Sonora to Groveland
Central Foothills California
Wards Ferry Rd
16 Miles - LENGTH
Single lane, country back road, fair - PAVEMENT
No guardrails, steep drop-offs, hairpins - CURVES
Hwy 108 to Hwy 120 - CONNECTS
Sonora, Jamestown, Groveland, - GAS
Quick Ride: Fun foothill ride involving single-lane-paved mountain road with steep drop-offs to Graffiti Bridge connecting Sonora with Groveland.
Ride to Graffiti Bridge....
Recently, finished editing two different 10-page articles about riding local motorcycle roads around Sonora. The editing process is tedious and long, generally at least two weeks per article. The task entails reading the same text over and over, then reading it out loud to find errors in syntax, grammar, and word flow. Is it to, two, or too. Then or than? Feet or foot? There, their, or they’re? It helps to read text on multiple platforms such as on the monitor first, then swap over to the phone. There’s an extra space somewhere, missed a comma, should that be a semi-colon or a comma. Then lists of words you’re never supposed to use in a literary piece, yes, there’s actually a list: amazing, maybe, very, really, stuff, and the worst of them all, the word ‘just’. Yup, those get removed along with 40 other words that are considered bland, boring, or even lazy.
As I worked through these two articles, one thing became apparent, the constant reference to Wards Ferry Rd. Now that’s curious, why the repeated mention of this one particular back road.
There's a running joke with the Pashnit Motorcycle Tour participants that have ridden on numerous tours together that you can't go on a Pashnit Tour without Tim throwing in some bumpy goat trail.
Tim loves the goat they tease. The irony of course is that I'm on a Hayabusa and this style of motorcycle limits our forays off the main highway to paved backroads, of which these are plentiful in the Sierra Foothills. Why not throw in some remote shortcut to spice up the day.
We all want a bit of excitement in our lives. Day to day schedules that never change, we compensate by taking up hobbies to provide balance to monotony. If you want a bit of excitement in your ride, Wards Ferry Rd has it. In spades. Wards Ferry Rd connects Sonora with Groveland via a steep canyon descent through a set of one-lane switchbacks on both sides of the canyon.
Traffic is both directions, but vehicles meeting each other may have to take turns getting by one another or may even have to back up. Truck, trailer & RV traffic are prohibited, the road is so narrow with zero guard rails it takes on an optical illusion making it seem even narrower, even steeper and even more dramatic of a drop-off into the canyon below.
In one spot along Wards Ferry Rd, you can peek over the edge and see an old car that was pushed over the edge of the road like at the end of the 1969 film The Italian Job where Michael Caine pushes the getaway Austin Minis out of the Harrington Legionnaire in an attempt to get rid of the evidence after their heist of gold. The canyon is 1000 feet deep and Wards Ferry seems to go straight down.
At the right time of the year, this canyon glows with our favorite color, spring green. But during this period of renewal, the heat hasn't arrived yet and it's beautiful, dazzles the brain.
To reach Wards Ferry Rd while riding uphill from the Central Valley on Highway 108, top off fuel in Jamestown. Jamestown dates to 1848 from Colonel G.F. James, a lawyer from San Francisco traveled here and set up a tent near Woods Creek to sell mining equipment, groceries and assorted goods to miners. James became the first alcade, a sort of combination mayor, judge, city clerk, and advisor.
Colonel James acquired some debts he couldn’t repay and quietly left town in the middle of the night. Townspeople were so incensed the town’s namesake skipped town, they dropped the name and assigned the town the new name of American Camp. Cooler heads prevailed a few months later and the name was restored and remains to this day. Jamestown is more well known for Railtown 1897, a state historic park where steam locomotives are preserved, rebuilt and still used. As railroads pushed into the foothills, Jamestown became the central railroad hub for local mines and eventually, logging in the Sierra Foothills. The Roundhouse where locomotives were maintained and repaired is still located there today. Known as the Movie Railroad, the film industry in California has been using Jamestown as their home base as early as 1910, only 22 years since the first commercial film, whenever a steam train is needed in a motion picture. If you are a train nut, you’ve likely been to Jamestown.
Jamestown is also known for gold mines, the last of which closed in 1994. By then over $1 Billion in gold in today's dollars was extracted from local mines. One of the largest pieces of gold ever found, discovered in 1992, was found near Jamestown and verified as the world's largest single piece of crystalline gold leaf weighing in at 44 pounds worth nearly $1 million dollars.
Algerine Rd connects Jamestown with Wards Ferry Rd
On this ride, we’re headed uphill on Highway 108 out of the Central Valley towards Sonora & Jamestown. Take Bell Mooney Rd at the west edge of Jamestown, past Jacksonville Rd (connects back to Highway 120) to Algerine Rd. This is a region of rolling meadows, green in spring, and super-hot in summer. At Stent Cut-off Rd, Algerine evolves to a single lane paved ranch road flowing over several creeks.
