Sonora Pass (SR 108)
THE HIGH COUNTRY WITH SOME EERIE MENACE
HIGHEST ELEVATION: 9,624 feet
CLOSED FOR WINTER: Yes
ALONG THE WAY: Jamestown, Sonora, Tuolumne City, Twain Harte, Strawberry, the Dardanelles, Kennedy Meadows
WHAT TO DO NEAR SONORA PASS
Some Favorites From Our Expeditions
Pay a visit to the Twain Harte Variety Store for all manner of necessities as well as classic dime store finds.
Get ready for a roller coaster when you hit the pass. This is a twisty route across the Sierra with lots of ups and downs.
Think of Grizzly Adams. He came through here.
Stop at the Donnell Vista to see a picturesque Sierra Reservoir and stubborn volcanic rock that withstood the glaciers.
Sonora Pass Grades: Adventures in Elevation Change
Of the major passes, the Sonora is the one that probably provides the closest modern version of the harrowing Sierra crossings made by early travelers.
Tioga Pass climbs to a higher elevation, but not by much — only 321 feet. And though it has a reputation as a dangerous road, it’s a breeze compared to the Sonora. On the Tioga, the curves are pretty gentle, the shoulders are wide and the grade tops out at 8% (and only for only a short time.)
It’s a different story on Sonora Pass. A good portion of the way, the road is rising (or falling) by at least 8%, and at one point, it pitches to a staggering 26%. Add in the many hairpin turns and it’s easy to see why wide, long and heavy vehicles are advised to stay away. It seems unfathomable that in the late 1800s there was a proposal for a railroad here.
The First Emigrant Trail — A Path Perhaps Better Left Untaken
The Sonora Pass was the first emigrant trail into California for those adventurous enough to act on the idea of Manifest Destiny. In 1841, the Bartleson-Bidwell Party managed a Sierra crossing here with a group of more than 30 people as well as the mules, horses and oxen they still had with them after abandoning their wagons in the Nevada desert.
It would be 11 years before anyone would attempt the feat with a wagon, but the Clark-Skidmore Party accomplished it in 1852. Based on their success and efforts by Tuolomne County citizens to promote the route, other wagon trains would follow over the Sonora Pass the next year. Expecting a path in far better condition than was actually the case, they encountered tremendous difficulty.
One who reported on the evidence was the real-life Grizzly Adams, who after coming through the Sonora Pass in 1854 noted that the path was littered with the remnants of broken wagons. (Adams’ cabin is reported to have been in Tuolomne County, and many of the bears he tamed were trapped in Yosemite.)
After the calamities of that season, it became apparent that this was a trans-Sierra route that was not yet sufficiently tamed for wagon travel, and it fell out of favor with settlers.
Things then remained quiet on the Sonora Pass until the Comstock Lode sparked mining interest east of the Sierra in Nevada. To connect Gold Country and the new boomtowns east of the mountains, work commenced on a toll road over the route. Deviating a bit from the emigrant trail, it established the route between Sonora and Bridgeport that Highway 108 follows today and was completed in 1865.
Breathtaking in More Ways Than One
The Sonora Pass can be a nerve-wracking drive, but it’s breathtaking for its beauty, too, meandering past meadows and lakes as it climbs toward the crest. There you can truly feel on top of the world as the mountaintops look more like hills.
The Donnell Vista 45 miles east of Sonora is one of the best places to make a stop. The view below is the canyon of the Middle Fork of the Stanislaus River, where water gathers in the Donnell Reservoir and then runs below steep granite walls resembling a mini El Capitan. Look upward to glimpse the Dardanelles, more of the Sierra’s volcanic legacy. Somehow resisting glacial erosion, its lava formations rise high above the trees and in contrast to the expanse of surrounding granite.
Gargoyles & a Column of Giants: More Volcanic Views
There are other volcanic features in the region as well, including Columns of the Giants, which sports the same hexagonal towers as the Devils Postpile near Mammoth, and the Gargoyles, a group of formations that resemble the winged beasts sitting in hunched perches over the Sierra. There are popular hiking trails to both. The one to Columns of the Giants starts by the Pigeon Flat Campground, and Trail of the Gargoyles sets off from Herring Creek Road.
What’s Screaming Out There?
A few different things have given us eerie impressions along the Sonora Pass. One that seems to have left lasting unease about the area was a discussion we had enroute to our first visit, when one of us brought up claims of some sort of screeching Sonora Monster on various climbing forums. The notion seems to have crept deeply into our heads. Not only did it make for a very restless sleep in a vacation rental at the edge of Stanislaus National Forest that night, but it somehow lingers in the back of our minds every time we’ve returned to the Sonora Pass since.
A stop in Strawberry reinforces the idea of monstrous presence in the area. The Strawberry General Store not only has a Bigfoot statue carved from wood outside its entrance, but has served as a sort of reporting center for sightings. (Several stories of Bigfoot’s ties to the Sonora can also be found online.)
A Tragic Tribute
But inarguable events have also given us an enduring bit of nervous tension along the Sonora. If you stop at the Donnell Vista, you’ll likely notice the bench situated back from the rails that guard the prime viewing areas. It’s a sad tribute, honoring a woman who went missing from the vista in 2005 after a shopping trip in Sonora. Taking the Sonora Pass home to Nevada, she disappeared without a trace, with her car left behind in the parking lot and her belongings locked inside.
The Reach of the Rim Fire
Another unsettling experience there came in early September 2013. On this visit, the surrounding view at 6,311 feet was choked with smoke from the Rim Fire, which had been raging for two weeks at the time. The image stands out as clear as the livestock we saw staggering through ashy ground and long black toothpicks that were once tall trees near Hetch Hetchy, the Hotshot and prison fire crews tramping through the pines outside Groveland, and the scores of handmade thank you signs put up along roads and outside buildings for the 5,000 firefighters who battled the blaze.
Many of those signs were along the Highway 108 corridor. By the time it was contained, the fire had a charred footprint stretching from south of the Tioga Pass to the Sonora, and as moved in that direction, fears rose about the threat to Tuolumne City and Twain Harte in particular. The large-scale effort to defend the communities included bulldozed fire lines and air-dropped fire retardant and water.
The Kennedy Meadows for Horse Folk, Not Backpackers
There are two Kennedy Meadows in the Sierra, and your familiarity probably depends on your interests.
The Kennedy Meadows in the Kern Plateau to the south is famous with hikers plodding along the Pacific Crest Trail, while the Kennedy Meadows along the Sonora is a destination for those who favor riding. Horses, specifically. The Kennedy Meadows Resort is considered a gateway to the Emigrant Wilderness. Operating under permit from the US Forest Service, it also has a pack station and offers camps to teach about mountain exploring with mules and horses. The area is also popular with those favoring other outdoor pursuits like fishing and less time-intensive hiking.
Tucked away off Highway 108 is a military training ground. It’s situated not far from where the Sonora Pass descends down to Highway 395 beyond Bridgeport. If you’re looking for a turnaround point around here, choose carefully so that you do not disturb personnel in camouflage engaging in various exercises.
The US Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center is one of its most isolated and remote spots and was established to provide cold-weather training to troops destined for the Korean War. Except for a period during the Vietnam War, it has been used as a training area ever since.
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