Fun Things to do in Sonoma County… not just Sonoma Valley

categories: Northern California

I am in love with Sonoma. My wife and I have been coming to Sonoma for wine tasting weekends since we moved to California in the 1980s. But over the last few years, we have increasingly been exploring more of Sonoma County than just the famed wineries of the Sonoma Valley. Don’t get me wrong. I love the Sonoma Valley but if that is all you have seen of the area… you are missing some of the most fun things to do in Sonoma County and the most romantic places to stay.

Love sign - Paradise Ridge Winery - Santa Rosa

Table of contents: (Hide)

Adventure Travel in Sonoma County

While there are some great wine tours and bike tours in Sonoma Valley, for real adventure you need to venture further afield.

Zip Lines in Sonoma County

The Russian River area has had numerous camps for years and many of them have had a difficult time making ends meet in recent years but one clever camp set up a wonderful zipline course. My wife had visited Sonoma Canopy Tours a few years back with some girlfriends and gave this trip to me for Christmas. The course includes 8 ziplines, 2 rope bridges, and rappelling down from a redwood tree. This video is shot via a helmet camera.

Recently Sonoma Canopy added a chance to stay overnight in a treehouse where you access the treehouse by zipline. Yes, there are bathrooms in the treehouse.

Rafting in Sonoma County

At least in normal years, there is rafting in Sonoma County on the Russian River. This is not the same kind of whitewater you can find in the foothills of California on the south fork of the American River but it can be a fun way to enjoy a hot day in the area.

Hot air balloon

Hot Air Ballooning in Sonoma County

The very first time we went up in a hot air balloon was from the Santa Rosa airport.  companies like Up & Away Ballooning in Windsor and Wine Country Balloons in Santa Rosa still do tours like the ones we took.

If you have not been on a hot air balloon ride let me set the stage. You get up early typically and drive to the airport or some other launching spot. You watch and maybe help a bit as they layout the balloon and the basket then fire up the burner. The balloon starts to take shape and before you know it, you are ready to launch. By this point, the balloon seems to want to get in the sky and they are holding it down as you climb on board. It rises quickly but with little sense of motion. While they fire the burner it is all noise and heat, but when they stop it is just the sound of the wind and the giggles of the people on board. You never quite know where you will land but an experienced pilot will put you down somewhere safe as the chase vehicle catches up with you and the balloon is packed up for another run.

Rhino - Safari West

Safari West

I think that anyone who loves to travel should get to Africa at least once and go on a safari. It is an amazing experience. Safari West is not the same as a safari in South Africa, Botswana, or Tanzania, but it is a whole lot easier and you don’t have to be on a plane for a day and a half.  Safari West is a wild animal park just off Porter Creek Road in between Santa Rosa and Calistoga. The highlight of the experience for most visitors is the tour of their 400-acre preserve that is filled with 1,000 different animals from 90 different species. Unlike your trip to Africa, they can guarantee you will see a rhino.

Safari West also has a handful of tent cabins where you can go glamping for the night for an extra amazing experience.

Wine Tasting in Sonoma County

There are over 100 vineyards in Sonoma Valley but when you expand that area to all of Sonoma County there are more than 425. If you limit yourself to just the valley then you are missing the wines from places like the Dry Creek Valley, the Russian River Valley, and the Alexander Valley. One of my favorite Zinfandels these days comes from Alexander Valley Vineyards although I have not been there in person… yet.

Paradise Ridge Winery

Paradise Ridge Winery

One of my favorite wineries in Sonoma County is Paradise Ridge Winery north of Santa Rosa at the eastern edge of the Russian River AVA. I visited Paradise Ridge a few years back as part of a story about Santa Rosa, but they have had an eventful few years in between my visits. In October of 2017 Paradise Ridge, along with some of the local neighborhoods in Santa Rosa burned down in the Tubbs Fire. But Paradise Ridge Winery is back with a new building located with the same amazing view that it had before it was destroyed.