The Curtis Creek Bridge is a single lane concrete bridge built in 1914, one of the oldest bridges in Tuolumne County still in daily service. At over 105 years old and functionally obsolete, Tuolumne County plans to replace it by 2022 at a cost of $1.6M in federal funds. The removal of the 1914 bridge may close Algerine Road during the construction. Algerine was once a small mining town, but all that remains is the Algerine Ranch House, built prior to 1875 and located mere inches from the road. Today, the ranch house is a private residence.
West of Algerine, a sharp eye may notice the Algerine Ditch. These man-made ditches are sprinkled across the foothills often snaking hundreds of miles. Dug by hand to supply water to mining operations, these ditches curve around hills and valleys, this one flows right through the middle of Gianelli Vineyards. Gianelli Vineyards lines the south side of Algerine Rd with many rows of grape vines.
Twist Rd is a single lane paved connector southwest over to Jacksonville Rd & Highway 120. Road surface is poor in some portions, but it’s paved. Lime Kiln Rd passes by, this connects north all the way back to Highway 108 at Washington Street headed into downtown Sonora near the Shay Locomotive. Knowing about Lime Kiln out of the south end of Sonora connecting all the way to Algerine to Wards Ferry is handy. For now, Algerine connects straight away with Wards Ferry.
Wards Ferry Rd is accessible by several entry points from the north, and found a mile south of the Best Western Sonora Inn via Tuolumne Rd at the 2200 ft level. Headed downhill on Highway 108 Sonora Pass, Wards Ferry can be found via Standard Rd or Tuolumne Rd. Yosemite Rd is in poor condition. However, Wards Ferry for a back road is tolerable and the road surface better than most for a single-lane-paved back road.
Morgan Chapel is three miles south of Tuolumne Rd. This pioneer chapel was the original place of worship for settlers in the late 1800s. A pioneer cemetery sits across the road from the small church.
Wards Ferry is actually one of the oldest roads in Tuolumne County. It was once the primary route to get to Yosemite National Park from Sonora long before the present-day Highway 49 was built, which possibly explains the aforementioned network of roads that flow into Wards Ferry.
Before the present-day modern concrete bridge was constructed in 1971 over the river, and going a few decades further to horse and buggy days, there was no bridge, there was only a ferry, thus the name.
Morgan Chapel on Wards Ferry Rd dates to the late 1800s
The river you see today is actually an extension of Don Pedro Reservoir to the west which backs up as far as Wards Ferry. Don Pedro Reservoir is the sixth largest man-made lake in California and has a shoreline of 160 miles with a surface area of 13,000 acres of water. The reservoir sits atop 26 miles of the Tuolumne River and the first dam was completed in 1923. Subsequent dam building was resumed in 1967 expanding to the present size. This stored water backs up all the way to Wards Ferry Rd. During dry years, there is a narrow river in the canyon below the bridge. However most years, the water in the canyon is a distant extension of the Don Pedro Reservoir and you could easily pilot your boat to the bridge.
The back story of Wards Ferry dates to 1850, Joseph Ward built a ferry from hand cut logs and operated it himself throwing up a sign, ‘Ferry to Cross’. Those on foot paid Joseph Ward 25 cents to cross and those mounted on horses paid 50 cents, usually paid in gold. Joseph Ward was killed within four years of starting his ferry operation. Getting paid in gold made him an opportune target for bandits and he was said to be murdered for his gold.
In the 1850s, the road was very steep and rough terrain. The road was eventually paved, but little improvement was ever made to the actual road bed. The narrow horse and buggy road remains to this very day, albeit we now have a delicious ribbon of asphalt.
Wards Ferry Rd passes over several creeks flowing into the canyon, the most pronounced is Deer Creek where a single lane concrete bridge was built in 1915 to traverse it. Any traffic coming towards you would require everyone to take turns.
As Wards Ferry Rd nears the canyon, it passes by Richardson Ranch Rd. If you’re like me, you wonder where every paved side road wanders off to. This loop is paved and circles around back to Wards Ferry via Powell Ranch Rd. The loop of Richardson Ranch – Powell Ranch Rd is a country residential area of smaller ranchettes.
The idea of a ranchette was developed in the 1920s, generally regarded as a property 40 acres of land that is not being actively tilled for farming but can have grazing cattle or pasture for horses. This elevation band right below the 2000 ft level is often rolling grassy meadows, but with the Mediterranean climate, rain only occurs during winter and spring.
One last sign of Trucks Prohibited presents itself, one final warning of what lies ahead and Wards Ferry begins to drop 1000 feet in elevation into the canyon, steady at first with blind corners and stunning views of the canyon.
Husk of a discarded automobile pushed off the edge of Wards Ferry Rd
It’s hard to keep your eyes on the road as all instinct wants to stare across the canyon. Best to stop here and take a breather, snap a pic, and enjoy the scene. There are no shoulders and no pullouts.
The road is single lane narrow with no guardrails and no shoulders. It’s a long way down and here’s where you’ll see the car that Charlie Croker tossed off the side of the mountain during his getaway at the end of the 1969 film The Italian Job.
