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A Jam-Packed Itinerary For California’s Sonoma County
The Sonoma County area really packs a punch. It’s a super easy drive from San Francisco, encompasses 400+ wineries, has amazing local food (and craft beer) in cute little towns, offers some of the best coastal views and hiking, and allows you to explore towering redwoods. All in a very compact area.
I mean…when you put it that way, what’s NOT to love?!
The Sonoma area is a perfect destination for a long weekend trip. But it also offers so much to do that spending a week—or even more—can be extra rewarding, and it gives you a chance to take your time, move at the slower pace the area embraces, and discover little hidden gems.
No question, there are gobs of awesome wineries to be explored, and a pretty great craft brewery scene too. Take a float down the Russian River then marvel at giant redwoods. Gorge yourself silly on food made with fresh, local ingredients. Watch seals bob as giant waves crash against the coastal cliffs. Have I sold you yet??
If you’re planning a Sonoma trip, here is inspiration for your itinerary:
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Understanding the area
The first step in planning a trip to the area is understanding what it is. If you say “Sonoma”, you might need to be more specific on what you mean. Sonoma is a town, a county, and a valley.
In this case we’re really talking about the whole of Sonoma County, which stretches just north of San Francisco from the edge of Napa to the Pacific Ocean. It’s pretty big, about the size of Rhode Island!
It encompasses smaller areas like Point Reyes/Bodega Bay, up the Sonoma Coast, the actual Sonoma Valley, Russian River Valley, and more. I like this simple map from SonomaCounty.com to give you a sense of the area.
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Sonoma is known first and foremost for its wine, and boasts 12 different appellations. The peak season (and when weather is most pleasant) is June through October, including the September/October (depending on weather and other variables) harvest season. It can get pretty hot though and this is when it will be most crowded and expensive.
May and November can be good alternatives, and while it might be colder in the winter it’s truly beautiful year-round (there’s something to be said for winter beaches…).
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Where to stay in Sonoma County
Both of my trips were for work, so I needed to stay close to our wineries and ended up in Santa Rosa and Guerneville at different times.
I’ve stayed both in Santa Rosa at the Hyatt Regency Sonoma Wine Country and in Guerneville at the unique Sonoma Orchid Inn (now called Mine and Farm, The Inn at Guerneville), and can recommend both. The former is a nice hotel, very “upscale chain hotel with a local flair”, and the latter is a unique B&B.
More than anything I’d consider all the places you want to visit and find a pretty central location as driving times can add up (two-lane highways, getting stuck behind slow moving vehicles, etc.). Besides the two mentioned above, I’d add Healdsburg to the list for sure, as well as something along the coast, and maybe Sebastapol or Petaluma.
It would be worth looking for wineries that offer an accommodation on-property as well, like a little guest house type thing. That can be a really cool, intimate way to experience the area as well.
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Getting around the Sonoma area
One of the huge selling points for visiting Sonoma County is that it’s such an easy drive from San Francisco, so whether you’re a Bay area local wanting to get away or a tourist flying into SFO (or tiny Santa Rosa), it’s really convenient. You basically leave the San Francisco airport and head right up the coast. A few things to know…
Yes, you absolutely need a car. This is not the type of trip where public transportation is a valid option or solely relying on Uber or Lyft will work. Renting a car for a few days or even a week is generally affordable (especially if you have a good credit card that offers car rental insurance), but I’d recommend not waiting til the last minute.
Don’t rush. It’s mostly two-lane roads and fairly rural-feeling area, and it’s not uncommon to get stuck behind slow-moving vehicles (including tractors). You’ll be exhausted and irritated if you schedule your itinerary too tight, and so much of the pleasure is in stopping constantly for photos, impulse pastries, or little hikes.
There is very little cell service!!! There are many spots around the area that are total dead signal, or you might get one bar but you can’t actually do anything with it. Plan ahead and download offline maps, take snapshots of directions, and just realize that you might be rollin’ 90s-style. (Note, I’ve visited both with Verizon and AT&T and it was the same on both, and for all the people I was with, including locals.) A backup battery is your friend.
It’s always a kick to drive over the Golden Gate Bridge, but it’s especially magical around sunset. Not to mention that the views on the coast around twilight are beautiful.
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Things to do in Sonoma
Within the rest of this post I lay out lots of different things to see and do, where to eat, a couple of hikes that I absolutely loved, and much more. I’ve done a number of deeper posts on some of these, so have linked to those throughout as well.
It’s laid out more freeform rather than an exact day-by-day itinerary, because length of time and your particular interests make a big difference in the best itinerary.
First, it really is about the drive…just wander
This is very much a “the journey IS the destination” kind of place—and that especially applies to the Sonoma Coast. It’s less about specific sights and things to do, and really about just driving along Highway 1 and experiencing the stunning coastal views.