Paradise Ridge Winery

There are some wineries that I love the wine. There are some wineries that I love the experience. Paradise Ridge Winery is a place where I love both. We tried the Logia tasting which had 5 wines paired with local cheese and meats.

2012 Blanc de Blanc Late Disgorge “LOVE” $52
2018 Chardonnay Nagasawa $44
2017 Pinot Noir Walter’s Vineyard $54
2015 Convict Zinfandel $48
2015 Elevation Cabernet Sauvignon $55

These were paired with food from local partners:

Cheese from Valley Ford Cheese & Creamery, Valley Ford near Bodega Bay:

  • Fresh Farmer’s Cheese
  • Highway One Fontina
  • Estero Gold Montesio
  • Grazin ‘ Girl Gorgonzola

Meats from Journeyman Meat Co., Healdsburg:

  • Soppressata
  • Finocchiona
  • Coppa

Breads from Costeauz French Bakery, Healdsburg

It was all wonderful. I was particularly fond of the red wines and the Montesio hard cheese.

Paradise Ridge sculpture slideshow

One of the distinguishing features of Paradise Ridge is that there are many fantastical and huge sculptures on the property. Walter Byck, who founded Paradise Ridge, was also involved in the early days of the Burning Man festival. If you have been to burning man, you might recognize some of these sculptures as coming from there. Their best-known sculpture is the huge metal LOVE sign. It is one of the reasons (along with that great view) the winery is a popular spot for weddings.

Region at the Barlow - Sebastopol

Region at the Barlow – Sebastopol

A word needs to be said about The Barlow in Sebastopol. This is a 4 block area of downtown that turned the old Barlow applesauce cannery into a series of hip restaurants, shops, and breweries. The Barlow is one of those places that you go and say, “why don’t we have something this cool in my town?” It has become a haven for foodies and a center for nightlife.

At the Barlow is another brilliant idea which is Region. Not every vineyard in Sonoma County can afford to run their own tasting room. Region is a wine tasting room for 25 of these wineries, featuring at least 50 wines from 14 different appellations. With that many wines, they needed a different mechanism for letting you taste your way through their collection. You put money on a tasting card, pick up a glass, and then get your own wine from their wine dispensers. Put in your card and push a button for a taste or a glass.

Region at the Barlow - Sebastopol

They also have a tasting station set up for one of their 25 wineries where you can do a more traditional tasting. All the seating is currently outside because of COVID-19 and you need to wear your mask when you are not seated and sipping. Region does not serve food themselves but they let you order from some of their neighbors in the Barlow. You can order from the main counter and have the food delivered to your table. We ordered a Belly and Jelly from the Farmer’s Wife (honey lavender bacon, apricot conserve, aged cheddar, Pt. Reyes blue cheese, wildflower honey drizzle) which was yummy, and falafels from Fern Bar.

Region at the Barlow - Sebastopol

More to Sonoma’s Farms than Wine

Sonoma is known for its agriculture, sure, but mostly for wine.  When I grew up in the agricultural area of the Salinas Valley, agriculture wasn’t considered cool, but it is in Sonoma. But wine grapes are not the only thing that is grown or raised in Sonoma County.

Apple-a-Day Ratzlaff Ranch

Apple Picking in Sonoma County

Our most recent trip to the area was in October and that is not just grape harvest season but also apple harvest season. Sonoma County has at least 8 different cideries these days, but the activity that we opted for was apple picking. We went to Apple-a-Day Ratzlaff Ranch which was obviously very popular with families. While some smaller kids were enjoying the maze made out of bales of hay, most of the kids were showing their parents just how apple picking is done. At Apple-a-Day we were all given an apple picker on a telescoping pole so that we were not climbing ladders but kept our feet on the ground while we reached up into the trees to grab the apples.

COVID-19: Our trip was in 2020 so everyone was wearing face masks and Apple-a-Day was sanitizing the pickers and bags.

