Sonora was originally founded as a gold mining camp by white settlers from back east. Gold had been discovered in Woods Creek, initially in the summer of 1848 near what is now Jamestown. The name Sonora was derived from the Mexican workers the whites employed at slave-like wages to work their mines.
The City of Sonora was incorporated in 1851 by whites, not Mexicans, primarily as a means of creating a badly-needed hospital. Many miners were sick, and dying, mainly from scurvy, mainly white miners who never learnt the importance of fresh vegetables and fruits in their diets. Sonora became the business center (and county seat of Tuolumne County) for the mines around the county and, indeed, for the entire Southern Mines region south of Placerville. When the placer mines began to give out in the 1860s, Sonora survived in part because it had become a business center. It also had what were known as "pocket" mines--underground deposits of highly concentrated gold. Such pocket mines are distinguished from ordinary quartz mines, in which the gold is much less concentrated and requires much work and technology to mine, and which were not profitable until the 1880s when better mining technology had been developed.
Sonora is just off Highway 108, which leads from Modesto northeast and goes over Sonora Pass to the desert east of the mountains. Part of the way from Oakdale Highway 108 shares the same road as Highway 120, the route to Yosemite. To get to downtown Sonora, take the Route 49 exit (Stockton Street) from Highway 108 about two miles to the downtown area. Visitor information is available from the Visitors Bureau building, also on Stockton Street, about a mile south of downtown.
The downtown area can be walked around. Park either on the main downtown street, Washington Street, or on the street or in nearby parking lots that are on Stewart Street, one block east of Washington Street. There is a business area in East Sonora, a couple of miles east of downtown, that has additional shopping and restaurants (including the only chain stores and restaurants and fast food places in Tuolumne County).
The county Courthouse, built in 1898 with yellow Roman pressed brick, and still in operation as a courthouse today. The courthouse is on Yaney Street and a block west of Washington Street in the north part of downtown. The Red Church, originally built in 1860 and still in use, which can be seen from most of downtown Washington Street as a landmark at the north end of town. The Opera House, built in the late 19th century of brick.
Visit the Tuolumne County Historical Museum, on Bradford Street a few blocks west of downtown.
Ski at Dodge Ridge (down hill or cross country) 40 minutes east on highway 108.
Swim at any of the many local lakes and rivers, including Pine Crest Lake and the Tuolumne and Stanislaus rivers.
Go winetasting at Mt. Brow vineyard, between Jamestown and Sonora.
Shop at a number of stores, particularly antique stores, along Washington Street.
Eat at a number of restaurants in the downtown area. Mexican restaurants, not surprisingly given the town's history, are particularly common. The Old Stan on South Washington street, right near the center of town, serves excellent tappas style fair, including excellent salads, vegetarian and meat dishes. The also serve several local wines, and their own sangria.
Several bars and taverns are in the downtown area.
Visitors can continue on Highway 108 to the mountain areas, including such towns as Twain Harte, Mi-Wuk Village, Pinecrest. In summer, they can continue on Highway 108 to Kennedy Meadow and across Sonora Pass to the high desert beyond. In winter, Highway 108 is closed at a point 7.5 miles beyond Strawberry, which is just past Pinecrest on Highway 108. Visitors can go north or south on the Gold Country route 49, north to Angels Camp, Murphys (a little east of 49 on Highway 49), Jackson, and Placerville, or south to Coulterville and Mariposa.