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Sonoma County Itinerary for Nature Lovers

Stroll through towering trees in Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve near Guerneville.

If you love the Great Outdoors and find yourself in Sonoma County with two or three days to play, where do you even start?  It’s a big and diverse county, after all —  home to mountains, valleys, meadows, forests, and more than 50 miles of Pacific Ocean coastline.

To the rescue comes this Nature Lover’s Sonoma County Tour. Tackle it, and by the time you head home you’ll know a little something — just the highlights, of course — about the county’s nature scene. And it’s almost guaranteed that you’ll be back for more.

Written by Sonoma Insider Suzie Rodriguez

Serene Lakes, The Russian River, Armstong Redwoods & More

Today you’ll sample the county’s magnificent interior. You’ll be busy, so aim for an early start. 

Begin the day at a small forested gem, 320-acre Spring Lake Regional Park (391 Violetti Drive, Santa Rosa, 707-539-8092). Located on Santa Rosa’s southeastern edge and tucked into rising hills, Spring Lake is an urban park possessed of a decided wilderness feel, thanks to a lake, ponds, oak woodlands, grasslands, meadows, and — for most of the year — wildflowers.

Follow the easy 2.3-mile Spring Lake Loop that wraps around the lake, winding past woodlands, meadows, and a peaceful lake dotted with ducks, gulls, and the occasional egret. Eventually you’ll reach the swimming lagoon, always popular in warm weather. If you’re up for it, stop for a swim or rent a kayak and paddle around the lake.

But perhaps you prefer a high-energy leap into your day. If so, save Spring Lake for another visit and head instead to adjoining Trione-Annadel State Park (6201 Channel Drive, Santa Rosa, 707-539-3911).

At 5,092 acres, Trione-Annadel is more than 15 times the size of Spring Lake. It’s also largely undeveloped, with dense chaparral, a fishing lake, undisturbed woodlands, and more than 40 miles of trails for hikers, mountain bikers, and equestrians. If you want, you can rent a bike for your visit.

Whether you chose Spring Lake or Trione-Annadel, plan to move on before noon, heading to the Russian River region — a popular destination for hiking, kayaking, canoeing, swimming, fishing and camping. Once there, have a bite of lunch before embarking on the afternoon’s adventures.

To get there, follow Highway 12 west from Santa Rosa to Sebastopol, the perfect place for lunch. Try Woodfour Brewing Company (6780 Depot St., Sebastopol, 707-823-3144), with its excellent, locally-sourced food and hand-crafted brews, or highly-acclaimed Zazu Kitchen + Farm (6770 McKinley St., Sebastopol, 707-523-4814), where a Black Pig Bacon + Boar Burger could keep your outdoor engine revved up all afternoon.

Now for some primo outdoor fun. We’ve picked three great things to do: You can explore and commune in a redwood grove, kayak or canoe along the river, and/or zipline amidst some of the world’s tallest trees.

Leave Sebastopol on scenic Highway 116 North. At the small town of Forestville the highway hooks westward; soon you’ll cross the river and enter the resort town of Guerneville, a beloved vacation destination for generations.

Just as you enter town, turn right on Armstrong Woods Road (if you pass Church or Mill Street, you missed the turnoff). In about five minutes you’ll see the entrance to Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve (17000 Armstrong Woods Road,  Guerneville, 707-869-2015), a living reminder of the magnificent redwood forest that once covered this area.

Park in the lot outside the entrance and walk into the park, where you can hike trails surrounded by amazing trees that live to be 500-1,200 years old, grow to a diameter of 12-16 feet, and can approach nearly 400 feet in height.

Now that you’ve studied redwoods from below, why not investigate them up high? Head back to Highway 116 and turn right, driving through and past Guerneville. When you reach the river town of Monte Rio, turn left onto Bohemian Highway.

Soon you’ll arrive at Sonoma Canopy Tours (6250 Bohemian Highway, Occidental, 888-494-7868) for a high-flyin’ zipline adventure. Wearing a comfortable, specially-designed harness, you’ll zip on cables from one aerial platform to the next, taking in breathtaking views as you go. At one point you’ll “fly” into an old growth redwood forest with trees more than 700 years old. The 2½-hour guided tour features seven zip lines, two sky bridges, a majestic spiral staircase, a rappel … and the unparalleled beauty of California’s coastal redwoods.

Now it’s time to loosen up with a brisk kayak or canoe ride. If you had more time you could paddle from Guerneville to the river’s mouth, a distance of more than 10 miles. But it’s already late afternoon, so you’ll want a kayak for only an hour or two. Head back up Highway 116 to Johnson's Beach & Resort (16241 First St., Guerneville, 707-869-2022; parking $5), renting a canoe, kayak, or pedal boat for $15 an hour (or $40 for an entire day).

Explore down- or up-river as long as you like, then it’s time to check into your hotel, grab a quick nap, and think about dinner.

Two great eco-accommodation choices are the Sonoma Orchid Inn (12850 River Road, Guerneville, 707-869-4466), a fully-restored 1906 farmhouse with an organic garden and green principles, and the Case Ranch Inn (7446 Poplar Drive, Forestville, 707-887-8711), built in 1894, which produces 40 percent of its own power via solar. Or go all-the-way-eco with a campsite at year-round Casini Ranch Family Campground (22855 Moscow Road, Duncans Mills, 800-451-8400).

