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The Best Places to Visit in the Sonoma County Wine Country, California
Vacations and sightseeing are such an event in one’s life, regardless of income level. Even if you delegate it to an agency and end up with a seven day tour, in the very back of your mind a little whiny voice harps like a nagging child, “ but what do the locals really say are must sees, surely something is being missed in the limited time here”. It happens to anyone who travels remote places, thousands of miles and dollars away from their home. Even the richest people enjoy getting personal satisfaction from their investment.
For locals, jumping from winery to winery is what one does when they first come here. Sonoma and Napa counties are home to the premier of California wines and are the most renowned. However, Napa County (which is next to Sonoma County and 45 min away) is home to many famous wineries because like a big brother, they were first in converting former prune orchards of the region into vineyards starting in the early 60’s. Of course, both counties always had some wineries to visit and taste wine, but Sonoma County did not start the conversion on a mass scale until the late 60’s and into the 70’s , 80’s. Like a younger brother, it was a late bloomer in prestige wineries. Much of the time, Sonoma County provided the grapes to Napa County wines. Nowadays, the word Napa or Sonoma are tied together and sometimes the person thinks they are the same location. Locals know the difference. Nowadays, wineries in Sonoma County are equal or surpass those in Napa County. It is like brotherly competition, yet in the same family.
Like brothers from the same family they share some of the same characteristics geographically: splendid vistas of vineyards on rolling hills studded with tall, old oak trees, some tall mountains that rise into the heavens (Mt. Hood and Mt. St. Helena), large lakes for summer activities and sweeping vistas from key outlooks, famous world wineries, small quaint towns that remind one of the TV show from the 60’s, Mayberry R.F.D, locals that are friendly, morning fog gone by noon in the summer giving way to hot days, yet a little too cool by night. Grapes love this region!
ABOUT THE REGION
However, Sonoma County provides more variety. The southern end is flat with low hills and the burgeoning small city of Petaluma, which is home to many IT firms in the “Telecom Valley” area, which boomed recently. All the big names are here: Cisco, Cyan Optics, Nortel etc. It is like Silicone Valley in San Jose when it first began. Petaluma until the 90’s, was a smaller cow town and was always known for it being the egg capital of the world, due to its many egg producing ranches. There are also plenty of cow and horse ranches. It remains a commuter city for those working in San Francisco (40 min away on a good traffic day). The city was the film site for the infamous, American Graffiti movie in the early 70’s, for its still old fashioned building architecture along main street.
Visitors to the area are always astounded about how small the cities seem to be from Highway 101, which is its main corridor. From the road, Petaluma seems like a small town and even though Santa Rosa is 150,000, from the highway, it appears like small city of 50,000. This is typical. All the cities in the county are very spread out.
Moving northward along 101, next , after passing the huge Gallo vineyard fields on the hill that span across the highway, you descend into a flat plain home to the merged cities of Cotati and Rohnert Park. These small cities are about 30 minutes from the Pacific Ocean and both are home to Sonoma State University. Both were born circa 1960 upon fertile flat farmland. Always smaller than other cities, they are like visiting L.A. but on a small scale- a typical urban intermingling along 101 where only a sign defines one from the other’s identity. SSU is actually miles from 101 to the east and has produced a few pro-footballers. Its campus is very modern and home to Engineering and Liberal Arts. Until recently, it was home to Hewlett-Packard. That is about it. It is a typical college town.
Santa Rosa is Sonoma County’s hub in all aspects. Half of the city, the west portion, is on flat land, the east side, hilly. From the hilly eastside (actually a very tall 1000 ft ridge or more) is very close to 101, one can travel up Fountaingrove Road and from the top have truly breathtaking views of the city and valley below. Well worth a quick look. Santa Rosa is home to Agilent (on Fountaingrove), Medtronics, Kaiser Permante, Symmetricom, and other IT firms. The ridge rises up steeply and as you drive up Fountaingrove Rd, you near the vertical aspect. Most of the homes on the ridge range from $700,000 to $2,000,000, has a retirement community, a difficult pro golf course, small lake. When you descend from the ridge eastward you are in part of East Santa Rosa known as Rincon Valley. More on Santa Rosa later.
