Now's the Time for Your Sonoma County Getaway. Here's Why.
Even if all Sonoma County had to offer were its legendary wines, you’d have more than enough reason to visit. Consider that there are literally hundreds of gorgeous local wineries, many of them award-winning—two having just nabbed the coveted platinum and several having taken home the gold at the 2021 Decanter World Wine Awards.
But the year has been good to more than Sonoma County’s wines. The region also ranks among Forbes Top Destinations for 2021 and Travel + Leisure’s Best Places to Travel in 2021 thanks to all kinds of new openings, in addition to the longstanding enticements of this prime patch of Northern California: soaring redwoods, rugged coastline, historic settlements and a whole series of foodie pilgrimage sites.
And getting here has never been easier, with a growing roster of direct flights into the Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport (yup, that Charles M. Schulz; we’ll come back to him soon). So pick an upcoming weekend—or even better, a full week—and pack your bags. Here are eight of our favorite things to do upon arrival.
Explore a tale of two trees
Wherever you’d place yourself on the tree-hugger scale, there’s a Sonoma County park for that. At one end of the spectrum, you’ll find the Healdsburg-area redwoods of Riverfront Park, where the short Redwood Hill Trail will lead you through a gorgeous grove’s worth of the towering icons.
At the other end, you’ll find Salt Point State Park near Gualala, where the self-guided Pygmy Forest Trail meanders through a grove of fully mature but Munchkin-sized redwood, pine and cypress trees. Some of these miniatures are more than a hundred years old, naturally stunted to bonsai-like proportions by the thin, acidic soil and low-lying water table. (While you're in the park, don't miss the surreal, honeycomb-like tafoni.) Of course, at the heart of every tree-hugger, no matter which species are around, lies a deep love of the natural world—and an accompanying sense of stewardship. Sonoma County is the kind of place that brings out both, particularly with such initiatives as Leave No Trace.
Soak up wine country wellness
Boyes Hot Springs, Fetters Hot Springs and Agua Caliente—collectively known as “the Springs”—were once sacred Native American healing sites. The warm, therapeutic mineral baths began luring Bay Area residents around 1900, when the first hotel and spa opened and “taking the waters” became a thing here.
The 21st-century evolution of The Springs is mostly residential, but you still have your choice of spring-fed pools: The underground hot springs now supply the elegant Willow Stream Spa at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn. A day pass (available Mondays through Thursdays) grants you access to the outdoor geothermal mineral pools, an elaborate indoor bathing ritual area, a fireside lounge and much more. If you're looking for a more traditional public bathhouse, head to Morton's Warm Springs in Glen Ellen. Relaxed, family-friendly and inexpensive, Morton's is like your favorite public pool, but with better water. Bring a picnic or even your dog (though not into the pool itself).
Then again, the springs and pools are just the start of Sonoma County's wellness offerings. Practically everything that's grown locally finds its way into at least one sublime spa offering, from the lavender and olive oils that make their way into massages to the antioxidant-rich wine grapes and grape seeds that supercharge scrubs, facials and wraps. But arguably the best survey of Sonoma County's abundance—spa style, at least—is the Nurtured by Nature treatment at the Farmhouse Inn's Wellness Barn, an extravaganza that includes a wild mustard seed mask, an apple blossom scrub, an olive oil balm and—in honor of the redwoods—a woodsy mist.
Hang with notable locals
While you might spy a celeb on your wine country tour, why not go for a sure thing? Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus, Lucy et al. are easy to find in Santa Rosa and, unlike other A-Listers, this gang is always happy to pose for photos. To delve into the life of their creator (and longtime local resident), head to the Charles M. Schulz Museum, home to a vast archive of original drawings and personal artifacts.
If you arrive by November 8, you can catch Girl Power in Peanuts—a fun look at the comic’s co-ed beginnings and evolution. You have a bit longer—until January 16 2022—to catch Adults by Schulz, a rare glimpse at all seven strips of a little-known grownup-centered comic series the artist developed in the 1950s. The latest exhibit, which just opened and runs through March 13, 2022, is the most personal: Drawn from Life introduces you to the real-world people, places and events that inspired the names, personalities and exploits of the Peanuts gang.
Get rollin' on the river
Sonoma County's 110-mile waterway got its current name—the Russian River—from the first non-native people to settle in the valley: the Russian fur-traders who established Fort Ross in the 1800s. Around the same time, a lumber and mining boom brought in the railroad, and soon the steep, wild valley was dotted with little towns. Factor in the lush forests and lake-fed swimming holes, and the Russian River has been a favorite escape for city folk ever since. Thus the abundance of eco-adventure operators equipped with kayaks, canoes, inner tubes or paddle boards. One good choice? Healdsburg's Russian River Kayak and Canoe Trips, whose three- to five-hour paddling excursions make for a relaxed intro to the area.
If you've got more serious paddling skills, consider starting on the other end of the river, where stronger currents sweep dramatically into the Pacific. Reserve early with WaterTreks Eco-Tours for a self-guided or expert-led adventure through a rich estuary and protected marine sanctuary, where sightings of eagles, osprey, otters, seals and sea lions aren't at all uncommon. You might even spot a whale in the distance.
The Sonoma County coast is the real-life version of the Northern California dream-scape, where dramatic cliffs and rugged headlands separate innumerable little beaches, whose wind and waves can get impressively wild. To see what we mean, head to Sonoma Coast State Park—17 miles of gorgeous public coastline from Bodega Head to just north of Jenner. While the water is too rough for swimming, the beaches are perfect for combing, hiking and tidepooling. The most dramatic coastal views start around Goat Rock, where a colony of harbor seals is often snoozing on the sand bars.