And dinner? As in most of Sonoma County, choices hereabout are positively epic. For old-fashioned Italian family-style dining, try Negri’s Restaurant (3700 Bohemian Highway, Occidental, 707-874-0301) or the Union Hotel Restaurant (3731 Main St., Occidental, 707-874-3555). And the Applewood Inn (13555 Highway 116, Guerneville, 800-555-8509) received a Michelin star in 2011 and 2012 for its Mediterranean-influenced cuisine.

Or, check our listings of all Sonoma County restaurants to find whatever kind of food you like, from pub to posh.

The Fabulous Sonoma Coast 

Enjoy a hearty breakfast on the outdoor patio of Garden Grill (17132 Highway 116, Guerneville, 707-869-3922). Or, if you’ve stayed overnight there, go gourmet at the award-winning Farmhouse Inn & Restaurant (7871 River Road, Forestville, 707-887-3300). Then head west on Highway 116. Your destination: the Pacific Ocean.

The 13-mile journey from Guerneville to the coast passes through some of the loveliest scenery around. The highway meanders gently along the path of the Russian River, allowing glimpses of ducks diving for minnows, kids playing in the shallows or digging for treasure on a sandy beach, and kayakers paddling slowly westward.

Sometimes the road will be lined with thick groves of redwoods and other trees; at other times you’ll gaze across broad open meadows or fields. Hawks spin lazily above, cattle graze, and deer skitter warily away.

And suddenly you’re there, smack where Highway 116 meets California’s legendary Route 1. Known simply as “the Coast Highway,” Route 1 runs for about 650 miles beside the coast — through some of the world’s most drop-dead gorgeous scenery — from Dana Point in Orange County to Leggett in Mendocino County.

But what makes this particular juncture of roads so monumentally awesome is this: it’s the point at which the Russian River meets the Pacific Ocean. Once you witness this joining of natural forces, you’ll never forget it.

And Sonoma Coast State Park — a series of beaches strung along 17 miles of coastline running from about four miles north of the river/ocean juncture to Bodega Head in the south — gives you plenty of ways to explore the coast’s beauty.

You can park and check out any of these beaches, or hike cliff trails that join some of them. Kortum Trail is a great bluff-top trail that ties Wright's Beach and Blind Beach together. The trailhead is near the middle of the two at Shell Beach. Download the park brochure which includes trail maps.

Have lunch in the tiny sea village of Jenner at River's End Restaurant & Inn (11048 Coast Highway 1, Jenner, 707-865-2484), where the food is sublime and the views are simply unforgettable.

Ready to move on? Head north, traveling along one of the world’s most gorgeous coastlines and into the northern reaches of Sonoma County. The road winds up and up, offering limitless views of sea and sky — the kind of views you can’t possibly imagine existing until you experience them yourself.

Pull in at overlooks when the urge strikes you. Consider stopping at Fort Ross State Historic Park (19005 Coast Highway 1, Jenner, 707-847-3437), which includes an original structure and authentic reconstructions of a Russian fur trading outpost founded in 1812, and the Sea Ranch Chapel (mile marker 55.5, 40033 Highway 1, The Sea Ranch, 707-785-2444), a small, hand-crafted non-denominational chapel that’s a work of art both inside and out.

A few miles past Fort Ross, near mile marker 43, you'll find two side-by-side parks. Salt Point State Park and Kruse Rhododendron State Reserve (25050 Highway 1, Jenner, 707-847-3221) offer nature lovers an amazing array of things to do. In spring, when the rhododendrons are hitting their peak, Kruse is alive with color. But with its redwood, Douglas fir, and other trees, along with ferns, seasonal streams, and five miles of trails, it’s always a great place to visit.

Salt Point consists of 6,000 acres of wooded uplands, coastal cliffs and coves, and 20 miles of hiking trails along the bluffs. Add in picnicking, horseback riding, fishing, skin and SCUBA diving, and camping, and you’ve got an amazing get-away-from-it-all destination.

A fascinating feature here is the pygmy forest. Situated at the highest elevation within Salt Point State Park, it’s populated with stands of mature miniature Bishop pine, Bolander pine, Mendocino cypress, and even the usually-gigantic redwood tree. The trees are mature  in some cases more than a century old  but they’re only a few feet tall. 

Spend the night at Sea Ranch Lodge (60 Sea Walk Drive, The Sea Ranch, 800-732-7262), which offers amazing ocean views from every room. Most of the rooms include gas fireplaces for chilly nights, and windows that open to let in the ocean breezes).

Another excellent choice? The stunning Timber Cove Inn (21780 Highway 1, Jenner, 800-987-8319). Named one of Sunset Magazine’s “10 Hideaways by the Sea,” it offers spacious rooms with dramatic coastline views, hot tubs and fireplaces. Check out the soaring sculpture by Benjamin Buffano that resides here, perched on the edge of a coastal bluff.

If you  have one or two more days, explore some of the county’s more remote nature destinations: Cazadero,  Austin Creek State Recreational Area, or Lake Sonoma. For even more options, explore our listings of nature parks and campgrounds.

Written by Sonoma Insider Suzie Rodriguez