Guide to Exploring Sonoma County by SMART Train
Step aboard a sleek SMART train and discover Sonoma County without having to deal with traffic or parking.
Energy-efficient, clean diesel, Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit trains have been carrying passengers along 43 miles of track, from the Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport station at the north end of Santa Rosa, south to downtown San Rafael in Marin County (or vice versa), since August 2019.
Beginning in mid-December 2019, the route extends another two miles south to Larkspur, which offers ferry service to San Francisco. The extension project includes a bicycle and pedestrian pathway next to the tracks that is expected to be finished by the end of 2020.
The SMART trains offer a smooth, quiet ride. The former 60- to 100-year-old railroad tracks have been replaced, and each new rail section is about five football fields long, continuously welded so there's no more "clickty-clack" train noise.
All this makes for the perfect way to explore central Sonoma County sans automobile.
Every two-car SMART train holds up to 158 seated passengers, 160 standing passengers, and 24 bicycles. Large comfortable seats with tray tables, overhead storage, and big windows make it easy to sit back and enjoy the scenic view. Onboard amenities include free Wi-Fi, a snack bar, and accessible restrooms.
And for walking and cycling enthusiasts, work has already begun on what will eventually be one of the longest continuous bicycle-pedestrian pathways in the country, next to or near the SMART tracks.
Here's a quick look at what you can see and do at the various stops along the SMART train route in Sonoma County in order from north to south starting near the Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport.
1130 Airport Blvd., Santa Rosa
For those flying into or out of the Charles M Schulz Sonoma County Airport, the Airport Boulevard train stop is slightly more than a mile east of the airport; transportation options between the train station and the airport include Sonoma County Transit buses, taxis, or ride sharing services. Attractions in the area include the Pacific Coast Air Museum, just south of the airport, where you can learn about Sonoma County's aviation heritage while exploring more than 35 historic aircraft. Or if a delicious wine-and-food tasting appeals, you can either bicycle or grab a taxi or rideshare to Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate & Gardens (about 1.5 miles from the train station), where in addition to sipping and nibbling, you can stroll through four acres of sprawling gardens. Local dining options range from the Sky Lounge Steakhouse & Sushi Bar, offering a fresh, organic menu for breakfast, lunch, or dinner inside the airport, to the locally owned restaurants and fast food chains in the Vineyards Plaza shopping center, just northeast of the train station. Nearby lodging includes the Hilton Garden Inn.
Santa Rosa North
1500 Guerneville Road, Santa Rosa
Surrounded primarily by residential neighborhoods, this is, perhaps, more of a commuter stop than a full-fledged train station. Cyclists alighting at the Santa Rosa North station will appreciate the bicycle lanes on Guerneville and Fulton roads that lead to Santa Rosa's extensive system of trails, letting you peddle through both urban and rural areas. And this area is definitely a family destination. About half a mile to the south of the train station you'll find the Charles M. Schulz Museum, honoring the beloved cartoonist and his engaging Peanuts gang; Snoopy's Home Ice; Snoopy's Gallery and Gift Shop; and the highly interactive Children's Museum of Sonoma County, dedicated to instilling a sense of wonder and teaching children (and their parents) about the arts, sciences, and the world around them. Just south of there you'll find Coddingtown, which offers more than 40 specialty shops and department stores, and a variety of eateries. There are also a number of local restaurants in the area, like Kettles Vietnamese Bistro, which uses fresh local ingredients to craft traditional dishes. You can stay nearby at the Best Western Garden Inn or The Sandman Hotel.
Downtown Santa Rosa
7 Fourth St., Railroad Square, Santa Rosa
The first sight as you step off the train is the gorgeous 1904 train depot building, which now houses the Santa Rosa Visitor Center / California Welcome Center. You're in Santa Rosa's historic Railroad Square district, which offers antique shops, specialty stores, restaurants, lodging, and entertainment, with an authentic old-town ambiance and all in easy walking distance. Whistlestop Antiques is a local favorite for a wide variety of vintage items. The renowned 6th Street Playhouse presents live theater and music in a renovated cannery building that's more than 120 years old. Ready to eat? Omelette Express is a local institution, dishing up great breakfasts and lunches for the past 40 years; Stark's Steak & Seafood blends a clubby retro atmosphere with a thoroughly modern surf and turf menu; and La Gare French Restaurant presents traditional French cuisine in an elegant yet relaxed setting.