By car, up 101 next is Windsor. Until 1980, it was a hick town of not more than 2000. Then, developers came because everyone else wanted to live here, and the town became a city of 30,000 by 2000. Windsor was just a farm town and remains a commuter town, further inland and more protected from the ocean clime, it is also hotter by 10 F in the summer (even though it is only 15 min. from Santa Rosa).
The town of Healdsburg is like Mayberry RFD. Situated on the Russian River, it has always been home to summer vacationers around Fitch Mountain. The town is around 10,000, quaint, humble and home to wineries there and in Dry Creek and Alexander Valley, all very close. Visit downtown is like visiting a small tourist destination for its many shops and restaurants. People from around the world end up here yet I suspect really miss more important sites that are easily found by car. More later.
Geyserville is further up the road, home to more wineries. If you blink, you will pass it. What is impressive is the mountain range east of it, home to the Geyser Steam Plant.
The last town in Sonoma County is Cloverdale. Nestled in a valley curtained by steep hillsides and being further inland it is 45 min. north of Santa Rosa and at least 15F hotter in the summer. Unlike the charm of Healdsburg, Cloverdale is akin to a forgotten child. It remains elusive and unimportant except for wonderful views of rolling vineyards as you travel 101 and Cellar No. 8 at Asti Winery. This was originally known as the Italian Swiss Colony, founded in 1881. Italian Swiss immigrants established an agricultural colony. Choice wines were produced from old world vines and brought wide acclaim in 1905 when 10 gold medals were awarded to wine produced at the Italian Swiss Colony. It became a California historical landmark in 1957. The wine tasting is low key and peaceful, laid back. Just exit off 101 at the Asti exit.
Anyone who visits anywhere always ask the two questions: when is the best time and what is the weather like.
Hand’s down, visit this area anywhere from April to November. That is when the weather will be in its summer pattern. Summer here is basically from May-November. Temps are guaranteed to be within a range of 50F at night to 90F in the day. October is commonly hotter than June or July! It’s all due to the oceanic influence of the Pacific Ocean and fog patterns. Being anywhere from 30-50 miles from the ocean the ocean’s influence is directly impacted by rising hills and mountains. As you travel from Petaluma (no protection) to Cloverdale (well protected) you will soon discover how within a space of 50 miles or 45 minutes a summer temp of 70 at Petaluma is 90 in Cloverdale, 85 in Healdsburg, 80 in Windsor and 77 in Santa Rosa! This is so typical of summertime temps. Traveling to the coast is even more dramatic. From Santa Rosa on a 100F day to Doran Beach (a great half moon shaped long beach) some 40 minutes away drops to 65 and is foggy\windy! Also common is that one can almost count on cooling sea breezes in the afternoon in most places depending on how protected it is. In the summer, there are few clouds, just blue sky. Morning fog till 10 or Noon is common and if it rains during this period, it is considered “odd”. This rain is really a drizzle. As said before, we have an “Indian Summer” here, meaning, summer is through October and can be till mid-November. September and October have been this area’s hottest months, meaning temps frequent 90F and more. During this time, San Francisco is almost fogless!
If you come in the winter, generally from mid-Nov through March, you can count on weather that is unpredictable. Guaranteed is no snow, unless there is a 1-2 day dusting on hills higher than 1000 ft. What you will have is light to heavy rain, clear skies, cloudy skies, foggy skies and temps from 30 at night to 60ish with an infrequent dose of Springtime weather from 65-75F. The heaviest rains almost always fall in Jan-March.
Before you visit the coast, contact anyone or business (restaurant) and ask them what the conditions are REALLY like because what your computer may claim is not always accurate.
