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Go Bonkers Over Sonora Pass The Easy Way By Taking A Stunning Early Summer Drive
108 SIGN
A sign at Sonora Pass in a photo taken earlier this month by Caltrans crews.
A segment of Highway 108 above the Kennedy Meadows turnoff that exceeds 16 percent in terms of the road grade.

KENNEDY MEADOWS — Make plans to enjoy a winter wonderland when summer arrives in the next couple of weeks.

All you need is to keep tabs on Caltrans snow plowing efforts and then pencil in a day trip to lofty Sonora Pass at 9,623 feet once the all clear is given.

The gates to the earthly heaven known as the Sonora Pass area will likely open later this month.

Two Caltrans crews — one from the west and one from the east – at the start of this past week were within a mile of each other plowing through 8 to 12 feet of snow on Highway 108.

They started in mid-April.

And before the gate blocking access beyond the Sno-Park past Strawberry — the turnoff to Donnells Reservoir — is opened, Caltrans will need to do any necessary road repairs.

This is a trip you don’t want to miss an opportunity to take especially given the record snowfall this year.

The drive to Sonora and to a point near Mi-Wuk Village can be a bit of a drain, but after that a feeling of bliss starts growing with every passing mile.

The main event starts past the cutoff to Kennedy Meadows.

Kennedy Meadows is a mile off the highway along the meandering Stanislaus River.

It features cabins, a general store, and a restaurant.

It is a good place to enjoy a picnic as you literally are less than 100 feet away from a large expanse of the Stanislaus River.

Kennedy Meadows is also a great jumping off point for hikes, horseback riding, pack trips, fishing and hunting.

Your first taste of the Sonora Pass region as a day trip, however, doesn’t require you to be an animal. You can take in a lot of incredible scenery with minimal walking as in 20 to 200 feet from your car.

Did I mention Highway 108 beyond Kennedy Meadows is the steepest highway in California?

It gains roughly 3,500 feet in in 14 miles.

You will be able to savor granite vistas that rival those in the Yosemite high country but without the crowds.

There are places to pull over and take in views or let traffic pass.

That said, the biggest treat — especially if you have kids or are young at heart and bring a snow saucer or similar device with you — is on an exposed hairpin turn dominated by granite just beyond the last stand of aspens.

It is here, within 50 feet of the road, that Sonora teens even in drought years head up to get some downhill fun time on snow in the depth of summer.

To be honest, few can make it up more than a hundred or so feet before it gets too steep to cover without crampons. But given we’re talking going downhill in snow with a bunch of friends in the summer, it is one of those simple pleasures that you’ll remember.


Epic snow conditions

await this year

In the past two drought years there was enough snow to do some decent downhill snow play well into mid-July.

There should be epic conditions this year.

The best place to frolic in the snow is beyond the hairpin turn and after the road starts leveling as you come within a mile of Sonora Pass.

If it has been plowed, there are actual areas you can park at Sonora Pass which is where the Pacific Crest Trail crosses Highway 108.

Sonora Pass is the second highest paved highway in California coming in at 9,623 feet. The high point on Highway 108 that runs 120 miles from Modesto to Highway 395 just past the Marine Corps’ winter mountain warfare training facility is topped only by Tioga Pass at 9,943 feet on Highway 120.

One doesn’t have to be a roadie or a hiker to get a thrill heading up to Sonora Pass.

A “Sunday drive” — the euphemism Americans once used for packing the family in the car and burning some fossil fuel for a scenic drive that might include lunch — can be a big thrill in itself.

There are several places the grade exceeds 20 percent including one pitch that hits 26 percent.

For comparison, Priest Grade on Highway 120 above Don Pedro Reservoir on the way to Groveland and Yosemite has a sustained climb right around 6 percent.

Sonora Pass is my preferred route to reach the Eastern Sierra in the summer.

Although traveling Highway 120 through Yosemite is shorter in distance, the time works out to be less via Sonora Pass.

The reason is simple.

There is less traffic. And those who are driving it for the first time are often too busy gripping the steering wheel to be slow poke looky-loos.

I admit sometimes it can be more irksome to get behind people like that who are so petrified they take posted 15 mph hairpin curves at 5 mph.

Most, however, will pull over when they get the chance.

I’ve grown comfortable driving the pass.

It has a lot to do with guarded familiarity.

It also helps having a nice, low to-the ground Ford Focus built for such turns and inclines.


How I first went a bit

bonkers on Sonora Pass

Sonora Pass is both my Achilles Heel and my go to place for a natural reset.

