Follow Highway 116 west as it winds its way toward the Pacific coast, and discover the tiny hamlet of Duncans Mills (pop. 175) in a wide, flat area near the Russian River.
Because it's only five miles inland from the Pacific Ocean and features a unique climate, Duncans Mills often enjoys blue skies while fog or rain clouds cover the surrounding hills. It's a great place to get out of your car, stretch your legs, and explore, on your way to or from the Sonoma coast.
The town is named for two brothers, Samuel and Alexander Duncan, who established a lumber mill here in the early 1870s. It was once a stop on the Northwestern Pacific Railroad to Sausalito, and travelers rode the train to Duncans Mills to play along the Russian River.
Today, south of Highway 116 you'll find The Depot Museum, a regional museum housed in a 1907 railroad depot. And on nearby narrow-gauge railroad tracks you'll find a restored Northwestern Pacific railway coach, plus two box cars, and a caboose that were part of the last train to Duncans Mills in 1935.
Antiques, Gifts, and More
Venture to the north side of Highway 116 to wander through unique gift shops, exotic boutiques, antique stores, and art galleries.
Pig Alley features American-made crafts, jewelry, home décor, and more, including an impressive collection of handcrafted “leaf leather” handbags and designer “watchcraft “wristwatches. And Studio Nouveau offers exotic chocolates and romantic home and personal accessories, plus the world’s largest collection of Liquid Metal Jewelry.
Sparky’s offers an eclectic mix of antiques, jewelry, mid-century modern lamps, furniture, and sports ephemera. And don’t miss the collection of early California paintings, dating from 1860s to the 1940s, in in a museum-like setting at Christopher Queen Galleries.
Antique lovers can explore two large stores with every kind of collection you can imagine — Jim & Willie's Antiques and Collectibles and Antiquarian. Inside Antiquarian you'll also find Floribunda, with beautiful and unusual cut flowers and plants, including Protea grown in nearby Jenner.
Be sure to drop in and sample the tea of the day at Duncans Mills Tea Shop, featuring about 100 different loose leaf teas, as well as beautiful teapots, mugs, infusers, and more. Get a cup of tea, and enjoy it with locally sourced cookies and other delights.
When you're ready to kick back, relax, and perhaps enjoy a bite to eat, there are several options. In addition to the finest coffee beans roasted on site, Gold Coast Coffee and Bakery offers a variety of tasty specialty coffee drinks, fruit smoothies, hot chocolate, and homemade pastries baked fresh daily in an authentic wood-fired oven.
The Duncans Mills General Store stocks deli delights, as well as basic groceries, local breads, smoked salmon, camping gear, and more.
Cape Fear Café features California cuisine with a Southern flair, plus a wide selection of beer and wine.
The Blue Heron Restaurant & Tavern serves up burgers, fish and chips, and homemade fare such as chicken pot pie, in a cozy rustic setting.
Music, Wine Tasting
If you stay a bit longer, the Blue Heron also offers a full bar and live music Tuesday through Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons. Local musicians perform outside on the garden patio in the summer months (approximately May to September), and indoors the rest of the year.
Or, relax with a glass of wine on the patio (see photo) at Sophie's Cellars, where you can taste hidden gems of Sonoma County limited production wines.
Spending the Night
Depending on your interests and available equipment, you can “rough it” a bit at the Casini Ranch Family Campground, which offers tent and RV campsites, but also family cabins, cottages, and RV rentals, including an RV bunkhouse holding up to 10 people. The property’s 110 acres stretches for a mile along the Russian River.
If you prefer a bed indoors, there are a few vacation rentals available in the area. And if you're willing to go just a few miles farther afield for lodging, read 10 Unique Hotels and Inns on the Sonoma Coast and 10 Getaway Resorts and Lodges in the Russian River Area.