The Must Sees
1. The Ferrari-Carano Winery- locate in Healdsburg’s Dry Creek, this five acre is home to not only good wine but an awesome, sic, garden wonderland back by true Italian architecture named Villa Fiore with its tasting room. You will swear you are in France or Italy due to the fountains and reflecting pool geometrically organized nestled in surrounding hills. Visit in April-June for the tulips and roses in bloom, the garden is park-like with meandering paths that foster plant knowledge as there are signs point out over 2000 species of plants, trees. Why just visit a winery for just wine??? Get something more, open from 10am – 5pm daily @ 8761 Dry Creek rd, Healdsburg. Info: Ferrari-carano.com
2. Lake Sonoma- Less than10 minutes away is this summertime getaway for hikers, sightseers, skiing and boating, camping. The sights are so sic (awesome) from the Outlook or from the huge spanning bridge. From the outlook, one can view the cascading vistas of the lake & vineyards that line all of Dry Creek Valley. The 9 mile long lake is a recreation delight. It also has a fish hatchery. If you have driven across the bridge, you missed the turn off to the Outlook, which is right before you reach the bridge. Watch for signs and put your car in low gear! It is only 35 minutes from Santa Rosa, take 101 north until you see the Dry Creek exit , get off and at the stop sign, turn left. Just travel until you find wineries to visit along the way including #1 above and continue to the huge dam and stop at the visitor center for more info.
3. Alexander Valley and Jimtown Store- as you drive through the flat area, its impact is impressive as you see mostly miles and miles of vineyards along the two lane road. It is hard to believe that a mere 40 yrs ago, the valley had mostly prune orchards. There is a sort of relaxing feel that many city folk long for, a time to reflect as you peruse. Soon, you truly enter a sort of time machine with the Jimtown Store, which has been there since 1895! It’s not just a store but a renowned restaurant with numerous awards, but from the outside, it reflects a period of long ago, a slower time, back when the old timers stopped their pickups and chewed the fat. Very little high tech here. Come anyway you want but please don’t dress up! Alexander valley due to its flatness is PERFECT for jogging or taking your bike on a long ride! The scenery magnificent! There are no bike rentals, but just pull off the side of the road and start pedaling. The valley is home to many wineries to visit, if that is your thing. Locals love it.
4. Sterling Vineyards, Calistoga, CA.- Just outside of Sonoma County the quaint town of Calistoga is this unique vineyard. For $20, you get to take the gondola tram to the winery, some 300 ft above the ground and then have free wine tasting for up to five wines. Of course, it is a gimmick, but a nice one and the views are pretty cool. From the floor, the winery seems to be perched and more like an old castle from bygone days. Getting there from Santa Rosa also provides you some tall redwoods if you stop by the petrified forests! Take 101 north, just past Santa Rosa, take the Mark West Springs turn off and continue straight. This road changes name twice, the change is Porter Creek Rd and the Petrified Forest Rd It is about 30 min to Calistoga from this point, so drive slowly and take in the sights. It is a two lane windy road.
The Petrified Forest is from over 3 million years ago and discovered in 1857, visited by Robert Lewis Stevenson and Luther Burbank. It is at 4100 Petrified Forest road. Interesting!
Since you are on your way to the vineyard, you MUST visit the Safari West Wild Animal Preserve. Not a zoo, and reservations are needed, but do it, spend several hours there. All the animals are from Africa including Cheetahs. Go on a tour in a jeep all around and up and down the hills spying wild African animals and getting way close for photo ops! You can also, if you have the dinero, eat at the restaurant or spend the night in true African wood thatched rooms. Located at 3115 Porter Creek Rd.
5. Armstrong Woods-This awe inspiring time travel. Visit the oldest trees on earth, some 1300 yrs old, with a diameter of 16 ft. This State Park is 805 acres and loaded with ancient redwoods as tall as 250 ft. No better place to have a picnic or take a cool walk. Located near Guerneville, CA, about 30 min. west of Santa Rosa. Take 101 just north of Santa Rosa to River road exit and turn left heading west, travel to Guerneville and hang right at the second traffic light, just follow the road. Locals never get tired of going there and you are only 15 min from the Pacific Ocean at the town of Jenner.