Sonora Pass is the one mountain pass I’ve never “crested” on a bicycle despite two tries in my mid-30s.

For the past 10 years, it has been at or near where I’ve started hikes along the Pacific Crest Trail or nearby St. Mary’s Pass to head toward peaks or go as far as I can for an out and back day hike.

I’ve racked up almost three dozen day hikes in the area.

My favorite is to head up to Sonora Peak at 11,464 feet. The status of “favorite” is based on no less than 11 ascents with all but one solo.

Well, actually almost all of my hikes are solo.

As for my Achilles Heel, Sonora Pass is where I met my Waterloo when I was at the zenith of my cycling days.

I wasn’t fast per se but I was the Energizer Bunny as I kept going.

We’re talking three consecutive years of racking up 10,000 miles annually, 130-mile day rides, fully-loaded multi-day touring trips, and tackling quad busting grades in Death Valley that surpass Sonora Pass. And in between there was plenty of days of two to three hour rides.

I was so obsessed that at one point I bicycled every day for at least 15 miles for 433 days including in rain, 105-degree heat, fog, and even a couple of times in hailstorms.

My Waterloo came on the sixth day of a nine-day fully loaded touring trip crisscrossing Sierra passes with two other guys.

We were hotel hopping. That allowed me to carry all the gear on my touring bicycle while they rode much lighter racing bicycles.

After a 135-mile day bicycling in 90 degree heat from Topaz Lake to Sonora via Tioga Pass we headed up Sonora Pass.

Brian and Rob went ahead as I knew I’d be slower than them as I was pedaling my 195-pound body at the time along with 60 pounds worth of gear and bicycle up the first sustained 16 percent grade beyond the gate on Highway 108 just past the Kennedy Meadows turnoff.

At that point, I had to get off.

I then walked with the bike.

By the way, pushing 60 pounds up a steep grade on a 90-deegree day isn’t as much fun as it sounds.

They had gone ahead, reached the pass and then came back to see where I was at.

What happened, right after the first aspens, I can’t make up.

I had run out of water perhaps a half hour earlier.

I got back on the bicycle, took two or so spins and collapsed.

The next thing I knew I was in the back of the ambulance.

Rob and Brian filled me in on what had happened between my collapse and being put into the ambulance — a time lapse of well over two hours.

I fell down with my head going downhill.

Brian panicked and thought I needed water, which I clearly did. Rob tried to stop him, but Brian tried to get me to drink even though I was unconscious.

A minute or so later a woman, who happened to be a nurse and was on her way back to Sonora, pulled over to help.

She apparently rolled me over and got me to cough up water.

Forest Service rangers arrived at some point.

An ER doctor — who was a marathon runner — at Tuolumne General Hospital in Sonora said I had the worst case of bonking he had ever seen.

In layman’s term I was extremely dehydrated and hadn’t eaten enough food even though I had been putting away close to 8,000 calories a day.

I ended up sleeping it off in the ER on a steel exam table for 10 hours until my mom was able to drive to Sonora.

I also had four or five bags of IV drips during the time I got in the ambulance until I left Sonora.

The first year I moved to Manteca that summer Rob and Brian came down.

We were going to tackle Sonora Pass on racing bicycles but instead of starting at Sonora we did so from Dardanelles.

Also, at the time there was an East Union High School senior by the name of Hime Romero who was taking photos for the Manteca Bulletin on the weekend that asked to join us. Since I had extra bicycles, that was no problem.

I hung back with Hime while Rob and Brian went ahead.

We got past the pitches and were where Highway 108 virtually flattens out less than a mile from the pass, when a truck driver going in the other direction stopped us.

He wanted to know if we were with two other cyclists up ahead. One had taken a bad spill in a hairpin turn after losing control on gravel.

At that point, Hime and I turned around and headed back downhill although in just about 12 minutes we would have reached the pass.

Making matters worse after we got the car and drove about two miles down the backside, Brian — who I assure you did not end up with a career in the medical field — had managed to secure from a passing motorist a roll of toilet paper to help stop Rob’s bleeding.

It was colored toilet paper on top of that.

Lucky for Rob, I made a habit of carrying a liter of peroxide in my trunk for my own misadventures known to happen after driving into the middle of nowhere to do different 30 to 45 mile cycling routes.

Rest assured a drive, some photo ops, a couple of short walks, a bit of snow play and even lunch at Kennedy Meadows or back in Sonora will make for a memorable experience.

But if you are inclined to make it unforgettable, Wyatt-style...