Why You Need To Visit Sonora This Holiday Season

One of my favorite regions to explore is my backyard of Northern California. As a San Francisco native, I’ve been lucky to have an endless amount of natural beauty and charming towns full of character to explore, all within a few hours of home. Located just two and a half hours from San Francisco is Sonora — a true Northern California gem that offers history, small town hospitality and a lot of Christmas spirit during the holidays.

The historic town of Sonora is known as the “Queen of the Southern Mines”. Located in Tuolumne County (pronounced “to-all-o-me”), this Gold Rush town is nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada and is conveniently located about an hour away from Yosemite National Park, as well as, Stanislaus National Forest. Named after the miners from Sonora Mexico who settled in the city in 1848, Sonora is a quaint town that has successfully managed to continue to evolve into a worthwhile destination, while maintaining its historic charm.

For those on a California road trip adventure, Sonora is a great pit stop, but an even better overnight destination thanks to its scenery, natural vistas, restaurants and bars, and unique places rooted in Gold Rush history.

Map of NorCal.

Sonora transforms in to a fully decorated Christmas Town once Thanksgiving is over, making it festive getaway from the city. Events kicked off on November 23rd with the inaugural lighting ceremony of Downtown Sonora, followed by the 39th Annual Historic Christmas Parade which was filled with over-the-top, illuminated Christmas floats. Throughout the holidays, there are countless events going on including Christmas Bazaars, Holiday Craft Fairs, Holly Jolly Wagon rides and more.

Mr. and Mrs Claus are around town for Christmas photo ops and gift requests, while Christmas music concerts and carolers bring all the fa-la-la-la and Christmas music to town. Moreover, there are 10 Christmassy spots worth checking out, each within walking distance of one another. My favorites were the Christmas Tree Lane & Santa’s Courthouse and the stunning St. James Episcopal Church (more on that below!). Moreover, nearly every shop and business on their main strip of Washington Street has a beautifully decorated store front, most of which are competing in the Downtown Sonora Holiday Window Display Contest.

For the full Sonora Christmas Town schedule, click here.

Nearby Sonora are other gems that are worth stopping by that include the mountain town of Twain Harte; Jamestown, home to the lovely 1859 Historic National Hotel and one-of-a-kind Railtown 1897 State Historic Park; and Columbia, which has the Columbia State Historic Park.

There’s lot to see and do in Sonora and the greater Tuolumne County and with that here’s my full three day itinerary.

Located just two and a half hours from San Francisco is Sonora — a true Northern California gem that offers history, small town hospitality and a lot of Christmas spirit during the holidays.

Where To Stay In Sonora

For a modern, clean hotel that’s right in the heart of Sonora, check in to Hotel Lumberjack. Inspired by lumberjack culture, each room features rustic, wood accents and charming, hand drawn illustrations. Each room also has amenities that include a small fridge, coffeemaker, and microwave. In addition, complimentary breakfast is included. It’s the sister property of next door The Sonora Inn, which means that during the warmer seasons guest also have access to their pool.

Hotel Lumberjack
128 S. Green St. Sonora, Ca 95370

Play

Christmas Town Sonora

Strolling through Washington Street during Christmas season is a magical experience because the entire town looks like a hallmark card. Some of my favorite spots out of the 10 designated Christmas stops in town included:

  • Winter Wonderland at Coffill Park where you’ll find twinkle fairy lights, decorated light poles, hanging snowflakes and “Elfie Stations”.
  • Christmas Tree Lane at Court House Park which has over 40 little Christmas trees decorated by various non-profits and scout troops.
  • St. James Episcopal Church which is a beautiful, red church that has a massive decorated tree in front of it. The church and tree are fully lit up in Christmas lights at night.
  • A Giving Tree located at WildBud Floral Company which is a Christmas tree decorated with  for generous people to select and donate gifts to those in need.

Main Street is filled with boutiques, clothing stores, home goods and crafts shops, countless places to eat and drink, museums, toy shops and so much more. Moreover, each store is also all decked out in Christmas! And if you’re in to antiquing, there are three antique shops that are overflowing with treasures from the past. From plates and jadeite to glassware and vintage clothing, we spent hours perusing through each!

If time allows, take a walk at Dragoon Gulch Trail, which offers guests 3.1 miles of natural trails. The trails follow a seasonal creek to vistas that make way to beautiful views of the city and its surrounding mountain ranges.

