Sonora, Calif.

  • Sonora is the largest of the gold-rush sites that lured fortune seekers to California in the mid-1800s. One hundred fifty years later, the region is attracting a new breed of adventurer, seeking wealth measured by affordable housing, pleasant weather and small-town charm.

    Dick and Patty Peterson found Sonora while driving from their Berkeley, Calif., home to Yosemite National Park. Passing through the town over the years, they grew to love the rugged countryside, and they fantasized about retiring there one day. Four years ago, they did just that, buying a four-bedroom ranch-style home.

    One of the region's biggest selling points for the Petersons was the cost of housing. "The rich folks go to the wine country. The ordinary folks come here to the foothills," says Patty, 63, a retired college writing teacher. In this part of California, it is still possible to find a three-bedroom home with a little land for less than $100,000. Penny saving is just the start. Sonora's Stanislaus National Forest has 811 miles of rivers and streams, 1,200 miles of trails and 1,258 campsites. The region boasts two nearby ski resorts, including the Dodge Ridge Wintersports area, which offers significant discounts for adults 62 and over.

    Sonora's golden history is well preserved. A restored gold-rush town at the Columbia State Historic Park has a blacksmith shop, saloon and gold mine. Other historical attractions include the Tuolumne County Museum, located in a 100-year-old jail, and Railtown 1897, in nearby Jamestown, where visitors can ride on the Sierra Railroad and tour a railroad museum. For a trip back in time that will last your whole stay, consider lodging at the City Hotel, a 140-year-old 10-room inn with mystery weekends and ghost walking tours.