For killer coastal views with a side of history, head 11 miles north of Jenner to Fort Ross, a Russian-era compound with exhibits on this imperial settlement, as well as on the early California Ranch era and the indigenous Kashaya territory.
And if you find the Sonoma County coast so compelling you don't want to leave (spoiler alert: you will), settle in at Timber Cove—a place that feels almost like your coolest friend's cabin, complete with fire pits, ping pong and pool (plus ocean views for days).
Eat like a food editor
From the Robb Report’s inclusion of Little Saint among the most anticipated restaurant openings of the season to the Food & Wine editor in chief's recently professed obsession "with the quality of Sonoma County's local ingredients and its winding terrain of valleys, mountains, forests, and farms," the nation’s top food editors serve up endless praise for this county, where amazing food trucks and farmers' markets sit cheek by well-earned jowl with Michelin-starred restaurants.
Apropos of the latter: Among the just-announced Bay Area Michelin ratings, a new star was born, literally: Barndiva in Healdsburg just scored a star, thanks to “prime local produce and sustainability…a tangible deftness in such aromatic flavor combinations as seared dayboat scallops with lemongrass-ginger butter sauce; as well as hamachi with green papaya, fermented mango, and serrano oil.” Meanwhile, the same town’s three-star standout, SingleThread Farms, retained its rating this year with a menu “acutely tuned to each micro-season in Sonoma County,” one prime example being the cold-weather pumpkin tartare with Dungeness crab and miso-makrut lime foam.
As you’re probably starting to suspect, Healdsburg is something of a culinary pilgrimage site, with other hotspots that range from Dry Creek Kitchen, the Charlie Palmer-founded modern American restaurant credited with launching Sonoma County onto the global foodie stage almost two decades ago to Chalkboard, an awardee of Michelin Bib Gourmand status thanks to—among other things—the homemade pastas.
On the other hand, some of the best food in Sonoma County can be found in the unlikeliest of locations, from the tapas-happy Underwood Bar & Bistro in the postage-stamp-sized town of Graton to the breakfast and lunch local favorite Estero Café along Highway 1, to name a few. Don't overlook the wineries' food, either: Spectacular, locally-grown and -sourced fare lures foodies to J. Vineyards & Winery, Lynmar Estate and Jordan Winery (where the heirloom tomatoes alone account for more than 20 crop varieties in the resident gardens). And though it’s not a winery per se, the vineyard-surrounded Vintner’s Resort is home to John Ash & Co. a pioneer in the field of seasonal, locally-sourced delicacies—and their ideal Sonoma County wine pairings, of course.
See, swirl, smell, sip
Speaking of wineries, we couldn't let you get through a whole piece on Sonoma County without spending some time on the legendary local wines. With more than 425 wineries spread across the valley—from venerable, 19th-century pioneers like Gundlach Bundschu ("GunBun" to locals) and Buena Vista to creative small producers like Davis Family Vineyards and Preston —Sonoma County's cup runneth over.
But don't forget those 2021 Decanter World Wine Award winners we mentioned earlier—wineries that in and of themselves warrant a trip for true oenophiles. Be sure to visit at least one, from Frei Brothers for the Reserve Merlot (platinum) to Rodney Strong Vineyards for the Alexander's Crown Single Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (gold) to Alexander Valley Vineyards for the merlot (silver).
Wherever you find yourself tasting the local wines, they'll not only taste good, but also serve up a feel-good element: Having resolved seven years ago to become the most sustainable wine region on earth, Sonoma County has been working steadily toward that goal, and today, a reported 99% of the county's vineyard acreage has been certified sustainable. Thus the Sustainably Farmed Sonoma County Grapes label you'll find on millions of bottles of wine.
Don't let the other local beverages feel left out
Not to be outdone, the local beer, cider and booze are gaining their own acclaim. In fact, you'll find a number of hotspots, from Parliament Brewing Company to Young & Yonder Spirits (try the award-winning absinthe) included in the Sonoma County Tasting Pass alongside standout vineyards.
A few other options to consider If craft beer's your thing: The Barlow, an open-air marketplace in Sebastopol that houses Crooked Goat Brewing, Woodfour Brewing Company, and Seismic Brewing Co., for starters; Henhouse Brewing Company, known for a focus on unusual and "underappreciated" styles; Russian River Brewing Co., where lines form around the block for Pliny the Younger; and the Shady Oak Barrel House, whose award-winning sours and hoppy, artisanal ales on best enjoyed on the creekside patio.
Hard cider, while usually made from apples, can be brewed with almost any fruit, as well as hops. Sample the surprisingly sophisticated results at Sebastopol's Ace Cider, home to a staggering variety, Horse and Plow, surrounded by organic gardens and orchards—or Golden State Cider, whose tap room serves up such favorites as the hibiscus-infused Jamaica. Windsor's Tilted Shed Ciderworks is also worth a stop, where you can try smoked or barrel-aged ciders, among other deliciousness.
Taking the farm-to-glass concept to whole new level, small-batch distilleries are blooming in Sonoma County's fertile soil—some offering tastings and tours. Check out Sebastopol's Spirit Works (home to famous Sloe Gin); Sonoma's HelloCello (the limoncello, rivals any you'll try in Italy) and Petaluma's Griffo Distillery (don't miss the cold-brew coffee liqueur). Point being: There are endless—and endlessly delicous—ways to toast to your time in Sonoma County.