Also known as "West County," this area is a treasure trove of tiny towns, historic buildings, acclaimed restaurants, and enticing two-lane roadways that offer something new just around the bend.
This route will take you through three unique West County towns, and a variety of experiences others might miss while sticking to the main highways and attractions.
Unusual Outdoor Sculptures
Start your adventure in Cotati (pop. 7,275), a small town in central Sonoma County with strong historic roots in agriculture and music. While Cotati offers delights of its own — among other events, it hosts an annual accordion festival and an annual jazz fest — for today it's the jumping-off point for your back roads adventure through West County.
From U.S. Route 101 in Cotati, follow Route 116W for about nine miles, to the highly diverse town of Sebastopol (pop. 7,379). Its charming downtown is located along Route 116, and houses an eclectic collection of unique shops, restaurants, galleries, and more. About a half-mile northeast of downtown, you'll find more shops, tasting rooms, and eateries in the park-like business center known as The Barlow (from Route 116W, turn right on McKinley Street).
Tucked away in a quiet corner of Sebastopol is a unique display of artwork crafted from colorful metal pieces — old cars, one-time cookware, discarded radiators and pipes, and aluminum trash cans. You'll find this unusual outdoor gallery on Florence Avenue, a small residential street. From The Barlow, head west on McKinley; left back onto Route 116; then right (west) on Bodega Avenue; and finally right onto Florence Avenue.
Here you'll find whimsical sculptures by artists and Florence Avenue residents Patrick Amiot and Brigitt Laurent on the lawns of tidy-looking homes along a three-block section of this street. Park your car and walk around; a sculpture map will help locate these oversized pieces, such as those depicting a train, fire engine, an overworked waitress, a mermaid, and more.
When you're finished checking out the artwork, continue north on Florence Avenue and turn left onto Healdsburg Avenue, which puts you back on 116W.
From Wine to Butterflies, and More
Next stop is the village of Graton (pop. 1,707). Less than five miles away, it lies in the heart of Green Valley.
One of the smallest appellations in Sonoma County, the Green Valley wine region is home to excellent wineries open to the public, including DeLoach Vineyards, Dutton Estate, Iron Horse Vineyards, and Marimar Estate.
To find Graton’s tiny business district, turn left from 116W onto Graton Road. You’ll know you’re there when you see a late 19th- and early 20th-century collection of handsome and historic wooden buildings that now hold art galleries, restaurants, and a wonderful combination general store and cafe, Willow Wood, that has managed to keep up with the times without losing its old-fashioned flair. For a tiny town, Graton has a number of highlights — the readers of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat voted the Graton Gallery as 2013’s “Best Art Gallery in Sonoma County”; and Food and Wine magazine cited Graton’s Underwood Bar & Bistro as No. 4 of “America’s 50 Most Amazing Wine Experiences."
One of Graton’s unique attractions is Hallberg Butterfly Gardens, a non-profit wildlife sanctuary offering nine acres of meadows, trees, flowers, and dense thickets — all of which provide habitat and food for more than 40 species of butterflies.
Among the beauties seen here: Gray Hairstreak, Pipevine Swallowtail, Purplish Coppers, Painted Ladies, Uncas Skipper, and Monarchs. The gardens are open for guided tours — 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Wednesday to Sunday, April 1 to Oct. 31 — by appointment only.
Back on Highway 116 West, you’ll travel less than four miles to the next stop: the three blocks of Forestville (pop. 3,293). It’s an unpretentious, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it kind of place — but if you blink you’ll miss out on some dandy discoveries in and around town.
Eateries, for example. Backyard features the best of local ingredients prepared in a rustic blend of California-meets-the-Med. Nightingale Breads specializes in European-style breads baked in a wood-fired oven. Twist Eatery dishes up superbly fresh, imaginative food in a small but exceedingly charming spot. And don't miss Tiny Town Cafe, a popular local coffee shop.
And just outside town, set amidst woods and vineyards, is the one-star Michelin restaurant at the Farmhouse Inn & Restaurant (which was also voted No. 38 among the 100 Best Hotels in the World by Travel and Leisure readers).
Nearby is the Case Ranch Inn. Built in 1894, the Inn embraces the modern world. It produces 40 percent of its own power via solar, provides guests with an electric car recharging station, practices rigorous recycling and water conservation, and lots more. It offers three luxury guest rooms and a garden cottage — all with private baths. And the serene landscaping is a registered National Wildlife Federation Backyard Wildlife Habitat.
Also outside town is Russian River Vineyards, open for tasting daily. In nice weather, which is most of the time, tasting is in the lushly-flowered garden. The winery's onsite restaurant resides in an historic 1890s farmhouse.
And, last but certainly not least on your back roads adventure, Forestville is where you’ll find Steelhead Beach Regional Park. The beach has an intact ecosystem running beside the Russian River, giving you the chance to see unique riparian plants and river wildlife. For more details, download a park brochure and map.
This wraps up your back-roads exploration of West County, but there is an alternative to bear in mind.
The West County Regional Trail — a flat and paved 5.57-mile walking/biking trail — runs between Forestville and Sebastopol (and vice versa). If you’d rather leave the car behind and get some exercise, you could take this tour on foot or on wheels, and enjoy great wildlife sightings and natural beauty as you go.