Dip your toes both literally and figuratively in Wine Country on this one-day adventure from San Francisco to the Russian River Valley, with its towering redwoods, cool river water, and laid-back, living-the-good-life attitude.
Located about 60 or so miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Russian River Valley offers an off-the-beaten path introduction to ancient trees, lush vineyards, quirky little towns, and the joys of wading, splashing, swimming, or paddling in a lazy river. Whether you simply dip a toe in the available delights or jump right in, it’s a don’t-miss opportunity and a fun escape.
Head up Highway 101 north from San Francisco to the town of Santa Rosa, and take the Mark West Springs Road exit. Turn left on Mark West Springs Road, which becomes River Road on the other side of the freeway.
On your way to the Russian River, the tasting rooms of Fogline Vineyards and Martinelli Winery & Vineyards are signs that you’re in the heart of Wine Country. Another landmark is the iconic Farmhouse Inn, Restaurant & Spa, a boutique hotel offering romantic guest rooms, a spa providing pampering treatments, and a Michelin-starred restaurant serving up a seasonal farm-to-table dinner menu.
As River Road winds its way west, you’ll get your first glimpses of the Russian River off to your right. At the intersection with Mirabel Road, you’ll find Burke’s Canoe Trips and Campground, which offers canoe and kayak rentals with shuttle service.
If you’re in the mood, head south (away from the river) on Mirabel Road to explore the laid-back, family-oriented town of Forestville (pop. 3,293), where coffee shops roast their own beans, dining options vary from down-home to gourmet, and the hardware store stocks just about everything you need, including license plate holders with the town’s unofficial motto, “Forestville, The Good Life.” The appropriately named Tiny Town Café is the place to go for a cup of coffee and some local conversation.
After visiting Forestville, head back the way you came on Mirabel Road and take a left onto River Road, to continue your journey.
If you’re ready to test the waters for yourself, it’s not far to Steelhead Beach Regional Park, which offers a peach area, picnic tables with barbecues, and a small launch area for drift boats, kayaks, and canoes (open October to May). Another nearby option is the Forestville River Access, which the locals call Mom’s Beach because it’s such a great place to take the kids, or anyone who wants to splash, swim, or just have fun on a sandy river beach.
When you’re ready to push on, continue following River Road as it crosses the Russian River. It’s not far to Korbel Champagne Cellars, established in 1882 and definitely worth a stop. In addition to wine tasting and tours, this gorgeous winery features extensive gardens (including 250 varieties of antique roses and 1,000 other types of flowers), and a gourmet deli.
Continuing on River Road will take you around a bend and through the tiny community of Rio Nido (pop. 522), which includes the English Tudor-style Rio Nido Lodge (built in the 1920s) and a refurbished doublewide trailer that houses the family-friendly Rio Nido Roadhouse.
Next up is the town of Guerneville (pop. 4,634), a highly eclectic (and sometimes eccentric) mix of shops, galleries, restaurants, bars, and other businesses. As you come into town, River Road merges with state Highway 116. Before exploring the town, take a right turn on Armstrong Woods Road, and follow it about two miles to the entrance of Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve, a living reminder of the magnificent forest that once covered this entire area.
Definitely stop and stroll beneath this redwood forest’s soaring canopy. There’s something amazing about being surrounded by more than 750 acres of trees — some more than a thousand years old — that slows you down and causes you to reflect. Armstrong is typically much less crowded than redwood groves located closer to San Francisco, giving you the space to truly enjoy these beautiful trees and trails.
If you’re ready to eat lunch, bring a picnic. The park includes a visitor center, self-guided nature trails, and a variety of picnic facilities. The individual trails are relatively short, but you can link them together to make a five- to six-mile loop hike. The park entry fee is $8 a vehicle or free to bicyclists and pedestrians; it’s possible to park outside the entrance gate and walk in for free.
When you’re done, drive back to Highway 116/River Road, and the town of Guerneville. Charming, rustic, and quirky just about sums it up, making this an interesting town to stroll and browse. At the Guerneville 5 & 10 (founded in 1949), you’ll find nostalgic candy and toys, collectibles, camp supplies, and novelty items. Sonoma Nesting Company specializes in antiques, art, curiosities, and collectables for home and garden. Glass Images features beautiful stained, leaded, and fused glass art, created in the onsite studio.
For wine lovers, more than 50 wineries are within a 20-minute drive of Guerneville. The town also boasts a thriving culinary scene, which includes the gourmet deli at the Big Bottom Market, a modern-day general store; the thick-crust pizza and pot roast at Main Street Bistro & Piano Bar, a local favorite; and the small plates and seasonal main dishes at Boon Eat + Drink. Check our listings for more Guerneville restaurants.
Within walking distance of the downtown restaurants and shops, Johnson’s Beach & Resort offers a wide beach for sunning, swimming, and floating from May to September. There’s a roped-off kiddie area for toddlers and beginning swimmers to enjoy the river safely, and the summer dam provides deeper waters for more adventurous swimmers. Canoes, kayaks, paddleboats, inner tubes, umbrellas, beach chairs, and more are available for rent. Admission is free; parking can be $5 on weekends and for special events.
Next along the highway you’ll find Monte Rio (pop. 1,152), where a 1950s-style neon sign proclaims, “Welcome to Monte Rio Vacation Wonderland.” Stretching along both sides of the river, this laid-back community includes two hotels built in 1906, a mural-decorated World War II-surplus Quonset hut that serves as the local movie theater, and the wonderfully sandy Monte Rio Community Beach.
From here you’re at a decision point; you can retrace your route along Highway 116 and River Road, to check out some of the shops and restaurants you passed earlier, and then south on Highway 101 back to San Francisco.
Or, from Monte Rio you can head south on the Bohemian Highway, a highly scenic, 10-mile stretch of two-lane roadway that winds through redwoods, pastures, and rocky ravines in western Sonoma County, connecting Monte Rio to the tiny hamlets of Occidental and Freestone. The area on and around the Bohemian Highway attracts bicyclists, car clubs, and anyone who enjoys getting off the beaten path to traverse beautiful and challenging routes.
Located at the midpoint of the Bohemian Highway, Occidental (pop. 1,115) offers a two-block long main street with plenty of charm. It’s 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 art gallery.
And if you want to see redwood trees from a truly unique perspective, marvel at panoramic forest views and deep ravines while zip lining at Occidental’s Sonoma Canopy Tours, which offers a unique course of seven zip lines, two sky bridges, a spiral staircase, and a rappel back to the forest floor.
Anchoring the southern end of the Bohemian Highway, Freestone (pop. 32) occupies about a half-mile stretch at a crossroads of two rural highways, with a number of classic western-style buildings surrounded by pastoral vistas and rolling hills.
Many folks make special trips to visit Freestone’s Wild Flour Bread, where sourdough loaves, scones, biscotti, and other treats are baked in a wood-fired brick oven. You can also enjoy the handcrafted products of Freestone Artisan Cheese. And if you’re ready for a bit of relaxation and pampering, Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary is the only day spa in the United States that offers a Japanese-style cedar enzyme bath.
Ready to call it a day? From Freestone take a left (west) on the Bodega Highway; in the town of Sebastopol go right (east) on Highway 116, which takes you back to Highway 101 South to San Francisco.
Or if you’re simply not willing to leave beautiful Sonoma County behind, check our listings of Sonoma County hotels, inns, and B&Bs.
Written by Sonoma Insider Patricia Lynn Henley.