You definitely need to pay a visit to Goat Rock Beach, and there are a few others along the way that will call your name. But it’s also just stopping at a random pullout whenever the view grabs at you and you MUST get a photo right this minute!
That doesn’t mean that the inland drives aren’t awesome, though. Once you get off the main highway you’re treated to bucolic farm views, beautiful vineyards whizzing by (especially gorgeous in fall!), and a lovely “slice of life” feel.
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Do an epic coastal hike
If you’re planning a trip to Sonoma County, I highly recommend you include at least one coastal hike on your itinerary. And MY pick is Bodega Head Trail in the 17-mile-long Sonoma Coast State Park.
It offers staggering views up the Pacific coast, along with beautiful vistas of inland Bodega Bay. And it’s an easy and fairly level hike (1.7-mile loop…ish) that people of all fitness levels can enjoy.
Why do I love this hike so much? With relatively little effort you get steep jagged cliffs, crashing white waves, gorgeous turquoise waters and hidden little beaches to look at, and swaths of bright wildflowers occasionally. At certain times of year you can supposedly even see gray whales. On a pretty day this is GLORIOUS.
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Get your Sideways on…it’s all about the wineries!
The Sonoma Valley area (including Sonoma Coast and Russian River Valley) has been one of the U.S.’s premier wine countries for decades, and probably before that. I’m actually reading this compilation of old Gourmet wine writings right now and it’s really interesting to hear how they were talking about this area just after Prohibition ended.
Sonoma’s wine country is certainly well-known, but I feel like (outside California) it still flies a little under-the-radar vs. the hype of Napa Valley. And so if you’re visiting this area, exploring some of the 400+ wineries is a must-do!
What I love is that it has a very chill rural feel. Small two-lane highways connect the different parts of larger Sonoma County region (and little pockets of unique terroir), from Alexander Valley to Geyserville, Sebastapol to Healdsburg, Guerneville and the Russian River Valley to the coast.
I have a much deeper post on Sonoma wineries to visit and how to plan your trip, including some wineries I loved, a couple that were just okay, and then some tasting rooms I visited in Healdsburg. As you’re planning your trip, look for a variety of types of wineries (small/big, corporate/family-run, specializing in different varietals) and experiences.
For instance you don’t need to take a full tour at every winery, but choose one or two where you do actually get out in the vineyards and into the cellars to see the process. Bonus points if you’re able to visit during harvest (September-ish, depending) and can see things first-hand.
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Some wineries will offer special types of tastings, maybe with a meal, cheese, or chocolate. Others have activities like cornhole or croquet. Many will bring in live music and food trucks on the weekend. Pace yourself and drink plenty of water 🙂
If you’re wanting to do a proper tour, you may need to book ahead (especially post-COVID, when tourism numbers haven’t fully bounced back).
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And don’t forget champagne!
And there’s one slightly unique option from a winery perspective, and that’s visiting the historic home of Korbel champagne. It’s been here since 1882, so is a mainstay of the wine industry in Sonoma County.
Korbel is located in Guerneville, a quirky little liberal town on the banks of the Russian River, full of canoers, cute coffee shops, artsy shops, and more. The tour and tasting are free to the public (which is crazy), and you get to learn about how they make it in the traditional méthode champenoise like the French. See tour times and other details here.
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Indulge your inner foodie with a special dinner
There is so much amazing food to sample around the Sonoma County area, and much of it brings the best of local food and farm-to-table to life. If you’re a big Michelin-star fan, there are a few in the area, but don’t get hung up on that since there are so many great restaurants to choose from.
The one reservation I had made ahead of time was at Healdsburg’s Dry Creek Kitchen, owned by local chef legend Charlie Palmer. I signed on for the prix fixe menu with wine pairing, and settled in to enjoy. They started with an amazing herb and sea salt bread, then a salad with Asian pear, cambozola cheese, and elderflower vinaigrette.
Then it was a corn soup, salmon, and maybe lamb? Honestly I was getting a little fuzzy at that point due to jet lag and copious amounts of food and wine. Desert was some kind of budino but at that point I was dreaming of my bed.
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Another local gem was The Spinster Sisters in Santa Rosa, which has a charming library-like vibe (the cool kind, not the musty kind). The food was awesome and the ambiance wonderful.
I also recommend getting a reservation at River’s End in Jenner, right around sunset. It’s situated right on the coast with amazing views, with a little bit of an old school feel like it’s been an institution here for a while. I enjoyed sipping delicious cocktails and slipped out every so often to capture pics of the sunset. Food, drinks, and service were all great.