Just kidding, that didn’t really happen, and no Harrington Legionnaire should ever attempt to navigate this road. Plus the weight of the gold bars Charlie steals would weigh 1-1/2 times the weight of the Austin Minis used as the getaway cars. That casts some reasonable doubt on these cars being able to jump rooftops, even in 1969 in Turin, Italy. And you thought 1980s TV was improbable.
Likely every article I have ever written about riding California Motorcycle Roads mentions sand in the road and Wards Ferry is no different. Having a road that’s single-lane exacerbates this problem as vehicles cut the corners and throw sand up onto the road surface. It will be there, count on it.
Graffiti Bridge comes into view and your brain will say we’re headed down there? It’s here you’ll also pinch yourself and say, “Pay Attention,” as you get a glimpse of the drop-off. It feels straight down. Think horse and buggy. That’s who built this road, someone with only horse and buggy in mind. If that doesn’t make you giggle a wee bit, you need to get out more.
Blind corners are worth mentioning in this descent into the canyon. The road here isn’t wide enough for two vehicles so pop around a blind corner and a truck is headed straight for you on a single lane road next to a steep drop off. What’s the word again? Prudence. Vehicle traffic has been rated at 120 vehicles per day, but the many times we’ve ridden this, it feels much less than that.
Bridge footings remain of the original Wards Ferry Bridge built in 1879 and are visible when the water levels are low. The current bridge was completed in 1971 and the layers of paint would indicate the locals have been attempting to paint it ever since. Known affectionately as Graffiti Bridge for obvious reasons, every square foot of this bridge is covered in graffiti of every kind and color. From the simple spray can to more ornate artistry, the bridge is a delightful palette of no rules and personal expression. The occasional phallus and ‘for a good time call...’ are to be expected.
Scroll to view graffiti >
The layers of pictography have changed through the years, one season the bridge was adorned in giant feet, next season, those were all painted over. Then came cartoonish alien characters, then gigantic colorful flowers and mushrooms. The graffiti is entertaining, interesting and enjoyable to absorb.
We’ve parked on the bridge and not a single vehicle came by for an hour or more. The oddest graffiti is on the underside of the bridge over the water which left me wondering if a circus troop of acrobats armed with spray cans and ropes arrived by bus one day.
The water in the canyon originates from Cherry Lake and Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, long the center of controversy as Hetch Hetchy supplies drinking water for the city of San Francisco. When Hetch Hetchy Valley was dammed in 1913, it's visual beauty was said to rival that of Yosemite Valley.
During dry years, the Tuolumne River returns to the canyon
Once you’ve had your fill of being entertained by Graffiti Bridge, head towards Groveland out of the canyon and right back up the canyon wall.
First, the good news. Wards Ferry does not get any wider. It remains as narrow as before. Single lane, no guard rail and a long way down with broad views of the canyon below. And the bad news? There is no bad news silly goose, this road is perfect just the way it is. Our narrow horse and buggy road climbs up along Deer Creek until it reaches the single lane steel-truss Deer Creek Bridge built in 1915 and switches sides to the other side of the canyon. Halfway up the hill, Ward Ferry throws out a single hairpin and then the climb begins to level out pulling away from Deer Canyon and heading due east then south.
Wards Ferry Rd arrives at a large triangular intersection with Deer Flat Rd providing a quick shortcut into Groveland. You can also use Deer Flat as a way to branch over to Ferretti Rd to reach Pine Flat Mountain Rd, across Highway 120, and on over to Smith Station and into Coulterville to Hwy 49 The Little Dragon.
Wards Ferry meets up with Highway 120 a moment later at Big Oak Flat. When riding Wards Ferry northbound, the ride is easy to find in the center of Big Oak Flat and the road is well marked.
Priest is a mile to the west, and Groveland a short distance away to the east. South of Highway 120 is a labyrinthine maze of roads, but there are only two that are paved, Priest Coulterville and Smith Station head due south to Greeley Hill Rd / Highway J20. Both end up at the same place, Coulterville, and are fun rides.
Pashnit Motorcycle Tour group after having ridden Wards Ferry Rd
If you have not seen the original 1969 The Italian Job with Michael Caine, consider this, we’re still talking about this film 50 years later. Pull it up on Netflix or YouTube, it’s time to make yourself more culturally diverse. The film has been copied with a remake in 2003 (plus a 2003 Bollywood remake) and parodied with The Simpsons and even MacGyver.
Wards Ferry Rd is truly unique within Tuolumne County motorcycle roads, designed for horse and buggy, any motorcyclist will love this road. Only, don’t look down, and stay away from the cliff edge so we don’t have any more cliffhanger endings.
MORE INFO on Wards Ferry Rd:
Wards Ferry Rd - Photo Gallery
MORE INFO: Wards Ferry Road
RIDE IT on a PASHNIT TOUR
16 Miles - LENGTH
Country backroad, single lane, goaty- PAVEMENT
Narrow, blind, single lane, hairpins - CURVES
Jamestown, Sonora, Groveland - GAS
Numerous - LODGING
2200 ft- PEAK ELEVATION
LISTED CONNECTING SIDEROADS
Lime Kiln Rd
Powell Ranch Rd
Deer Flat Rd