Apple-a-Day grows three different varieties of apples currently: Gravenstein, Golden Delicious, and Rome apples, but owner Mike Zarras plans to add a couple more varieties in the next few years. A reservation to come and pick costs $10 and you pay for the apples you pick. You can use your reservation fee to pay for the first $10 of apples.  You can also purchase some of their cold-pressed apple juice.

Bohemian Creamery

California Cheese Trail in Sonoma County

Did you know that California has a cheese trail? There are at least 8 different companies making cheese in Sonoma County. On our last trip up to Sonoma County, we visited the rather funky Bohemian Creamery in Sebastopol. This tiny cheese producer sits on a hill a mile outside of town where you can see their goat herds grazing. They make goat, cow, and water-buffalo cheeses. We brought home 3 half rounds of cheese:

  • Cowabunga: a cow’s milk cheese filled with a goat milk caramel called cajeta. This cheese tastes like a cheesecake. It tastes like a party.
  • Caproncino: a semi-hard goat cheese
  • HolyMoly: a soft mild goat cheese good for crumbling on a salad.

Sonoma County Hikes

I don’t know about you but I can’t do wine tasting all day long so I need some other activities. One of the cheapest, easiest, and best activities in Sonoma County is hiking. Like much of the rest of the coast of California, the hills are filled with state parks, county parks, and open space preserves. There are at least 150 miles of hiking trails in Sonoma County. Here are a few of my favorites.

Bodega Head - Sonoma Coast

Bodega Head – Sonoma Coast

Bodega Bay is a protected bay on the Sonoma Coast. The peninsula that shields Bodega Bay from the Pacific Ocean is Bodega Head. This is one of the best places in the county to see whales as they swim north from March thru June. The parking lot for the trailhead fills up on beautiful days… of which there are many, but surprisingly few of these people get much past the parking lot to explore the hiking trails along the cliffs to the south. This is an ever-changing landscape, so treat those cliff edges with some respect.

The main trail out to the end of Bodega Head is an easy trail. The coast is often 10 to 20 degrees cooler than it is inland so this is where you should go on a  hot summer day.

Spud Point Crab Company

If you are a fan of seafood then stop at the Spud Point Crab Company for some fresh cooked crab or clam chowder on the way out to Bodega Head. Be prepared to stand in line at this popular spot. Spud Point is directly across the road from the fishing fleet so you can’t get seafood fresher. Note a large number of crab traps in the lot next to the restaurant.

Sonoma Valley Regional Park - Glenn Ellen - Sonoma Valley

Sonoma Valley Regional Park – Glenn Ellen – Sonoma Valley

The Valley of the Moon Trail is Sonoma Valley Regional Park is an easy paved walk that even grandma can do. You can even bring your dog on a lease to this dog-friendly park. It winds its way up a small valley under the shade of a live oak forest. If this gets too crowded or too easy for you, then just head up one of the side trails into the hills on either side. Portions of Sonoma Valley Regional Park are also open to horses. This is a great hike for a warm day because of the shade on the main path.

Islands in the Sky Vista Loop - Sonoma Coast State Park

Islands in the Sky Vista Loop – Sonoma Coast State Park

If you are not looking for an easy trail and have turned up your nose at the last two, then may I suggest the Islands in the Sky Trail in Sonoma Coast State Park. I will be honest… this trail kicked my butt. Even just finding the start of the trail can be a challenge. Take Moscow road south from Duncan Mills on the Russian River. On the south side of the Russian River take the very first road to the right which is Freezeout Road. On your left, a little way down will be a small road and a locked gate which is the start of the trail. If you get to a sign that says private community, then you just missed it.

Islands in the Sky Vista Loop - Sonoma Coast State Park

The Islands in the Sky Trail climbs up the back of one of the hills going up and up and always more up. It is a steep climb but shaded. When you get to the top you have a great view of the hills over by the coast.