Want to spend the night? Built in 1907, the stone Hotel La Rose offers an Old World atmosphere, the ambience of a B&B, and the convenience of a full service hotel; while the Tuscan villa-style Hyatt Regency Sonoma Wine Country offers a gorgeous fire pit courtyard, a swimming pool, and a sculpture garden.
900 Enterprise Drive, Rohnert Park
Tall redwood trees line the sides of this bare-bones train stop, which is surrounded by residential neighborhoods, offices, and shopping centers. About a mile to the east (on foot, or by bicycle, bus, taxi, or ride share), the city-owned state-of-the-art Spreckels Performing Arts Center features local, national, and internationally-known performers, as well as presentations by local arts and civic organizations. Another mile farther east, the Green Music Center offers outstanding acoustics for chamber music, symphony orchestras, jazz, bluegrass, cabaret, blues, recitals, soloists, world music, dance, acrobats, and comedy. Heading west from the train station for about two miles, you can try your luck at the Graton Resort & Casino, a full-amenity gaming facility that includes restaurants and a 200-room hotel. Nearby you'll find Amy's Drive Thru, the nation's first vegetarian, organic, and sustainable fast-food joint. Or, enjoy traditional dishes and Sonoma-inspired specials at Hana Japanese Restaurant. There are a number of lodging options within a bicycle or taxi or rideshare drive of the train station, including Best Western Sonoma Winegrower's Inn and Doubletree by Hilton Hotel Sonoma Wine Country.
980 E. Cotati Ave., Cotati
The buildings in this cute new train station offer small-town charm in a solidly residential neighborhood. Like the Rohnert Park stop, the outstanding performances at the Green Music Center are about two miles to the east by bicycle, bus, taxi, or rideshare. About one mile southwest of the train station you'll find La Plaza Park, Cotati's hexagonal-shaped downtown plaza designed in the 1890s. The park hosts a number of community events, including the annual Cotati Accordion Festival and the weekly Cotati Farmers Market (June to mid-September). Next to the plaza you'll find a unique mix of international restaurants on Old Redwood Highway between Highway 116 and Valparaiso Avenue. Or enjoy the family-friendly atmosphere in the beer garden at the Jaded Toad BBQ & Grill, just half a mile west of the train station. Most nearby overnight lodging options are next door in Rohnert Park.
220 Lakeville St., Petaluma
The charming buildings at this station were originally built in 1914; the old depot houses the Petaluma Visitors Center while the former storehouse is home to the Petaluma Arts Center. Stroll a few blocks to the west along Washington Street, and on the far side of the the Petaluma River you'll find historic downtown Petaluma, where well-preserved old buildings house an engaging mix of boutiques, antique shops, specialty stores, and restaurants. A former Carnegie library building houses the Petaluma Historical Library & Museum; it offers docent-led tours of the historic downtown area, one of the 5 Fun Things to Do in Petaluma. When you're ready for a bite to eat or something to drink, Petaluma is a foodie, wine, and craft beer haven. Enjoy fresh pastries, breads, breakfast, and lunch at Della Fattoria, housed in the former U.S. Bakery building (circa 1860); eat and drink with a view of the river at Dempsey's Restaurant & Brewery; or read Where to Eat: Restaurants in Petaluma. Spend the night at the historic Hotel Petaluma, a five-story, 90-room hotel that opened its doors in 1924 and recently underwent extensive renovation. Or if you prefer riverfront views, check out the Sheraton Sonoma Wine Country.
Fares depend on how far you travel, ranging from $3.50 to $11.50, with a daily maximum of $23; or $1.75 to $5.75 with a daily maximum of $11.50 for seniors, youth, and disabled passengers. Passes offering unlimited rides for 31 days from the date of purchase are $200 for an adult and $100 for seniors, youth, and disabled passengers.
Eventually, plans call for SMART to cover a 70-mile corridor, from Cloverdale in the north to Larkspur in the south. For now, SMART offers a novel way to explore much of central Sonoma County, without a car. For more information, visit sonomamarintrain.org.
Written by Sonoma Insider Patricia Henley.