Reserve was $12.
There are several downtown hotels such as the Sonora Inn and Gunn House, from which guests can easily walk to restaurants and shops. For those wanting to explore the surrounding area, another option is heading about 10 miles east to the town of Tuolumne and staying at the Hotel at Black Oak Casino Resort. The 148-room hotel features a large swimming pool and complimentary valet parking, among other amenities. The casino next door has a bowling alley, arcade and restaurants on its Family Fun Floor.
New restaurants, coffee shops and other businesses have opened recently in downtown Sonora. Among those is a ramen noodle bar called Yoshoku. The restaurant is small, so tables fill quickly. For my meal, I ordered a colorful rice bowl that included tofu, avocado, shredded carrots, edamame and seaweed salad. My wife, Amber, enjoyed her ramen noodles in black garlic oil with pickled ginger and bamboo shoots. For $12, Yoshoku offers a "Spicy Ramen Challenge" in which participants attempt to complete an entire bowl of spicy ramen within 30 minutes. (They must sign a waiver.) Those who are successful win a gift certificate — and get their photo on the wall.
Indigeny Reserve, a short drive from downtown Sonora, reminded me of a winery as we approached. Instead of growing grapes to make wine, however, Indigeny uses apples to produce hand-crafted hard cider. This 160-acre preserve includes an artisan ciderworks and distillery. I sampled blackberry cider and apple brandy at the tasting bar before heading to the picnic grounds surrounded by sprawling apple orchards. There are whimsical outdoor musical instruments for children (and adults) to play and even self-guided walking trails. A highlight of our visit was a spontaneous adventure with my 11-year-old daughter, Ediza, to find an old mine on the property.
THE LESSON LEARNED
Sonora loves to put on a parade, and the city has two main processions every year. The Mother Lode Roundup Parade is May 12 (Mother's Day weekend); the night after Thanksgiving is a Christmas parade (Nov. 23). Both are worth a trip.
Hotel at Black Oak Casino Resort, 19400 Tuolumne Road North, Tuolumne; (877) 747-8777. Wheelchair-accessible rooms.
Yoshoku, 110 S. Washington St., Sonora; (209) 536-4396. Partly wheelchair accessible.