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Explore adorable Healdsburg
There are a few “must-visit” towns throughout the Sonoma County area, and (fairly) centrally-located Healdsburg is deservedly on that list. Downtown Healdsburg is known for its many, many winery tasting rooms, but also has amazing restaurants and some great cocktail options.
I had a big meal ahead of me (more on that below!), so couldn’t go all-out on winery tastings but did stop by both Stonestreet and Siduri’s tasting rooms. Both visits were enjoyable (very different vibes), and I wandered around Healdsburg Plaza to enjoy some sun and shopping for a while.
Depending on the time of day and your appetite, you’ve got options for craft beer, fresh homemade pie, wine, and restaurants right there on the plaza. The town also has boutique shopping, spas, museums, and more. It’s one of the great options for where to base yourself as well.
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After doing bopping around to a couple tasting rooms, I pulled up a stool at Spoonbar to try a couple of their inventive cocktails. They do have a food menu that looks great as well, but I already had reservations at Dry Creek Kitchen.
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Sample local brews
While wines (rightfully) get the attention in Sonoma County, the area has a booming craft beer scene as well. So if vino isn’t your thing or you just believe variety is the spice of life, make sure to seek out some of the many options.
The breweries are fairly scattered throughout the area, but if you’re looking to be efficient I’d concentrate on Sebastapol and Santa Rosa for several clustered options. There’s a great little neighborhood full of them called The Barlow in Sebastapol that is definitely worth a visit.
I really enjoyed milk stout at Henhouse (I visited the original Petaluma location), the vanilla bean stout at Sebastapol’s Crooked Goat, the coffee black lager at Woodfour Brewing (also in Sebastapol), and the Imperial porter at Russian River Brewing (in Santa Rosa). I also sampled the ciders at Golden State Cider, a nice break from the heavier beers I favor and a great gluten-free option.
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Enjoy casual locally-sourced food
It’s not only fancy multi-course meals that will wow you…there are plenty of great Sonoma County food options to explore.
On my first afternoon, straight off the plane, I stumbled upon the adorable Wild Goat Bistro in downtown Petaluma. I devoured a yummy fried goat cheese crostini and a thin pizza with butternut squash, caramelized onions, and melty cheese. Just what the doctor ordered.
I also had amazing fried brussels sprouts with aioli and cotija, and fried cheese curds with a garlic herb oil dipping sauce at Woodfour Brewing in Sebastapol (pic above).
And, needing a light and simple lunch at one point, absolutely devoured the burrata and heirloom tomato salad at boon eat + drink (not to be confused with boon hotel + spa, so check your maps!).
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Walk among giants…soak in the redwoods
I’d always been fascinated with the thought of California’s ginormous sequoias and redwoods, and the Sonoma County area gives you a chance to see one of those (the redwoods) up close and personal. These trees are found along the northern California coast, and I chose the easiest option for my stay—Armstrong Woods.
This is a must-do in the area in my opinion, and it doesn’t have to take a ton of time because Armstrong Woods is not that big. One major selling point is that walking on the main trails here is SUPER easy, and in most cases wheelchair-accessible, so it’s an activity that all ages and levels of fitness can enjoy.
While the redwoods are taller and skinnier than their famous sequoia counterparts, don’t be fooled…they’re still super wide around! You can see from these photos how big they really are (ME for scale). We fit like…20 people inside that hollowed-out tree?
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Make sure you check out the Colonel Armstrong Tree, the oldest in the grove at an estimated 1,400 years old! I found it difficult to truly capture the size (particularly the height) of the trees with my camera.
The park does a good job of providing some education and history without it feeling heavy-handed or touristy. Even with the paths and the fences, the park still feels very organic, like you’re just hiking in the woods (which…you are).
There is such a peace here, a hush. While there were a few people on the trails it still felt like I had the place to myself.
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Become an expert in the local coffee scene
On my last trip I spent 10 days in the Sonoma County area, and made a point to seek out different local coffee shop options. Because I’m an early bird to begin with, the West Coast really screws me up and I’m “up and at ’em” sooooo early. Hence, a morning run and then coffee.
Depending on where you’re staying, here were a few of my favorites (heavily Guerneville area as that’s where I stayed). Sadly one or two have closed, but here’s what’s still open as of late 2021.
- Coffee Bazaar in Guerneville
- Crooks Coffee in Santa Rosa (absolutely adorable)
- Baked On The River in Guerneville
I’m absolutely in love with the Sonoma area, and hope to return (again!) in the near future. Hopefully this will help you plan your own perfect adventure!
Other trip itineraries combining landscapes, wine, beer, & more:
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- Planning the Ultimate 7-Day Argentina Itinerary
- New Zealand Explorations: Nelson & Abel Tasman National Park
- Why Slovenia Should Be On Your Bucket List…And What to Do
- Epic Road Trip Itinerary: A Guide To The Oregon Coast
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