Here in Sonoma County we have some of the greatest leaf-peeping and best fall hikes in Northern California. Where else can you see acres of vineyards crowded with crimson leaves and backdropped by mountains? Or hike in shirt sleeves through deciduous oak forests turned yellow and pale orange? Or wander through a drought-tolerant garden, where each autumn yarrow, barberry, Russian sage, plumbago and other plants reach their stunning yearly height of color? The answer is simple: There is nowhere else like this. Period.
So if you’re visiting, get out and around and take a look. The leaves begin their transformation here in early October, and the color runs well into November.
Here are a few starting points where you can be dazzled by Sonoma County’s autumn colors, and have a good time while you’re at it. But don’t be limited by this list – explore, explore, explore … and let us know what you discover.
Jack London State Historic Park: Located in the Sonoma Valley town of Glen Ellen, the park encompasses the home and ranch once owned by novelist Jack London. There’s a small museum, and you can take a tour of the cottage in which he and his wife Charmian lived. If you’re into hiking and don’t mind a climb, you’ll end up with jaw-dropping vistas of red, orange, yellow, and gold foliage. Or stick to the valley floor, where the vineyards and many tree species blaze with color. Download the park’s handbook and/or brochure.
When you leave the park and begin driving downhill, stop off at Benziger Family Winery. Known for its biodynamic farming, the winery is nestled into a bowl-like depression, and from the parking lot you’ll enjoy an expansive view of vineyards and lush hillside foliage – quite colorful in the fall. If you have time, the 45-minute tram tour ($20/person, $5/under 21 years) takes you all over the winery property and includes a tasting.
Russian River Corridor: Driving along the Russian River west to its junction with the Pacific Ocean, is a wonderful adventure at any time of the year. But autumn brings its own special highlights. There are far fewer people on the road than in summer, for one thing. For another, the weather is perfect (usually a bit warmer than in summer, oddly enough). And for yet another, the huge trees and vineyards that line the road can be downright flamboyant in hue.
Stop in Guerneville to pick up a picnic or settle into an excellent café. Near the river’s mouth you can rent a kayak or canoe. Or take a hike through the redwoods in Armstrong Woods State Park. And, of course, the Russian River is famous for its wineries.
Alexander Valley: Imagine old farmhouses and barns sitting amidst sun-bleached native grasses, isolated roads that wind through blazing-colored vineyards, oak trees crowning the yellow hills of autumn. That’s what you’ll get when you take a drive through this gorgeous stretch of the county.
Of course, you’ll want to stop every once in a while to taste wine, relax over lunch, or pick up a pumpkin at a farm stand. Somebody’s got to do it, right?
Annadel State Park: On the east side of Santa Rosa, 5,500-acre Annadel is undeveloped (i.e., wild). Home to seasonal streams, meadows, woodlands and hills, it offers trails a-plenty – more than 40 miles – for hiking, biking and horseback riding.
Autumn is one of the best times to hike here, not only because the black oaks and maples are ablaze with color, but also because the number of cyclists sharing the trails goes way down. This is also the right time to spot wild turkeys grazing in the woodlands. And views from the high trails are sensational. Download the park’s brochure.
All over the county: Go see, taste, and buy all the colors of autumn in the astonishing lineup of Sonoma-grown produce you’ll find at farmers’ markets across the county. Some run all year, but most wind up the season in late fall.
To discover wineries along your Sonoma County leaf-peeping route, visit Sonoma County’s wineries page. While you’re there you can also learn about where to dine, where to shop, and much more.