It’s not the highest peak in the Sierra but when it comes to vistas Sonora Peak is arguably without peers in the Sierra when it comes to accessibility.
The 360-degree view from its 11,459-foot summit is worth every step of the short but semi-strenuous 5-mile round trip from the St. Mary’s Pass Trailhead located just west of the 9,623-foot Sonora Pass on Highway 108.
The fairly easy to follow trail, the short distance in terms of Sierra peak hiking, and the rewards once you reach the summit make it a popular pick for hikers of all abilities including neophyte peak baggers.
Some have described the Sonora Pass hiking area as Yosemite-like. Although there is some resemblance to the Yosemite High Country, Sonora Pass is a different cat. It also has less people — a lot less people.
On my last trip up Sonora Peak on Sept. 10, I encountered no one on the way up and it wasn’t until I was halfway across the plateau that serves as a massive snow field on the way down that I encountered the first hikers. There were two others by the time I got back to the car — a pleasant 68-year-old lady I chatted with just a quarter mile down the St. Mary’s Pass that’s at 10,100 feet and a hunter who was doing an overnight backpack trip that had just departed the parking area as I neared it.
Trailhead is 2.5 hour
drive from Manteca
As for those that peaked that day, there was one person before me — a hiker who signed the summit registry as a member of the Army Special Forces. While it is fun to read the entries in the summit registry and get tidbits of observations about life or the hike, the soldier’s entry served as a reminder that to the east from Sonora Peak is the Marine Corps mountain training facility. Occasionally hiking the Pacific Crest Trail that provides an eastern approach to Sonora Peak, you can hear the sounds of Marines training if the wind is right.
As an aside the Pacific Crest Trail from Sonora Pass proper is less strenuous for an out-and-back hike and has its share of stunning views, but accessing Sonora Peak its self from this route is more of a challenge.
The other advantage that the Sonora Pass area has as opposed to Tioga Pass in Yosemite is the time it takes to get there. It is just under 2.5 hours to Sonora Pass from Manteca compared to 3 hours to Tioga Pass. That’s due to a lot less traffic and higher speed limits.
Finding the St. Mary’s Pass Trailhead can be a slight challenge as the short dirt driveway to the parking area isn’t marked. Heading up from Sonora it is on the left about 0.8 miles short of the pass. There is also a dirt parking area on the right side of Highway 108 just after the turn into the St. Mary’s Trailhead parking access. Don’t confuse this with the paved Sonora Pass parking area just shy of the pass.
There is about 2,000 feet of net elevation gain on the hike. The mile to the pass is do-able for most folks. The lady I referenced earlier was taken frequent breaks. There’ plenty of excuses for doing that considering the scenery you can photograph.
Once at the pass, you take a hard right to the trail that climbs to the east. This will lead you along a ridge where you round a corner and Sonora Peak will loom on the horizon. It’s here that you will depart the trail and head toward the peak. There is an obvious trail going up the mountain to your left beyond the slopping plateau. You can look for cairns (stacked rocks others have placed to serve as a trailer marker) to guide you the shortest distance. The trail picks up again as you near the most strenuous part of the climb.
There is scree or loose rocks and such on a fairly steep incline on parts of the final ascent. This is where hiking poles come in handy although it can be conquered without them. While I use poles on the way up I definitely need them on the way down. It’s a bit of coordination at play but more so how I hike to avoid hammer toes and bunions from becoming an issue which in turns makes my footing less sure. If you do take a spill there are no 100-foot plunges off the side of the trail.
The only annoying thing of the day was dozens upon dozens of clear wing flies at the actual summit high point. They didn’t bite but after I signed the registry, soaked in the view and took photos and video I retreated down about 30 feet to a nice area that was fly free that I could stay away and take in the views. While wind wasn’t an issue at all as it had been the previous week I was on Sonora Pass with steady 20 mph breezes and gusts up to 30 mph that are all the worst because nothing blocks them, previous hikers created rock wall shields to protect against the wind at the summit and to the spot just below where I retreated.
Ideal time of year
in terms of weather
You might be tempted to head down the eastern slope to the Pacific Crest Trail and head back to the pass and then walk 0.8 miles along Highway108 to your vehicle but be warned the trip down on that side is a bit steeper. Besides there’s something rewarding about descending the same way you came u and taking in what some have called “the 100-mile view.”
No permits or fees are required. The hike took me 4.5 hours to complete including 20 minutes at the top and fairly frequent photo stops.
This is also ideal weather especially for those tackling a peak for the first time. The sun isn’t brutal, you’re not going to freeze, the weather is usually pleasant, and winter has yet to arrive. There is still a smattering of wildflowers that give you an extremely small glimpse of what the hike scenery looks like in mid- to late- spring. This region of the Sierra is considered second to none with its abundance of spring wildflowers.
The hike is do-able in rugged workout shoes although hiking boots are best. Use sunscreen and preferably a hat. Take plenty of water and let someone know where you are going and when you’ll be back.
Sonora Peak is the highest point in Alpine County.
It is unique in that it drains into five water basins — Deadman Creek, Sardine Creek, Wolf Creek, East Fork Carson River, and the Middle Fork of the Stanislaus River.
Along the St. Mary’s Pass Trail portion of the hike you will cross two mini streams that still are flowing down to the Middle Fork that will take the water to Donnells Reservoir, then into Beardsley Reservoir next to New Melones Reservoir then to Goodwin Dam where it is diverted to irrigate Manteca-Ripon-Escalon and Oakdale area farms and or to come out of Manteca/Tracy/Lathrop water taps or flow past Caswell State Park and into the San Joaquin River.
To contact Dennis Wyatt, email firstname.lastname@example.org