Railtown 1897 State Historic Park

Head to Railtown 1897 State Historic Park in Jamestown for an afternoon full of living history. You’ll have the chance to see vintage steam trains, a working roundhouse, and the timeless Sierra Railway Shops, a designated California Historical Landmark. Above all, it’s home to The Sierra Railway, the most intact steam railroads in the United States. For history buffs and those that appreciate trains, this is a must. Take a guided tour and by the end of it you’ll know more about trains then you ever imagined! Also, shout out to our guide, Austin, for making our trip here memorable and informative.

This year (2022) marks 125 years of the Sierra Railway Company of California and the 100th birthday for the historic steam locomotive Sierra No. 28, a Baldwin locomotive built in 1922 that has also been featured in several films and television shows that include Little House on the Prairie and Bound for Glory.

In addition to No. 28, there are several other impressive locomotives. No. 34 is the only surviving Sierra locomotive to have never been in service on another railroad. Furthermore, in house is the famous Sierra No. 3, “Movie Star Locomotive,” which has appeared in more motion pictures, documentaries, and television productions than any other locomotive. It even provided the sounds for The Polar Express movie!

Railtown 1897 State Historic Park
10501 Reservoir Rd. Jamestown, CA 95327

Columbia State Historic Park

Travel back in time with a visit to Columbia State Historic Park, a living Gold Rush town featuring the largest single collection of existing gold rush-era structures in the state. If you grew up in the Northern California, chances are you took a school field trip to a gold rush town — this is just like that place you remember. To emphasize, walking through this nineteenth century mining town is an experience.

From saying howdy to merchants dressed in 1850’s attire to smelling the coal smoke from the blacksmith shop to take a ride of a rolling stagecoach, you can spend the whole day exploring this special place, learning about the history of the Gold Rush.

The streets are lined with fun shops to check out. Every store specializes in something different whether it be the Columbia Mercantile 1855 with its wide variety of home and kitchen goods or the Seven Sisters Soap & Candle Co. with its handmade soaps and candles. For example, you can find vintage clothing and hats to saddles and western wear to old school candy shops and saloon — time will fly! Be sure to pop in to the saloon for house-made sarsaparilla and grab yourself some hand crafted fudge at the candy shoppe or an ice cream cone from the parlor when your sweet tooth kicks in. Don’t pass up the gold panning either — it’s just as fun as I remembered!

For comfort food, stop by Columbia Kate’s Teahouse. Their freshly baked chicken pot pies and savory hand pies are incredible, meanwhile, the baked goodies (get the cinnamon roll!) are to die for! Make sure to get them heated up if they aren’t still hot from the oven!

Columbia State Historic Park
22708 Broadway St, Columbia, CA 95310

Eat & Drink

Emberz

For a casual dinner, take a seat at Emberz, a restaurant specializing in wood fired food. They have a friendly staff, tasty food and it’s less than a two minute walk for Hotel Lumberjack. The menu offers a selection of wood fired pizzas that include specials like the Fallen Apple with apples, gorgonzola cheese and prosciutto and a selection of hearty entrees like their signature 22 ounce tomahawk, bone-in ribeye, the “Remember When” roasted chicken and the indulgent lobster mac and cheese.

Emberz, a restaurant specializing in wood fired food.

The menu is quite extensive, featuring a variety of burgers and sandwiches like the prime rib Philly cheese steak and the Southern fried chicken sandwich. Furthermore, shareable plates include a gourmet cheese and charcuterie board and house-made fondue — a must if you’re a cheese lover. Also a signature is their seared sesame crusted ahi salad with a ginger soy dressing.

Emberz
177 S Washington St Sonora, Ca 95370

The Thirsty Prospector

This is the second oldest building in Sonora, circa 1850. This unique place was once many things, including a mercantile, oyster bar and bank. Today, The Thirsty Prospector is a family-friendly and family-owned pub and book shop. As you first walk into the building, you’re welcomed by a mahogany bar serving beer on tap and ice cream by the scoop. Then downstairs and you’ll find a basement filled with countless books and cozy reading nooks. Lastly, if you pay attention, you’ll find old tunnels that run under Washington Street in which miners used to use to sneak gold in to the bank.