While en route, stop by at Korbel Winery, renowned for its champagne since 1882 and used exclusively for the past 20 years as the champagne for US presidents! Of course, anyone can enjoy it also. Korbel has over 2000 acres of grapes in the Russian River Valley. More than 250 varieties of antique roses are on display in the Antique Rose Gardens at the Korbel estate, which were planted in the 1880’s. The garden also features over 1,000 varieties of plants and flowers, and bulbs, perennials and annuals. Located 13250 River Rd, about 13 miles from 101.
6. The Russian River and Doran Beach- if you have the time, relax at either place. The best spots that locals know and others don’t are the following:
Go to Healdsburg (again!), take 101 to the very first Healdsburg exit, stay to your right and in a mile or two, you will come to Memorial Beach. Just before the bridge on the right is River’s Edge Canoe rentals. Go for a day ride, which will cost but you will be totally chilled and relax. The full day ride provides you transportation to the drop site (usually in Alexander Valley!) from there you ride and glide down the river like Huck Fin, taking in the sights, sun, and whatever brew you bring. You are on your own. The river is usually rapid free, no waterfalls. The worse that can happen is that you will hit bottom and have to carry the canoe to a deeper spot. Along the way, you will be totally in the country and nature, find a good place to skinny deep. The trip usually takes all day, that is six hours. You can also opt for a shorter 3-4 hr one. Memories are made of this.
If you are not into canoeing, you can simply park at Memorial Beach and hang out there or walk a bit up river around the bend away from the people for more peaceful surroundings. Another great place is to drive over the bridge, hang a sharp right. Stay to your right until you reach Matheson St. Now turn right and this turns into south Fitch Mountain Road and for several miles the windy narrow road travels around Fitch Mountain (1000 ft). Continue on until you see Camp Rose and park where you can and walk down to the beach. You’ll be away from people and noise. Just kick back.
You can also simply continue driving around the rim of the mountain in search of other beaches, such at another local favorite, Del Rio Woods, eventually you will end back in town. It is a very scenic drive.
Need to see the ocean? The best place to start is either a Jenner, which is further west than Guerneville or Doran beach. Doran Beach is great two mile long sandy beach close to hotels and restaurants. You can also camp there. Bodega Bay is close by if you are interested in fresh seafood at the Inn of the Tides. To get there from Santa Rosa, take Hwy 12 west from 101 and go through Sebastopol when it turns into Bodega Hwy. Continue driving for about 30 min, you will pass the town of Bodega, the famous site in the Alfred Hitchcock movie, The Birds, where it was filmed. Just past here you will reach Hwy 1, Turn right and follow to the coast.
7,. Annadel State Park-One of the biggest attractions known to hikers, joggers, mountain biking, horse back riding is part of Santa Rosa, over 5000 acres, some of the trails go on for 10 miles up to 1800 ft. It’s all wilderness, no camping. Bikers\joggers from all over come to ride the trails that provide you with exercise and wide vistas as you climb. Deer and coyote roam among the chapparal, and red-shoulder hawks cruise over slopes dotted with manzanita, bay, madrone, and live oak.
One of the better hikes or rides is to Lake Illsanjo or Ledson Marsh. The former takes the hiker\jogger on a good cardio workout for 1.5 hrs. Once at the lake, cool off in pristine water with ducks and geese. If you take a fishing rod, you can do that. When you are ready, hike back down or continue via a myriad trail system. This is the place to burn off the calories consumed during your wine tasting adventures! Or One simply lie at the beach at the lake and relax. Depending on the trails you choose, the panorama of the Santa Rosa area is inspiring. If you go, take water, this is wilderness. The main entrance to Annadel is on Channel Drive off Montgomery Drive, just past the turn-off to Spring Lake, a Sonoma County park. However, access is free if you park and enter via other roads.