Grata - Windsor

Food in Sonoma County

Sonoma County is filled with great restaurants for any budget. It is a constantly changing scene. Even in the middle of 2020 while some restaurants are certainly closing, some restaurants are actually opening.

Grata - Windsor

Grata in Windsor

We had appetizers at Grata on the day that it opened. The menu at the Grata features classic Italian favorites with a heavy slant towards seafood. We tried the meatballs, the calamari, and (my favorite) the crispy fried risotto with marinara and parmesan. Chef Eric Foster is no stranger to the area. He previously worked for Stark Restaurants that own 7 popular restaurants in Santa Rosa and Healdsburg. Foster and his wife Christina’s new restaurant is about a block or two away from Windsor’s Town Green.

The Town Green in Windsor hosts a number of popular events in normal years like their Summer Nights on the Green Concerts series (in non-Covid-19 years), The Charlie Brown Christmas Tree Grove, and the Windsor Chili Cookoff in May.

The Gables Wine Country Inn

Stay in a Romantic Inn in Sonoma County

The Gables Wine Country Inn just outside Santa Rosa is a lesson that some people should be in the hospitality business. Owners Pam & Larry Willis took over the inn in 2012. The inn previously had 4 and a half stars on TripAdvisor but they contacted the company to get permission to start from scratch with the change in ownership because 4 and a half stars… was not what they were shooting for.

The Gables Wine Country Inn

A former engineer and school counselor, the couple was inspired to run an inn after two experiences at B&Bs on the Bourbon Trail outside of Louisville, Kentucky. One property was run with warmth and charm and hospitality. The other one… was not. In one of those, “we can do better than this” kind of moments the germ of the idea for The Gables was born. The search for the right property led them from Arkansas to Santa Rosa, California. They wanted a building like the 1877s, 8 room Victorian that they found. It also had to be someplace with better weather. Being in a world-class wine region was no coincidence either.

The rooms are classic country inn style with clawfoot bathtubs but also with some more modern touches like good wi-fi, a sound machine in the room, and a Bluetooth-enabled clock radio. There is no flat-screen TV with CNN, it is just not that sort of vacation.

The grounds feature their own vineyard, a barn complete with barn owls, a private redwood grove with a fire pit in it, a spacious outdoor deck, and a garden where many of the fresh vegetables in your breakfast will come from. In the summer, in normal years, they bring in local winemakers for tastings on Friday nights.

Slideshow of The Gables Wine Country Inn, Santa Rosa

Speaking of breakfast, 297 of the 300 TripAdvisor (mostly 5 stars) reviews they have received mention the breakfast. I understand that, but I think it misses the point. The best thing about The Gables is not the breakfast (tasty as it is), the inn (charming as it is), the grounds (beautiful as they are). The best thing about The Gables is Pam & Larry, as their repeat guests can tell you.

Conclusion

Sonoma County is a wonderful vacation destination. While we have been going there for decades, there always seems more to explore in this constantly changing, beautiful, and delicious destination.

Fun Things to do in Sonoma County... not just Sonoma Valley | Things to do in Sonoma #sonoma #wine #beach #hikes #food #accomodation #travel #trip #vacation Fun Things to do in Sonoma County... not just Sonoma Valley | Things to do in Sonoma #sonoma #wine #beach #hikes #food #accomodation #travel #trip #vacation

Sponsorship Disclosure – Some portions of our travel to Sonoma County were sponsored (that is to say, paid for by someone else). Specifically the wine tastings at Paradise Ridge and Region, our appetizers at Grata, our reservation at Apple-a-Day, and our stay at The Gables Wine Country Inn. My previous visit to Saafari West was also sponsored. All opinions expressed are my own.

by Chris Christensen

Chris Christensen is the creator of the Amateur Traveler blog and podcast, and a co-host for This Week in Travel podcast.

Leave a Reply

Tags: , ,