Sonoma County boasts 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 — all of it 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 Sonoma County, get out, get 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 …
North Sonoma Mountain Regional Park & Open Space Preserve is one of the newest additions to Sonoma County's park system. The 820-acre park offers sweeping views of the county and beyond. It’s a particularly beautiful sight in autumn, when vineyards and trees as far as the eye can see blaze with color.
Sonoma Mountain is one of the county’s defining geographical features, and this park provides public access to the mountain's north slope. The park's 3.7-mile section of the Bay Area Ridge Trail begins in the ferns and redwoods on the south fork of Matanzas Creek, then climbs to nearly 2,000 feet. It winds through forests of oaks and bay laurels and treats hikers to stunning views of the peaks surrounding Santa Rosa and Sonoma Valley. It connects to a trail network at Jack London State Historic Park (described below), which allows you to continue hiking for miles. (See a slideshow of trail photos or download a trail map).
Sonoma Coast State Park consists of 17 unforgettable miles of incredibly beautiful scenery. Two excellent trails—Kortum Trail and Pomo Canyon Trail—begin at Shell Beach, located at about the park’s coastal midway point. Hiking along the coast is particularly beautiful in fall, when days tend to be sunny rather than foggy (as they can be in summer). Crisp sea air and mild breezes add to the pleasure.
Kortum Trail proceeds straight along cliff tops to Goat Rock, a local landmark with a great tide-pooling beach. It’s a relatively flat hike, about 5 miles round trip. Pomo Canyon Trail leaves Shell Beach and heads east, crossing Highway 1 and then traveling upward into a redwood forest with a waterfall. A moderate hike, it’s about seven miles round trip. Download the Sonoma Coast SP brochure, which includes a map showing the route for both trails.
Russian River Corridor: Driving along the Russian River west to its junction with the Pacific Ocean, makes for 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 can be 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 Redwoods State Natural Reserve (17000 Armstrong Woods Road, Guerneville, 707-869-2015). And, of course, the Russian River is famous for its wineries.
Jack London State Historic Park: Located in the Sonoma Valley town of Glen Ellen, the park (2400 London Ranch Road, Glen Ellen, 707-938-5216) 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.
The park has more than 20 miles of trails, with elevation ranging from 600 to 2,300 feet. 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. Peruse the full trail map here; you’ll be able to download printable maps of specific trails on the same page.
When you leave the park and begin driving downhill, stop off at Benziger Family Winery (1883 London Ranch Road, Glen Ellen, 707-935-3000).
Known for its biodynamic farming, the winery nestles into a bowl-like depression. 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 ($30 per person or $10 under age 21) takes you all over the winery property and includes a tasting.
Alexander Valley: Imagine old farmhouses and barns sitting amidst sun-bleached native grasses, isolated roads that wind through blazing-colored vineyards, and 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?
Trione-Annadel State Park: On the east side of Santa Rosa, the 5,500-acre Trione-Annadel park (6201 Channel Drive, Santa Rosa, 707-539-3911) offers a wild, undeveloped setting, With 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.
Written by Sonoma Insider Suzie Rodriguez.