I first traveled to Sonoma County, California, in the summer 2002, when I came to visit my then new girlfriend Lindsay in Guerneville. We’ve been returning there together once or twice a year ever since—it has now become my home away from home. I never had a chance to tour the area by myself so when I passed through on my way from my solo adventure back up to Portland I took my mother-in-law’s Mazda Miata convertible for a day trip around the western part of the county.
West Sonoma County (roughly an area west of Highway 101) is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited in the world. Vineyards, farms, redwood forests, the Pacific coast—it’s all there. There is so much to see and do every trip is a new adventure. On this drive, I revisited some of my most beloved spots and visited others for the first time. Here are my recommendations for your day trip in West Sonoma County.
Stop #1: Guerneville
Guerneville was my introduction to West Sonoma County. It’s a charming little town on the Russian River, a popular gay resort, and a gateway to the area’s wonders. Browse shopy-shops, eat and drink out, have coffee at Coffee Bazaar, pop into the junk store next to the Safeway, or, if you are there on a Thursday, visit the afternoon Farmer’s Market.
For me the main draw is the Armstrong Woods State National Reserve two miles north, featuring a primeval coast redwood forest.
Several trails of varying difficulty lead through the park (see the trail map and descriptions). The easiest, 1.5 mile long Nature Trail, winds flat through the grove on the valley floor, past the park’s tallest (310 ft / 94.5 m) and the oldest (1,400 years old) trees. A breakfast picnic in the area at the end of the trail should start your day on the right note.
Stop #2: Sebastopol
Head out east on River Road, past Korbel Champagne Cellars winery, all the way to Fulton Road and take Highway 12. Before you reach Sebastopol, the center of the the area’s wine country named after Sevastopol in Crimea, stroll around the Laguna de Santa Rosa Wetlands Preserve. In Barlow, a repurposed industrial area on the edge of town, visit the new-ish brewery Woodfour. It leans toward Belgian and sour styles, and while these are not my mug of beer they were surprisingly refreshing on the hot day.
The food at Woodfour looked fantastic, too. But for lunch head to Papas y Pollo Southwest Mesquite Grill, a few minutes south on Highway 116, where you can wash down the Mexican fare with the local Guayakí organic yerba mate. For desert, head back to town to Screaming Mimi’s for amazing ice cream and to pin your hometown on the map (say hello to my Košice, Slovakia pin!).
Stops #3 and #4: Occidental and Bodega
Heading north on Highway 116, turn on Occidental or Graton (my favorite) Road. Make optional stops at scattered delis, markets, and wineries, as the road enters farmland and weaves into the coastal forest. In Occidental, another quaint, one-street town (a village, really), stock up on road-trip supplies and food souvenirs at the general store or any of the fancy food shops around town, have a late coffee at Howard Station Cafe (get there before 2:30; the place is best for brunch), or just continue driving west on Bodega Highway. If you travel between Friday and Monday, make sure to stop at the Wild Flour Bread bakery in the township of Freestone.
When you leave the woods behind, you may miss Bodega were it not for the white church steeple and imposing old school house building sticking out of the rolling hills. Alfred Hitchcock filmed his famous film The Birds here. The school house is a private residence now but the Bodega Country Store down the road is a mini-museum and gift shop for all things Birds and the master.
Stop #5: Bodega Bay
Continue on Bodega Highway and turn right on Highway 1 toward Bodega Bay. Cherish the moment when the Pacific Ocean comes into view. You are now in seafood and clam chowder territory; while the former can be pricey, try the Boat House for the latter. I avoid the town’s main tourist attraction, The Tides Wharf, but stop by to see what the fuss is about, and go instead to Lucas Wharf.
Continue on Highway 1 and at the edge of town turn to Bodega Head. Past a fishing boat marina and a couple of seafood joints, climb the hill to the trail head for spectacular views of Sonoma Coast State Park.
The Bodega Head Trail is well-worth the hike and on a good day you can watch a Hemingway lookalike watch whales.
Stop #6: Sonoma Coast State Park
The Sonoma Coast State Park is one of the most spectacular stretches of coastline in the world. You could spend a day combing sandy beaches tucked between bluffs and headlands, or hiking along the cliff (see map here and here) while surfers try to catch that one wave. Alas, swimming is prohibited and dangerous due to jagged rocks, sleeper waves, strong currents, and rip tides. And when the fog rolls in, it envelops you in the feeling you’re at the edge of the world.
I like to stop at Duncans Landing, Shell, and Goat Rock beaches, but pretty much any beach on Sonoma Coast is worth a stop. Just be sure to keep your eyes on the windy road as you drive along the 19 miles of all that beauty.
Stop #7: Duncan’s Mills
After you leave the coast behind and just before the bridge over the mouth of the Russian River, there sits the most unexpected and more than decent Indian restaurant, the Sizzling Tandoor. If you miss the coast and don’t feel like Indian, continue on Highway 1 to Jenner and dine at River’s End with the views of the river spilling into the ocean and of the sunset. Otherwise turn right on Highway 116 and drive along the Russian River to Duncan’s Mills, population 85 and home to the best coffee shop (Gold Coast Coffee and Bakery) and bar (Blue Heron Restaurant and Tavern) on the river. On the July 4th weekend you can attend the local rodeo and there are events in the area all the time (I saw roadside ads for the annual Cazadero Firefighters Dance and the Bodega Volunteer Fire Department Big Event).
Stop #8: Monte Rio
As you head back to Guerneville, detour in Monte Rio for a dip at one of the Russian River beaches. Cap your trip with a movie at the Rio Theater, housed in a 1950 Quonset hut and recently saved from destitution by Zach Braff. (another place I have yet to go to). Afterward it’s just a short drive back to Guerneville along the sleepy Russian River.
What a day!
Here’s a map of the day trip around West Sonoma County:
And a slideshow containing all the photos from the day: