The Sonoma Wine Country lifestyle is luxuriously full and rich — but that doesn't mean it has to be expensive; there are many low-cost or free things to enjoy as part of the Sonoma County experience.
Wine, fresh food, the arts, and the great outdoors — these are some of the many treasures in Sonoma County. With that in mind, here's a round-up of 30 — count 'em, 30 — low-cost or free things to do in Sonoma Wine Country.
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Wine, wine everywhere
1. With the Spring 2015 creation of the Fountaingrove district, Sonoma County contains 17 American Viticulture Areas (AVAs, appellations, or wine-growing regions) with unique soils and climates that allow specific grape varieties to grow particularly well. Each AVA is a place unto itself, and worth exploring. Drive around the area, and see what you can discover. The Sonoma County Vineyard Adventures program offers free, no-appointment, self-guided vineyard tours. (When you visit one of the participating wineries, stop in the tasting room to pick up a detailed walking-tour guide to the vineyard.) Several Sonoma County wineries still offer free wine tasting, and those that charge a minimal tasting fee (usually under $20) typically will apply it to the purchase of a bottle. For specifics, search our directory of all Sonoma County Wineries.
Down on the farm
2. For more than 40 years, Sonoma County Farm Trails members have opened their farms and ranches to the public. Use a Farm Trails map to explore Sonoma County's agricultural heritage and to experience life on the farm with sheep, llamas, honey bees, butterflies, birds and more. Or, explore Sonoma County's agricultural bounty by attending a Wine Country farmers market, where in addition to vendors selling fresh produce and local crafts, you may also find live music, community activities, prepared foods, and more, depending on the market. Most farmers markets are seasonal, but some are year round.
With artistic flair
3. Florence Avenue in Sebastopol is guarded by giant, colorful sculptures made entirely from reclaimed items (otherwise known as junk). Drive or stroll down this three-block-long neighborhood and be greeted by a rat at the wheel of a hot rod, a tea-sipping Mad Hatter, a sea captain, Batman, and roughly two dozen more sculptures by Florence Avenue residents and artists Patrick Amiot and Brigitte Laurent.
4. Christopher Queen Galleries (#4 John Orr's Gardens, Duncans Mills, 707-865-1318) specializes in early California paintings and contemporary art. The main gallery features early California art, dating from the 1860s to the 1940s, byartists who are represented in the Oakland Museum, the De Young, the Crocker Museum in Sacramento, and other museums and institutions. The downstairs salon features contemporary representational art depicting landscapes, figural, still life, and genre. Open daily 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., except Tuesdays.
5. Sonoma County Art Trails Open Studios allows you to travel the back roads of Sonoma County and visit artists in their studios. See how established and emerging artists work, and talk to them about their inspiration and motives. This annual event takes place over two weekends in October.
6. Follow the Sculpture Trail (see photo) in the northern Sonoma County towns of Geyserville and Healdsburg. You can download a map to more than 30 outdoor sculptures, and walk, bike, and drive to see them all, both in and between the towns. The sculptures are on display for a year, and changed each May.
7. Go walking to art: Sonoma County galleries and artists in several communities work together to present monthly "art walks," especially in the summer months. It's a chance to stroll through interesting neighborhoods, view a wide variety of artwork, sip a little wine, nibble an appetizer, and perhaps enjoy a bit of live music.
In the garden
The climate that makes Sonoma County perfect for growing grapes also makes it an ideal home for unique gardens and nurseries featuring an amazing variety plants.
8. Ferrari-Carano Winery (8761 Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg, 707-433-6700) features five acres of diverse gardens done in an Italian/French parterre style with classic geometric shapes forming the backbone of the design. Enjoy meandering paths, foot bridges along a rippling stream, waterfalls, fish-filled ponds, bronze sculptures by world-renowned artists, and more than 2,000 species of trees and shrubs marked with identification tags.
9. The rose garden at Korbel Champagne Cellars (13250 River Road, Guerneville, 707-824-7316) blooms each spring, and continues into summer and fall with more than 250 varieties of antique roses. Originally planted in the 1880s, the garden also features more than 1,000 other types of flowers, all set in mini micro-climate gardens celebrating different areas of the world. Admission is free; a garden tour is offered daily, 1 p.m. and 3 p.m., Tuesday to Sunday, mid-April through mid-October.
10. Now a unique city park, the Luther Burbank Home and Gardens (204 Santa Rosa Ave., Santa Rosa, 707-524-5445) is where world-renowned horticulturist Luther Burbank lived and experimented with plants for most of his 50-year career. More than an acre of gardens include many of Burbank's horticultural contributions, with special areas focused on medicinal herbs, cutting flowers, roses, wildlife habitats and ornamental grasses. The grounds are open daily, 8 a.m. to dusk, for free self-guided tours; docent-led tours of the grounds and buildings are $10 for adults and $8.50 for seniors or college students (children under 12 are free with an adult).
11. Use a free trail map to take a self-guided tour of the Luther Burbank Experiment Farm (7777 Bodega Ave., Sebastopol, 707-829-6711), on the remaining three acres of the 15-acre Gold Ridge Farm where the noted horticulturist developed and grew thousands of new hybrids and cross breeds. Engraved signs list the common and scientific names, making it easy to identify each plant in the garden. Burbank introduced more than 800 new varieties of fruit and nut trees, flowers, vegetables, ornamental shrubs, and grains, including the Shasta daisy and the common baking potato. The farm is dedicated to preserving, studying, and promoting Burbank's work. Open dawn to dusk; free admission; docent-led tours are available by appointment.
12. Explore an ever-changing series of gallery-style walk-through gardens at Cornerstone Sonoma (23570 Highway 121, Sonoma, 707-933-3010).The gardens showcase new and innovative designs from the world's finest landscape architects and designers. Each one is unique; some are architectural, some more plant orientated, and all encourage interaction and contemplation. Cornerstone is now home to the Sunset Magazine Gardens + Outdoor Test Kitchen, and also offers a mix of unique shops and galleries, as well as tasting rooms and a deli/café. Festivals and other events are held on weekends.
13. Kruse Rhododendron State Reserve (25050 Coast Highway 1, at mile marker 43, 707-847-3221) on Sonoma County's northern coast offers one of the prettiest walks you’ll ever find, especially from early spring to mid-June when the 317-acre reserve’s enormous number of spectacular rhododendrons burst into bloom. For an overview, take the 2.25-mile round-trip loop trail. Open daily from sunrise to sunset; leashed dogs and bicycles are allowed on the trails. Entry is free, but the restrooms are closed due to service/budget cuts. And the rhododendron reserve is right next to Salt Point State Park (entry fee $8 per vehicle), which features a pygmy forest and 20 miles of hiking trails.
14. The 25-acre Quarryhill Botanical Gardens (12841 Sonoma Hwy., Glen Ellen, 707-996-3166) nurtures of one of North America's largest and most important collections of temperate-climate Asian plants. It features mature flowering Asian trees and shrubs, as well as waterfalls (see photo), ponds, and amazing views. Open daily, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.; admission is $12 for adults; $10 seniors age 65 or older; $8 for active military, students, and children ages 13-17; free age 12 and younger; and seniors, students, and active military are free (for self-guided tours) the first Tuesday of every month. Docent-led tours (two weeks advance notice required) are $17 for adults, $15 per person for groups of 10 or more, and free for age 12 and younger; the fees for docent-led tours include park admission.
15. Located on a former cattle ranch, Garden Valley Ranch (498 Pepper Road, Petaluma, 707-795-0919) contains more than 10,000 rose bushes (60-plus varieties) on nine beautiful acres. The ranch produces field-grown cut garden roses, selling and shipping them to the floral trade around the nation. On a tour you’ll get to see the stunning rose fields and much more. Self-guided tours are $5 a person; docent tours are $10 a person. The ranch is open for touring 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Wednesdays through Sundays, events permitting (call ahead).
16. The Russian River Rose Company (1685 Magnolia Drive, Healdsburg, 707-433-7455) features 650 varieties of roses, and more than 2,000 individual plants ranging from ancient Species roses to 21st century hybrids. Enjoy tea roses dating from the 1800s, cluster-flowered Polyanthus, ultra-sweet-smelling Noisettes, and miniature roses. Stroll through a wonderful butterfly garden and a gorgeous Rose Allee — a series of eight 12-foot by 12-foot iron arches set on a path through a vineyard and rose fields. Take a self-guided tour for the price of the garden map ($2); personal tours by owner Jan Tolmasoff are $4.50 per person (by special arrangement); and special workshops and other events are often offered on weekends. Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday from April to June, or year-round by appointment.
17. Western Hills Garden (16250 Coleman Valley Road, Occidental, 707-872-5463) is a three-acre site that is a botanical gem, described by the New York Times in 2005 as the "Tiffany's of plants." Founded in 1960, the Western Hills Rare Plant Nursery was a destination spot for serious gardeners until it closed in 2010. It is now open for tours and plant sales ($10 admission) from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays, or by appointment on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
18. Wildwood Farms Nursery and Gardens (10300 Sonoma Highway, Kenwood, 707-833-1161) is a family-run, four-acre, specialty plant nursery, where established gardens blend unusual plants from diverse cultures in unique displays. Highlights include 250 different Japanese maples, 50 varieties of dogwood trees, and a wide variety of companion plants for Western gardens.
The great outdoors
19. Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve (17000 Armstrong Woods Road, Guerneville, 707-869-2015) is a living reminder of the magnificent primeval redwood forest that covered much of this area before logging operations began during the 19th century. This 805-acre park is the largest remaining old-growth redwood forest in Sonoma County, and features a magnificent grove of ancient redwoods, a large outdoor amphitheater, self-guided nature trails and a variety of picnic facilities. Admission is $8 per vehicle or $7 per vehicle for seniors; or free to pedestrians and bicyclists (it's possible to park outside the entrance and walk in).
20. Sugarloaf Ridge State Park (2605 Adobe Canyon Road, Kenwood, 707-833-5712) straddles the boundary between Sonoma and Napa counties, and offers 25 miles of trails for hiking and horseback riding through oak woodland and chaparral; bicycles are allowed on designated paths; and on a clear day, visitors can see views of the Sierra Nevada and the Golden Gate Bridge from the 2,729-foot summit of Bald Mountain. Entry/parking is $8 per vehicle, or $7 per vehicle for seniors 62 and older.
21. Robert Ferguson Observatory (2605 Adobe Canyon Road, Kenwood, 707-833-6979), located inside Sugarloaf park, periodically offers the public a chance to view the stars for free or for a nominal fee of $3 a person. Stroll along the Planet Walk, a scale model of the solar system that has been shrunk more than 2,360,000,000 times — small enough for to include the orbit of the most distant planet, and large enough that the smallest planets can still be seen.
22. Jack London State Historic Park (2400 London Ranch Road, Glen Ellen, 707-938-5216) blends the great outdoors with history in a memorial to writer and adventurer Jack London, who made his home at the site from 1905 until his death in 1916. The park combines 1,400 acres of trails and pristine vistas with historic buildings demonstrating early 20th century life. The park entry fee is $5 for those who walk or bicycle in, or $10 per vehicle; an annual pass is $49.
23. Sonoma County Regional Parks offer everything from sandy beaches to springtime wildflower meadows, from community parks with playgrounds to river access and camping facilities — and more. Some sites offer free entry and parking, while others charge a $7 parking fee for day use.
24. LandPaths is a nonprofit dedicated to creating ways for people to experience the beauty, understand the value, and assist in healing the land in their local communities. It offers unusual, off-the-beaten-path hikes and workshops on preservation land. Many hikes and activities are free.
Along the coast
25. See a live seal show in Jenner. Throw your kayak or canoe into the Russian River at Duncans Mills and paddle to the mouth of the river to get close to the seals and sea lions that sun themselves on the beach. Don't get too close, as they are wild animals and should be treated as such. Learn all about local wildlife at the Jenner Visitor Center (10439 Highway 1, Jenner, 707-865-9757). Operated by State Parks docents, the center includes a nature store and interpretive displays of local history, flora, and fauna.
26. Goat Rock Beach, near the mouth of the Russian River, is part of the Sonoma Coast State Park, a series of beaches stretching 17 miles along the jagged Sonoma coast. Goat Rock Beach is known for its scenic shoreline, easily accessible sandy beach, the massive rock that gives the place its name, and the colony of harbor seals that make their home on the far end of this beach. Please stay 50 yards from the seals, especially during pupping season, March to August. Due to the protected status of the seals, no dogs are allowed on Goat Rock Beach. Admission/parking is $8 per vehicle or $7 per senior vehicle; picnic tables and restroom facilities are available.
27. Bodega Head, the rocky headland that forms the entrance into Bodega Harbor, is part of the 17-mile-long Sonoma Coast State Park. At Bodega Head, the harbor side provides a popular crabbing area along the jetty; hiking trails on the ocean side allow access to small, sandy coves and spectacular scenic bluff-top views; and the high cliffs offer excellent vantage points for observing migrating gray whales. It's also a great napping spot — open your car windows, lean the seat back and be lulled to sleep by the sound of the crashing waves. Parking is free.
In fresh water
28. Lake Sonoma (3333 Skaggs Springs Road, Geyserville, 707-431-4533) is one of the prime recreational areas in Northern California. Warm Springs Dam forms Lake Sonoma with more than 2,700 surface acres of water for canoes, sailboats, motorboats, fishing, and skiing. About 40 miles of trails are available to horseback riders and hikers. In addition to developed campgrounds, boat-in campsites and many picnic areas, Lake Sonoma hosts the Don Clausen Fish Hatchery (also known as the Warm Springs Fish Hatchery), the most modern fish hatchery in California.
29. Steelhead Beach Regional Park (9000 River Road, Forestville, 707-433-1625) provides access to the Russian River (see photo) for drift boats, kayaks, canoes, and other small water craft. It's also great for bird watching, viewing river wildlife, and picnicking. Parking is $7; using the launch area requires a $45 annual recreational access permit; licensed dogs are allowed only if on a leash no longer than six feet.
30. Forestville River Access (10584 River Drive, Forestville, 707-433-1625) offers a wide, sandy beach along the Russian River — a great place to picnic, bask in the sun, splash in water, read a book or just relax. Known locally as "Mom's Beach," this county regional park is a great place to take the kids, but it's also fantastic for just about anyone who wants to enjoy riverside recreation. Parking is free; licensed dogs are allowed only if on a leash no longer than six feet.
These are just some of the many options available. With its welcoming, friendly and relaxed atmosphere, Sonoma County can be a great value for those wanting to enjoy the Wine Country lifestyle without breaking the bank. The important thing is how much fun you have.