Now's the Time for Your Sonoma 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—one of them fresh off a Best in Show victory at the heated 2019 Decanter World Wine Awards.
But here's the thing: Wine is just the beginning of what you'll find in Sonoma County. This prime patch of NorCal turf is also home to 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 grove for that. At one end of the spectrum, you’ll find the towering icons of Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve. Established in the 1870s by a retired colonel and lumberman who recognized the importance of conservation, the reserve houses almost 6000 old-growth redwoods, hiking trails, all manner of wildlife—even a historic outdoor theater that you should hit for the annual Old Grove Festival of music and theater if you happen to be in the neighborhood Sept. 14-15. But whenever you go, be sure to salute the Colonel's namesake redwood—which is the oldest tree in the grove at an estimated 1,400 years.
On the other end of the tree-hugging spectrum lies 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.
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 grants you access to the mineral pools, steam/sauna rooms and Watsu pool. 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, please).
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. One of the timeliest reasons to go: the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, the festival for which—who knew?!—Snoopy’s adorable sidekick was named. Catch the commemorative exhibit now through March 2020.
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 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. Just a little farther north is Salt Point State Park, with 20 miles of hiking trails, surreal tafoni (honeycomb-like caverns) and the aforementioned pygmy forests.
And if you find the Sonoma 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
Just last month, Sonoma's food made Bon Appétit declare, "Okay, fine, California: You Win at Everything." And the month before that, Food + Wine was directing readers to eat their way through the region ASAP. Point is, the fooderati can't get enough of Sonoma County, where Michelin-starred restaurants sit cheek by well-earned jowl with amazing food trucks and farmers' markets.
To get a proper taste for yourself, you'll want to sample the full range. And why not start at the top? 2019 has brought the first-ever Michelin three-star rating to Sonoma County—at Healdsburg's SingleThread Farms, to be precise. (Perhaps not coincidentally, the World's 50 Best Restaurants awards named SingleThread last year's One to Watch.) Make reservations as soon as you decide you're headed this way so that the legendary 11-course tasting menu is a sure thing. Michelin notes that "the menu is acutely tuned to each micro-season in Sonoma County, thanks to the bounty provided by farmer and co-owner, Katina Connaughton." Her husband, chef Kevin Connaughton, is a master of Japanese clay pot cooking, so don't be surprised to see the likes of fukkura-san—black cod atop a broth of ember-grilled fish bones—on the menu, along with, say, Japanese cheesecake.
Of course, SingleThread is hardly Healdsburg's lone superstar. There's also Dry Creek Kitchen, the Charlie Palmer-founded modern American restaurant credited with launching Sonoma County onto the global foodie stage almost two decades ago; or Madrona Manor, where chef Jesse Mallgren has earned a Michelin star for using the estate's organic garden bounty to exquisite effect; and Chalkboard, a 2019 awardee of Michelin Bib Gourmand status thanks to—among other things—the homemade pastas (try the bucatini with pepperoni and Meyer lemon, if you can).
Then again, 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: It's the culinary program at Scribe Winery, after all, that drew Bon Appétit's food director to Sonoma, where she shadowed co-owner Kelly Mariani in the kitchen, home to spectacular, winery-grown fruits and veggies, all manner of edible flowers and a big, wood-fired grill. Other wineries you should make a point of noshing at: Jordan Winery (where the heirloom tomatoes alone account for more than 20 crop varieties in the resident gardens) and Lynmar Estate (don't miss the heirloom carrot rice grits).
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's cup runneth over. And then, of course, there's that Best-in-Show winery we mentioned at the outset: Three Sticks, creator of the 2019 Decanter World Wine Awards' top Pinot Noir.
And though the choice can seem overwhelming, there's a great way to cover a lot of ground in not a lot of time: Hit one of the many wine events of festival season, which starts in late August and ramps up to a fever pitch during the September harvest, and winds down again in November. A few of the top festivals: Taste of Sonoma (expect exquisite artisanal wines and dishes from the most iconic wineries and chefs); Sonoma County Wine Auction (proceeds go to dozens of worthy nonprofits), Sonoma County Harvest Fair (home of the World Championship Grape Stomp); and Pinot on the River (a showcase for 40+ wineries and food artisans). Bonus: With Sonoma County having resolved to become the nation's first totally sustainable wine-growing region by the end of this year, you can feel extra-good about whatever's in your glass.
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. If craft beer's your thing, The Barlow—Sebastopol's chic open-air marketplace—makes for an excellent base camp, where you'll find Crooked Goat Brewing, Woodfour Brewing Company, and Seismic Brewing Co. (as well as excellent restaurants, tasting rooms and shops). Henhouse Brewing Company, for its part, began as a bootstrap operation with a focus on unusual and "underappreciated" styles—and now owns two tasting rooms, one in Petaluma and one in Santa Rosa, each with an impressive drink menu and a rotating schedule of food trucks. Two more Santa Rosa standouts: Russian River Brewing Co., where lines form around the block when there's a new Pliny batch in stock, 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 new tap room serves up such favorites as the hibiscus-infused Hamaica. 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's fertile soil—some offering tastings and tours. Favorites include Healdsburg's Young & Yonder Spirits (try the award-winning absinthe); 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).