First Foray into the Foothills and Gold Country

On May 30-31, Gail and I visited our friends George and Read at their cabin in Miwok Village, which is a little bedroom suburb of Twain Harte on Highway 108 in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Even though we weren’t going to bring our tandem, we knew that we were going to drive past some Historical Landmarks. Thus, we decided that we would pick off a couple of the buggers while on the road.

The whole trip came up suddenly. We had asked George and Read if they wanted to take a bicycle ride with us in Livermore over the Memorial Day weekend and see some Landmarks. George said that they were going to their cabin and he invited us to come up and hang out. Since Gail had never been to the cabin, we grabbed Pella (our black lab), shoved some clothes in the back of Gail’s Honda Insight and balled the jack to the east through Castro Valley, Tracy, Escalon, Oakdale, Sonora, and up Highway 108 to their cabin. After we arrived, we hung out with George, Read and Hayden (their big Aussie mix), took a couple of nice walks, ate some good food (including one of Gail’s famous fruit crisps), drank some very nice local wines, and retold some pretty funny stories about George and Jim’s fabled backpacking trip to Denali, how Gail and I got engaged, and my exploits on the SF Randonneurs’ 600 km brevet.

As we were getting ready to head back home, George pointed out that there was a Historical Landmark just down Highway 108 from Miwok Village. I also consulted our official list of Historical Landmarks and identified a couple between the cabin and home. With list in hand (but without a map of any sort), we said our goodbyes and headed off to find these places.

George was right: there was an Historical Marker on the south side of Highway 108 in Sugar Pine. The marker for the Sonora-Mono Road (Historical Landmark #422) was in front of the fire station in town. After Gail made a couple of illegal U-turns and decided that it was best if we didn’t park directly in front of the fire station, we got out and walked over to the marker.

Jedediah Smith is reputed to have been the first white man to cross over or near Sonora Pass in 1827. A portion of the Sonora-Mono Road was built by Tuolumne County Water Company in 1852 and a toll gate, fine hotel, and stables were located near this spot in the 1850s. Surveyed to Bridgeport, Mono County in 1860, the road was completed in 1864, when a six-horse team took three weeks for the round trip between Sonora and Bridgeport.

The folks that established the Sonora-Mono Road must have wanted to get to Bridgeport pretty darn badly, since it is one hell of a climb over very steep mountains to get over the Sierra at this point. Tioga Pass (to the south in Yosemite National Park) is a much simpler passage than the road over Sonora Pass. Perhaps the developers of the road felt that they would make a killing on the tolls. If the Sonora-Mono Road is now Highway 108, which goes over the Sierra at Sonora Pass, then I think that the backers of the toll road enterprise didn’t do adequate market research prior to funding this effort, given the number of cars that actually go over Sonora Pass today. However, the drive is worth it, since the scenery is magnificent. Bring motion sickness remedies if winding roads get to you. There is also great hiking from trailheads on Highway 108. I participated in one such epic adventure with George, Ron, Read, Jim, and whole bunch of others back in 2003, where George, Ron, and I hiked from Leavitt Lake almost to the northern boundary of Yosemite and back. The documentary evidence is here.

We headed west on Highway 108 and ultimately pulled into the town of Sonora. This town is very cute, with lots of shops and excitement on the main drag. However, we were not looking for a bar or shopping: we wanted to find St. James Episcopal Church (Historical Landmark #139). At the end of the main road through town, we saw a church spire and, sure enough, that was the place. The seventh parish of the Protestant Episcopal Church in  California, St. James is the oldest Episcopal Church building in the state. The first services were held in the church on October 4, 1859, and it was consecrated by Rt. Rev. Wm. Ingraham Kip in 1870.

We weren’t the only people visiting the church: there were others snapping photos and poking around. Getting out of the car, we realized that the temperature was really coming up. However, the inside of the church was a refuge from the heat. Once inside, we were able to get a good view of the church’s great stained glass windows. From the outside, they weren’t very visible because of the wire mesh and chicken wire that was covering them to protect the windows from vandalism. Not surprisingly, the church had a bell tower. The surprising fact was that the rope from the church bell was hanging down in the stairwell to the choir loft. I suggested that the church fathers had left the rope there for the righteous to pull; Gail didn’t think that was such a good idea.

