While all areas of Sonoma County are family friendly, there’s something magical about the craggy Pacific coastline and sandy California beaches that entices families to pull over the minivan and explore the western county together. The list of possibilities is long: whale watching, fishing in Bodega Bay, hiking through Armstrong Redwoods, shooting a miniature golf ball through the wide-open mouth of a giant snake …
Here are a few suggested western Sonoma County activities that will be lots of fun, and provide many long-lasting memories for adventurous families.
Beaches & Tidepools
Explore beaches and tide pools at the Sonoma Coast State Beach and Salt Point State Park. Both locations offer awesomely beautiful beaches where you’ll find a large number of tide pools rich with sea anemones, tiny crabs, snails, sea grasses, and other critters who like the Pacific shores.
Another idea: Learn more about beaches, tidepools, Bodega Bay and the Pacific Ocean with a visit to the Bodega Marine Laboratory. Founded in 1960 by the University of California at Davis, the lab extensively researches the rapidly-changing land-sea interface.
Your family is welcome to visit most Fridays on a drop-in basis for a free docent-led tour, 2-4 p.m., for groups of less than 10 people; larger group tours can be scheduled for other weekdays, by appointment only. Among other things, you’ll spend time with a 24-foot display of local fishes and invertebrates, a kelp forest, a harbor aquarium that’s home to examples of Bodega Harbor marine life, another aquarium for giant anemones, a tide pool, and much more.
And if you prefer to get in the water, read all about the great swimming beaches in Sonoma County.
Hagemann Ranch Trout Farm in Bodega Bay has been stocking an old fishing pond with rainbow trout for more than 25 years. It’s a fun and easy way to catch dinner or teach the kids how to throw a line, and you don’t need a fishing license on this 219-acre sheep and cattle ranch.
Rent a pole for $5 ($3 fee if you bring your own; fly fishing poles allowed). There’s a per-fish charge based on its size (free for under seven inches, and it can be $39 or more for a 20-incher), with a strict no-catch-and-release policy. They’ll even clean, ice, and bag your catch. Picnic tables available, and snacks, beverages, and bait for sale. Open April to November; off Highway 1 between the towns of Bodega and Bodega Bay, 707-876-3217.
Pee Wee Golf & Arcade in Guerneville provides a blast from the past — an old-style, 36-hole mini-golf spot just perfect for vacationing families. Kids will love the décor, which consists of characters like a giant T-Rex, a moving spider trap, big turtles and monkeys, a huge sun head, castles, windmills, dragons, “spooky” ghosts, and a couple of cannibals cooking dinner. It’s all very colorful and retro (it got that way naturally), and lots of fun.
Many locations along the coast are ideal for whale-watching. One of the top whale-watching spots in the county is Bodega Head, a small peninsula that juts out into the ocean and also shelters Bodega Bay. At any time of the year you’ll find binocular- and camera-toting observers hoping to catch sight of cetaceans cruising by.
Other wonderful locations to whale watch include Gualala Point Regional Park, the public access trails at The Sea Ranch, Stillwater Cove Regional Park, Fort Ross State Historic Park, Kruse Rhododendron State Nature Preserve, and Salt Point State Park.
Consider taking a whale-watching boat trip with a charter company such as Bodega Bay Sport Fishing Center, Bodega Charters, Fish On Bait, Tackle and Charters, Miss Anita Fishing Charters, or North Bay Charters.
Kayaking and Canoeing:
Choose from ocean kayaking on the coast, kayaking/canoeing along the Russian and Gualala rivers, or standing paddle boards.
Johnson’s Beach Resort, located in Guerneville on the Russian River, rents canoes, single and double kayaks, and paddle boats for $40 a day or $15 an hour. Bodega Bay Kayak rents kayaks and paddle boards for use on the Russian River, Bodega Bay, and the Estero Americano Estuary (they also offer guided kayak tours). In Gualala, Adventure Rents offers single and tandem kayaks or canoes for river adventures.
Sonoma County’s breezy coast provides some of the best kite-flying around. The all-around favorite destination is the wide, open beach facing Bodega Bay at Doran Regional Park where the absence of tall trees and power lines doesn’t get in the way of kite action.
Enjoy and explore the soaring canopy of a redwood forest on flat and easy trails in the 805-acre Armstrong Redwoods State National Reserve.
Kids are fascinated by California’s coast redwoods because they’re not only the world’s tallest living things (the largest measured to date was 379.3 feet high) but also its oldest living things (the park’s Colonel Armstrong tree is 1,400 years old).
The trails here are relatively short, but you can string them together and loop around to create a five- to six-mile hike if you like. Two trails are wheelchair accessible, and the Armstrong Nature Trail offers interpretive displays as you stroll along.
For a completely different experience, fly through the redwood canopy at Sonoma Canopy Tours in Occidental. This green, family-friendly, and educational adventure includes seven zip lines, two sky bridges, a spiral staircase, and an 80-foot rappel. To participate, children must be 10 years old and weigh at least 70 pounds. Open year-round but hours vary by season; for details visit www.sonomacanopytours.com or call 888-494-7868.
In Sonoma County all sorts of terrain, family farms, and artisanal growers create agricultural products that reflect their own unique terroir. It’s fun to explore the area’s back roads, stopping along the way at local farms, where — depending on the time of year — your family might be able to pick produce, pet sheep and goats, milk a cow, learn how to irrigate a field, or take a cooking class.
Some adventures are free, while others carry a fee that helps supplement the farm’s income; some adventures are by appointment only. Use the free and downloadable map and guide provided by the non-profit Sonoma County Farm Trails, or search its online database. The guide lists and describes the member farms and food producers, along with days and times they’re open for visits, and other pertinent information, including whether advance reservations are required.
Check out the 70-year-old, one-of-a-kind Rio Theater movie house. Located in Monte Rio on the Russian River and housed in a distinctive surplus World War II Quonset hut, the theater first started screening films in1950.
The false-front entrance holds a 1950-ish marquee, and the Quonset’s sides display giant murals of the region. The interior walls also contain murals, hand-painted by local artists and depicting scenes from the area’s history.
The snacks and food are terrific, the popcorn sports real butter, and what other movie house dishes up hot apple cider and veggie dogs? The bill consists of recent and art-house movies.
Sonoma County has festivals of all kinds — and they happen throughout the year. Many are geared to families, and almost all are family friendly.
On the definitely-geared-to-kids list are the Castles & Kites Festival, the Cloverdale Old Time Fiddle Festival, May Day Festival, the Bodega Bay Fisherman’s Festival, the Tolay Fall Festival, the Sonoma County Harvest Festival, the Parks Celebration, the Hot Air Balloon Festival, the Russian River Festival, the Healdsburg Water Carnival, the Gravenstein Apple Fair, the annual Bodega Bay Christmas Crafts Fair … and so many, many more. Find out all about them on the Sonoma County Calendar of Events.
Written by Sonoma Insider Suzie Rodriguez