Literary Sonoma County: A Travel Guide for Readers and Writers
What is it about the wide-open spaces of Sonoma County that inspire folks to put pen to page? The region has nurtured writerly talent for well over a century, and you’ll find evidence of that literary tradition on any library shelf – from past masters like M.F.K. Fisher and Maya Angelou, to modern scribes like the U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limón and rising-star novelist Emma Cline. Indeed, the list of local talent is impressive.
Whether you’re a dedicated writer, an enthusiastic reader, or a curious layperson, you’ll find enrichment on your next trip to Sonoma County. For your next literary adventure, we’ve rounded up literary events, residency programs, bookshops, and idyllic places where you can retreat to read and write.
While you’re exploring, be sure to visit Jack London State Park and the legendary writer’s former stomping grounds. Up the road, you’ll find Bouverie Preserve of Audubon Canyon Ranch, along with M.F.K. Fisher’s “Last House.” (Visits are by appointment only.)
Annual Events and Retreats
While any time of year can offer ways to explore the rich literary heritage of Sonoma County, two annual events offer particularly ripe opportunities.
Each spring, Sonoma Valley Authors Festival highlights dozens of esteemed authors and unites hundreds of writers and fans. Now in its seventh year, the event takes place at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa and has featured Isabel Allende, Dave Barry, Ada Limón, Abraham Verghese, and others.
Members of the public who are not registered for the festival can still take part by attending Authors on the Plaza, a free gathering in downtown Sonoma that happens during the festival weekend. Interested? Mark your calendar for the next festival scheduled for April 26-28, 2024.
Summertime calls writers from near and far to gather at the annual Sonoma County Writers Camp. Held in July at Ratna Ling Tibetan Retreat Center, the event invites writers of every level to mix, mingle, generate new material, and bask in the peaceful surroundings of the Sonoma Coast. Says co-founder and New York Times bestselling author Ellen Sussman, “We create a rich and supportive community that lasts far beyond the time we spend together at the retreat.” To get a preview, check out the free online class.
A range of literary events welcome the public to Sonoma County year-round. For example, Poetic License Sonoma is a group of Sonoma County poets that host regular events, including quarterly readings, in partnership with Sebastopol Center for the Arts. In Petaluma, Aqus Café hosts “Rivertown Poets” online each Monday at 6:15 p.m.; sign up in advance to read, or just join the virtual event and listen. Up north, Cloverdale Performing Arts Center hosts a live open mic where writers are welcome.
More of a reader than a writer? Connect with a local book group. While it’s easy to find groups online, you can also do so the old-fashioned way – at the library. Sonoma Reads! Book Club, for example, is hosted by Sonoma County Library.
Bookshops are another tried-and-true place to find author readings, book groups, publishing workshops or just a quiet place to browse and daydream. Across Sonoma County, you’ll find a wide range of shops that reflect the passions and interests of the people who live, work and visit here. We couldn’t pick a favorite if we tried!
- A half-block off the Sonoma Plaza, you’ll find Readers Books, a hub of small-town literary life for two decades. Owned by Andy Weinberger, who’s also the author of a series of mystery novels, the shop is operated by a crew of longtime, knowledgeable staff members.
- Claiming the largest fiction section of any independent bookstore in Sonoma County, Levin & Co. in Healdsburg also offers puzzles, games, journals, and a nice selection of vinyl records. Take the family and browse to your heart’s content.
- Copperfields is a local chain and stalwart presence in Sonoma County selling new and used books at multiple locations, including Petaluma, Sebastopol, Healdsburg, and Santa Rosa. Check the store’s excellent author events schedule.
- Open since 2021, Russian River Books and Letters in Guerneville was founded as an inclusive community space by Michael Rex, who also works as a tutor. The store has offered free ESL classes, letter-writing workshops, and author readings.
- Owned by a veteran bookseller who has brilliantly curated the selection, Second Chances Used Bookstore is located right next to the farmers market in Sebastopol. Pick up some fresh produce and a few books, too.
An immersive way to experience Sonoma County while finding deeper focus in creative work, residency programs can be ideal opportunities. Here are several local programs in beautiful settings that are bound to inspire.
- Chalk Hill Artist Residency is hosted on the scenic grounds of historic Warnecke Ranch, situated on the hills above Healdsburg. The program welcomes established, emerging, and visionary artists in all mediums including songwriting and poetry. This residency is offered by the family affiliated with SUTRO Wines; be sure to enjoy a tour and tasting while you’re here.
- Sonoma Community Center offers residencies in a range of mediums, including playwriting, with a strong emphasis on community involvement. An apartment stay is offered in downtown Sonoma.
- Wildlands Artists’ Residency offers established writers three-week sessions of focused time on a rural property, where accommodations consist of a rustic cabin with sweeping views. No Internet or cell service is provided in order to keep the focus on your creative output.
- Writing Between the Vines invites writers to apply for a retreat in vineyard guest houses across North America, including several in Sonoma County. Past stays have included Moshin Vineyards, DeLoach Vineyards, Jordan Vineyard and Winery, Keller Estate, and others.
If a residency isn’t right for you, don’t worry – Sonoma County offers plenty of inviting stays where you can pop open your laptop, curl up with a good book, and create your own personal retreat. Here are just a few:
- River’s End, Jenner: What better place to contemplate a novel or poem than from a perch above the sweeping sea? Named for its site at the junction of the Russian River and the Pacific Ocean, River’s End Inn and Restaurant offers five cabins. No television, Internet or cell service is available, so you’ll be guaranteed no distractions! While you’re here, enjoy the onsite restaurant’s seasonal seafood, served on a cliff overlooking the ocean.
- Dawn Ranch, Guerneville: Situated on 22 acres along the banks of the Russian River, this historic retreat offers cabins, cottages, and glamping tents. With a hundred-year legacy as a resort where urbanites could bring their families, Dawn Ranch serves classic camp vibes, offering a range of daily workshops and serving meals and drinks from a restored lodge. Don’t miss the spa.
- Olea Hotel, Glen Ellen: Tucked above the village of Glen Ellen, this inn offers finely appointed rooms in an ambient setting. Savor a complimentary gourmet breakfast, then enjoy a day writing poolside or exploring the Valley of the Moon – including nearby Jack London State Park. As the sun sets, relax by taking a dip in the hot tub, relishing a gratis wine tasting, or enjoying an onsite massage.
- Hotel Petaluma, Petaluma: If people-watching spurs your creative juices, you’re in luck! In the lobby of Hotel Petaluma, you’ll find plenty of interesting characters – not to mention great food, wine, and atmosphere. This recently restored gem is located in the heart of downtown, moments away from restaurants, wine bars, and (yes!) bookstores.
For other writing inspiration, read Soulful Travel: Jack London State Historic Park.
Written by Amy Bess Cook