The church is a quick visit and has some nice buildings nearby. The “marker” is nothing but a metal sign, so don’t spend much time trying to find anything else…we tried and failed. Never the less, it was worth the stop.

After getting back on Highway 108, we visited historic Jamestown (Historical Landmark #431). As a kid, I used to get driven past Jamestown by my parents, Boy Scout leaders, and church chaperons as we headed to the mountains for snow play at Calaveras Big Trees State Park, skiing at Dodge Ridge, or backpacking in the Sierra. As I grew older, we never stopped here either, since we always had a more grand destination. Today was the day to see what this town was all about.

James Woods first discovered gold in Tuolumne County west of this town, on Woods Creek, shortly before the town was founded by Colonel George James on August 8, 1848. Large quantities of gold were recovered from the stream. The town became known as gateway to the Mother Lode and the southern mines.

The town itself was a smaller version of Sonora: a main street with a bunch of renovated old buildings, a fair number of tourists wandering around in a daze from the heat, and some locals trying to hawk antiques, ice cream, and other must-have items. Because of the holiday, the town was having stagecoach rides. We spent some time trying to find the marker but ultimately only found a plaque placed by E Clampus Vitus (which may well have been standing in as the locally-placed substitute for the “official” marker). We asked a grizzled local in cowpoke garb if he knew where we might find the marker but we must not have been very clear since he directed us to go back to Sonora. The town had some good coffee, ice cream, and looked like one could spend some time poking around in the antique shops if that sort of thing turned you on.

After a few missteps trying to get out of town, we finally got back on Highway 108 and headed toward Knights Ferry (Historical Landmark #347). On more than one occasion (in fact, once was when Nick and I were riding our bicycles down from the prior incarnation of George and Read’s cabin after a boys weekend of hiking, drinking, and general merriment with George, Jim, and Scow), I had stopped at these markers, which are located directly on Highway 108. Thus, this wasn’t my first visit to this Landmark. However, in order to be complete, we decided to check out not just the Historical Landmark but the town, too.

Once called Dentville, this picturesque mining center and trading post was founded in 1849. An early ferry carried Argonauts on their way to the southern mines. The rare wooden covered bridge, reportedly designed by U. S. Grant, brother-in-law of the Dent brothers, and the old flour mill were built there in 1854. The town served as the county seat from 1862 to 1872.

Turning off of Highway 108, you go past a restaurant/bar and a couple of other assorted businesses as you head down toward the Stanislaus River. At the river itself, there are various concessionaires that will rent you innertubes, kayaks, and other watercraft for use in the river. Crossing the bridge, you enter Knight’s Ferry proper, which has a couple of bars, a grocery, a restaurant, and a nice little park with yet another commemorative plaque, where you can get access to the river. Pella and I hiked down to the water and she jumped right in, swimming around with the boaters. It took some cajoling on my part to get her to come back out but finally she got bored of swimming and strolled over, only to shake off while standing next to me. Since it was hot, I didn’t even mind so much that I was now about as wet as the dog.

We didn’t see the wooden bridge but supposedly it is there and is 330 feet long (which makes it the longest covered wooden bridge west of the Mississippi). We will have to see that next time. However, in the past I have eaten at the restaurant/bar near Highway 108 and the food was certainly OK. The town itself isn’t as quaint as Jamestown or Sonora. However, one can see the importance of this place, since it is a logical place for a crossing of the Stanislaus River. Also, it looked like folks were having a good time in the watercraft on the river, which was pretty calm in this stretch. This is a good place to stop on the way to or from other foothill spots.

It was getting late, Gail wanted to get on the road, and I was pretty beat from the festivities with George and Read, so we herded Pella into the back of the car, hopped in, and headed back to Richmond. There are a TON of other Historical Landmarks in this area, so we will certainly be back again.

If you want to see more photos from this adventure, click here.

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