The Thirsty Prospector
131 South Washington Street, Sonora, Ca 95370

The Eproson House

Though Eproson is a 20 minute drive over to Twain Harte, it’s worth it for a fine dining, all-American experience. This elevated steak house has been around since 1973 and has all the decor and holiday cheer you could hope for in a town like this. Start off with a few shareable plates that range from seafood dishes like the steamed clams in a white wine garlic broth or the panko and beer battered calamari strips or fun cheesy appetizers like the loaded potato skins or the Eppy Poppers with chorizo and cheese wrapped in bacon. Then, try one of their salads and soups that include classics like the French onion soup to classics with a twist like the Eproson caesar, a caesar salad with sun-dried tomato, kalamata olives, pine nut tossed in a pesto caesar dressing. You can’t go wrong.

Eproson has a variety of choices for their entrees — all hearty and all delcious. We dined on a Friday so I opted for the prime rib with mashed potatoes which was satisfying. They also feature a lobster dinner, filet mignon and chicken and seafood pasta dishes. Some examples include the grilled salmon parmesan risotto, shrimp puttanesca and a classic chicken piccata. Check out the menu before you get there — it’s extensive! And be sure to get the desserts — the berry cobbler a la mode was phenomenal!

Eproson House
22930 Twain Harte Dr, Twain Harte, CA 95383

Indigeny Reserve

For refreshing ciders, stop by Indigeny Reserve, a lush 160 acre preserve and apple orchard set in the hills of Sonora. Guests can stop in and enjoy a cider tasting at the bar. There are a number of hard ciders are on tap. Some of my favorite hard ciders included the Cranberry Cider and Blackberry Cider, but their classic varieties were also amazing. In addition, they make their own orange and lemoncello and apple brandy. make these vivacious beverages with the 52 varieties of apples they grow, and they have no added sugar or preservatives. Be sure to grab a few bottles to sip on with your packed lunch in their picnic area surrounded by apple trees.

Indigeny Reserve
14679 Summers Ln, Sonora, CA 95370

1859 Historic National Hotel

This historic hotel is an absolute gem! It’s one of the one of the oldest continuously operated hotels in California — since 1859. Specifically, it has survived two fires and several prohibition raids and even has a gold mine shaft in the courtyard. Though we didn’t stay here, the dining experience is memorable. For example, the entire property and dining space is covered in Christmas decor and it couldn’t be any cozier inside.

For Sunday brunch, the omelettes are some of the best I’ve had — fluffy eggs with perfectly cooked ingredients to fill them. They have a selection of egg dishes ranging from eggs Benedict to huevos rancheros. And don’t sleep on the freshly baked scones — they make all their breads in house. Next to the restaurant is their historic saloon which features an original 19th Century redwood bar and a full menu of award winning wines and cocktails. If you can, take a tour of this historic property and be sure to ask about the resident ghost.

1859 Historic National Hotel
18183 Main St, Jamestown, CA 95327

Day One

Depart San Francisco

Make a pit stop at Manteca’s Ramos Country Corner

Arrive in Sonora

Check-in to Lumberjack Hotel

Drive to Twain Hart (20 minute drive)

Twain Harte Miniature Golf (depending on timing) or shop on Main Street

Dinner and drinks at Eproson House

Day Two

Breakfast at Sonora Inn (or Bagel Bin or Mandy’s Breakfast House)

Drive to Columbia State Historic Park (10 minute drive)

Exploring and shopping in Columbia State Historic Park

Grab lunch a Columbia Kate’s Teahouse

Drive to Indigeny Reserve with lunch (25 minute drive)

Exploring and shopping at Christmas Town Sonora

Dinner at Emberz

Day Three

Check out from Hotel Lumberjack

Get coffees and and walk the Dragoon Gulch Trail

Brunch at 1859 Historic National Hotel (10 minute drive)

Explore Railtown 1897 State Historic Park in Jamestown

Optional activities:

The Christmas Foundling

Sierra Repertory Theatre, Fallon House Theatre, Columbia
11175 Washington Street, Columbia, CA 95310

Lamplight Tour at Columbia State Historic Park

Starts at 5:30 and is every fifteen minutes
Columbia State Historic Park, CA 95310

Elf the Musical

Sierra Repertory Theatre, East Sonora Theatre
13891 Mono Way, Sonora, CA 95370

Drive back to San Francisco

Pin this for the next time you’re looking for a Northern California getaway!

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Chelsea is a bicoastal freelance journalist whose passion revolves around exploring the world, immersing herself in foreign cultures, and of course, eating and drinking everything delicious.

Her work can be found in TravelPulse, Forbes, This Is Insider, Fox Lifestyle and more. She covers all things food, drink and travel and is always up for an adventure, whether that means an adrenaline-pumping excursion or trying a new cuisine.

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