Oldest of the trans-Sierra emigrant trails to California is spectacular Sonora Pass crossed by Highway 108, second highest (9,626 ft.) of all the highway crossings of the range. It is lower by 321 ft. than Tioga Pass to the south, the pass that goes through Yosemite National Park.
It just so happens State Route 108 which reaches its highest elevation at Sonora Pass is one of the closest Sierra-Nevada Mountains crossings to where I live. (The other is Tioga Pass.) Many times I have driven this pass to the mountain towns on the west side of the summit. Several times I have driven over Sonora Pass on my way to Bridgeport in Mono County. The road is extremely winding and steep on the east side.
Some of what makes crossing the Sierra-Nevada Mountain range so treacherous is it is a steep range. It rises quickly from the Central Valley, most of which is under 1,000 feet above sea level to heights of almost 10,000 feet above sea level. As steep as it is on the west side, the drop on the east side into the Mono Basin and Owens Valley is even steeper.
About twenty years ago my husband and I drove a 3-cylinder Diahatsu over Sonora Pass to Bridgeport. That night it snowed. Although the roads were clear by the time we decided to return home, on the way back, the car could not build up enough power to drive up the steepest parts of the road east of Sonora Pass. Fearing Tioga Pass was already closed for the winter snow season, we drove north to Carson Pass to get on the west side of the mountain range. Such has been my experience with driving Sonora Pass even in these modern times.
Donner Pass to the north is probably the most famous due to the tragedy that took place there. However, Sonora Pass was also an early pass attempted by explorers seeking the best crossing from the Great Basin of Nevada to the fertile lands of California west of the Sierra-Nevada Mountains.
|Plaque at Sonora Pass Summit
The first documented immigrant traverse of Sonora Pass appears to have been in the late summer of 1852 by a wagon train known as the Clark-Skidmore Company which made it to Columbia in Tuolumne County. Once they arrived, Sonora citizens sent a delegation in 1853 to divert emigrants from the more northerly routes leading to Sacramento. The wagon train of William Duckwall and George Trahern were persuaded to follow this route, struggling over boulders and precipices. They lost cattle and some wagons but reached Relief Camp where Sonorans had provisions for sale at Relief Camp for the many pioneer parties that were soon winding down the mountains. By 1853, several thousand emigrants had followed the route.
"Grizzly" Adams took the trail over Sonora Pass in April, 1854, and reported “On all sides lay old axle-trees and wheels....melancholy evidence of the last season's disasters."
By 1855, the original Walker River Trail had been abandoned as a wagon route. A new route eliminated the old emigrant trail. The new trail followed more closely the present route of Highway 108.
|Evening at Blue Lake near Sonora Pass - Ctsy Jeff P., Berkeley, CA, USA
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Plaque dedicated September 10, 1983; Bodie chapter No. 6 for Matuca chapter No. 1849, E clampus vitus