The two-lane roadway known as the Bohemian Highway winds across 10 miles of western Sonoma County, through towering redwoods, serene pastures, rocky ravines, and the tiny hamlets of Monte Rio, Occidental and Freestone. This relatively short stretch of roadway is one of the most scenic and pastoral drives to be found anywhere in California.
One of the first areas in the region to attract settlers, this corridor is protected from the extremes of the marine fog and the inland heat, creating a gem of a benign climate. Today, the Bohemian Highway is home to a unique and soulful community of artists and nature lovers. The area, both on and around the Bohemian Highway, is also a magnet for bicyclists, car clubs, or anyone who enjoys getting off the beaten path to traverse beautiful and challenging routes.
Here you will find organic farms and wineries, specialty nurseries, and all kinds of innovative shops and restaurants. It's also a gateway for superb outdoor activities such as hiking, biking, kayaking, canoeing, zip lining, and more.
This guide to the charming townships along this 10-mile stretch starts in the north and heads south, but it's just as easy to reverse the direction, depending on your itinerary and your closest starting point.
Stretched out along both sides of the Russian River, Monte Rio (pop. 1,152) greets visitors with a definite flair — a historic 1950s-style neon sign arches overhead the tiny downtown, spelling out "Welcome to Monte Rio Vacation Wonderland."
A number of other significant structures can be discovered around town, including a historic bridge that connects the districts on each side of the wide Russian River. Check out the Rio Theater, screening movies inside a colorful, mural-decorated, World War II-surplus Quonset hut, and the Monte Rio Amphitheater, an outdoor showcase for concerts, theater under the stars and other events.
The Village Inn & Restaurant, built in 1906 as a private home, served as the site of several scenes in the Hollywood film Holiday Inn, starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. And the Highland Dell Lodge, also built in 1906, hosts the local OktoberFest.
Monte Rio also offers a golf course, tennis courts, kayak and canoe rentals, fishing, a wide choice of dining options, interesting shops, and one of the Russian River’s largest public beaches where you can enjoy river life.
Allow some time to enjoy this laid-back community. If you want to stick around, lodging options vary from funky cabins and quaint cottages on the river, to luxury bed and breakfast inns, to historic small hotels.
Located at about the midpoint on the Bohemian Highway, Occidental (pop. 1,115) is a pretty little community with a two-block long main street and plenty of charm.
Founded in 1876, Occidental was once the last stop on the North Pacific Coast Railroad. The trains also brought in tourists from San Francisco. And in the 1960s and early 1970s Occidental was the hub of community-centered social movements, as evidenced back in the day by several nearby communes.
Today this small but diverse town reflects both its historic roots and its dynamic present. It is home to art galleries, unique shops, a lively farmers market on Friday evenings (June through October), and the Occidental Center for the Arts, a performing venue with superb acoustics and an exhibition gallery.
And for more adventurous travelers, Occidental is also home to Sonoma Canopy Tours, a more than two-hour zip line experience providing the opportunity to fly through the towering trees.
Consider a side trip: the Coleman Valley Road heads west out of Occidental toward the coast, offering stunning views. Popular with cyclists, the road climbs steeply out of town, descends into a picturesque valley, then climbs up and runs along the ridgeline with spectacular views of the coast.
Occidental has a long history of outstanding Italian food, but now offers a variety of options. Founded as a railroad saloon and boarding house in 1879, the Union Hotel and Restaurant is an Italian cafe, bakery, and pizzeria, complete with red-checkered tablecloths. Occidental's famous Negri's Original Italian Restaurant, with its vintage trattoria ambience, has been serving Italian classics since 1943. Other cuisines in town include French, Mexican, organic, and pub grub. Beer lovers can enjoy local brews at the Barley and Hops Tavern.
Lodging is available in local vacation rentals; the pet-friendly Occidental Hotel, with a pool and 27 rooms with queen- and king-size beds; and The Inn at Occidental, providing a luxury inn experience.
At the southern end of the Bohemian Highway, Freestone (pop. 32) is a fascinating small crossroads, with a number of classic western-style buildings nestled in an exquisitely picturesque valley, and surrounded by pastoral vistas and rolling hills.
Only about a half-mile long, Freestone is a common stop for cyclists tacking the west county roads, and for travelers heading to the Sonoma Coast via Bodega Bay.
Many folks go out of their way to drop by Wild Flour Bread, where sourdough loaves, scones, biscotti, and more are baked in a wood-fired brick oven. An amazing garden out back supplies the fresh fruit, herbs, and vegetables that go into many of the baked treats.
Want cheese with your bread? Housed in an 1880s redwood cottage, Freestone Artisan Cheese sells handcrafted products from a variety of Sonoma County artisan cheese makers, primarily within a 20-mile radius of the store.
A little wine with your bread and cheese? The Joseph Phelps Freestone Vineyards tasting room offers an education about the Sonoma Coast growing area, as well as selected flights of wine.
For shoppers, Enduring Comforts offers fine browsing through antiques, collectibles and more. If further relaxation is needed, Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary is the only day spa nationwide that offers the cedar-enzyme bath, a rejuvenating heat treatment from Japan.
Driving the Bohemian Highway can take less than an hour or several days, depending on your pace and the number of stops. Among the many other attractions to consider folding into your itinerary:
- The towns of Forestville and Guerneville along the Russian River.
- Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve, a living reminder of the magnificent redwood forest that covered much of this area before logging operations began during the 19th century.
- Korbel Champagne Cellars, where the winery's grounds include extensive gardens.
- The tiny village of Bodega and the Bodega Bay on the coast.