8. Highway 12 and the Valley of the Moon
Locals who drive this daily no doubt take it for granted, they see the two lane road traverse the most scenic roadway in Northern Calfornia. It is lined with wineries and vineyards all the way from Santa Rosa to Napa County. Highway 12 Vineyards and Wineries have some of the finest 10 vineyards in the Sonoma Valley. It is the quickest way to go wine tasting and sightseeing. The most famous and gothic is Ledson Winery that belongs in a Batman movie! Near the retirement community of Oakmont is Hood Mountain (2700 ft) jetting into the sky, one cannot avoid looking at it. One can also hike to the top, a trip that is a real cardio workout and about 3-4 hours round trip from Sugarloaf State Park (also off Hwy 12).T rails leading to the summit of Hood Mountain begin at three locations:
- along Adobe Canyon Road within Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, on the southeast side of the mountain
- 1450 Pythian Road, on the west side
Access to the southeast portion of the park is via the Pythian Road Trailhead. It is located 1.3 miles up the North side of Pythian Rd., off Highway 12. To reach the horse trailer parking lot, drive .5 miles up Pythian Road off Hwy 12 and turn left onto Eliza Way. Continue 600' to equestrian parking between the two brick buildings.
- 3000 Los Alamos Road, on the north side
Trails leading from the first two trailheads involve relatively direct climbs of about 2,000 vertical feet to the summit, whereas trails from the Los Alamos Road trailhead take a longer route to the summit but involve about the same vertical rise. The panoramic vistas are astounding from the top from the tiny homes and vineyards to tinker toy cars moving along Hwy 12.
As you cruise Hwy 12, simply take in the sights and vineyards. If you need exercise climb Hood Mountain, which only down the road from Annadel ! Hwy 12 is a very LONG two lane road. One can use it from Sebastopol and reach the Sierra Foothills (which is across California!). The quickest way is simply to take 101, east onto Hwy 12.. turn left at the first stop light at Farmer’s Lane and after a few lights, turn right on 4th St\Hwy 12. Wineries begin around the Oakmount retirement community.
9. Jack London State Park- You’ve heard of the famous author, Jack London, well visit the placed he live and wrote his famous books. You can also walk around and hike throughout this park. Visiting his 1910 home is interesting as famous people become famous in the most unsuspecting places! Located a few miles off Highway 12, near the small town of Glen Ellen, CA., take Highway 12 from Santa Rosa east. Turn right on Arnold drive; in the center of Glen Ellen turn right on London Ranch Road. Watch for signs.
A quick recap
If you have only seven days, you can do it all by renting a car. You fly into the Sonoma County Airport via Horizon Airlines from LA, Las Vegas, Portland, Seattle. Go wine tasting and sightseeing 1-2 days and get it out of your system. Visit the wineries along Hwy 12, in Dry Creek, in Alexander Valley (Healdsburg area). Then, get it out of the car and enjoy nature. Visit all of the parks listed. Rent a bike in Santa Rosa or just hike. Definitely go to Lake Illsanjo, Hood Mountain if you want a real work out. Spend a day at the coast at Doran Beach and drive north along Hwy 1, as there are plenty of other cool beaches but remember this is NOT Southern California beaches, meaning you will have temps not much more than 65F and breezy even in the summer. Take a jacket! Traveling along Hwy 1 along the coast from Doran Beach north to Jenner is a photo opportunity and inspiring. Forget about swimming, the water is not more the 50F (unless you have a wetsuit), unlike in LA where is 60-65F. Enjoy the rugged coastline and turn inland at Jenner through the redwood forests and into Guerneville (pronounced Gurnville). By all means, do the canoe trip one day, more fun and cruising down the river. Spend another day at a remote beach around Fitch Mountain in Healdsburg. This will mellow you out! If you still have more time, visit more wineries, drink and be merry!
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- Bay Area Hiker: Annadel State Park
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