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Road Trip to the Top Historic Sites of Sonoma County

Mission San Francisco Solano in Sonoma was the last of the 21 missions built in California.

If you’re a history lover, here’s a three-day road trip that delves into Sonoma County’s long and glorious past. It takes you across mountains, valleys, meadows, and forests; into charming towns and cities; and culminates with a jaunt up the northern portion of our 55-mile Pacific Ocean coastline. This tour will send you home happy — and hankering to return for more.

We’ll begin in the county’s major city, Santa Rosa, on a five-acre section of the Charles M. Schulz Airport (STS) (2200 Airport Blvd.). That’s where you’ll find the Pacific Coast Air Museum (One Air Museum Way), which displays beautifully-preserved historic aircraft. The museum maintains a fleet of flying aircraft, as well as others that you can explore in hands-on fashion, including an A-26C Invader, D-21 Drone, S-2A Tracker Airtanker, and an H-34 Choctaw Helicopter. Even if you arrive with your own car, this is a great place to start. If you would like to rent a car, you will find major rental car agencies inside the airport lobby.

If you prefer to check in the night before, so you're able start this itinerary bright and early in the morning, consider the elegant and historic Hotel LaRose (308 Wilson St., Santa Rosa). A member of the Historic Hotels of America, the beautiful stone building has welcomed guests since 1907.

So, let’s get started.

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From Santa Rosa to Sonoma

Santa Rosa

From Charles M. Schulz Airport it’s a quick drive to downtown Santa Rosa and Luther Burbank’s Home & Gardens (204 Santa Rosa Ave.). Known worldwide in his day as the “Wizard of Horticulture,” Burbank was a self-educated agricultural scientist who developed about 800 entirely new plants, including the Russet Burbank potato, the Santa Rosa Plum, and the Shasta Daisy. The Greek-revival home where he lived from 1884 to 1906 holds its original furnishings; it’s now a National Historic Landmark. The grounds contain a greenhouse, the carriage house (now a museum/gift shop), one acre of gardens planted with Burbank creations, and his grave.

Next stop: the Sonoma County History Museum and the Art Museum of Sonoma County (both at 425 Seventh Ave., Santa Rosa). The history museum is housed in an historic 1910 post office building noted for its California-style classic federal architecture. The collection covers Sonoma County from the early Native American settlement forward. Next door, the art museum concentrates on artists who have lived and worked in Northern California. Special and traveling exhibits here tend to be thought-provoking and fascinating.

Santa Rosa Railroad SquareThen it’s off to the Railroad Square District, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. As you’d expect, Santa Rosa’s “Old Town” is filled with significant historic buildings such as the Northwestern Pacific Railroad Depot, built in 1903 when the area’s produce was shipped via train to an eager nationwide marketplace. Today the square’s beautifully-restored historic buildings hold a wide variety of eateries, boutiques, antique shops and entertainment venues. So browse as long as you like, and if you're ready for lunch, take your pick of excellent restaurants.

The Historic Town of Sonoma

Next, head to the town of Sonoma at the southern end of Sonoma Valley by going east on California Highway 12. On the way to Sonoma, consider stopping off at Jack London State Historic Park (2400 London Ranch Road, Glen Ellen) to pay homage to the famous adventurer and writer. London, author of The Call of the Wild, White Fang, and many other adventure novels, was the world’s best-selling author in his day.

London lived here with his wife, Charmian, from 1905 until his untimely death in 1916 at age 40. His home, “Beauty Ranch,” now Jack London SHP, is a place of lush forests, redwood groves, meadows, and hills with amazing views. You can visit the cottage where London wrote, learn about his high-charged life at the small “House of Happy Walls” museum, see his grave, and much more.

When you’re through, return to Highway 12 and continue south until you reach Sonoma’s eight-acre grassy plaza — the largest town plaza in California. Free parking is located off of First Street East, behind the Sonoma Barracks.

Sonoma BarracksThe City of Sonoma is steeped in early California history — and much of that history took place on and around the plaza. Today, many of the buildings you’ll see here are part of Sonoma State Historic Park. Other vintage buildings hold art galleries, clothing boutiques, wine tasting rooms, and restaurants, symbolizing the dynamic mix of old and new that characterizes this lively town.

Don't miss a visit to Mission San Francisco Solano, the northernmost and last (built in 1823) of the state's 21 missions. It holds historic exhibits, a museum chapel, the old courtyard, and a small gift shop. Across First Street East from the mission, kids are fascinated by the artifact-filled two-story adobe Sonoma Barracks that once housed Mexican army troops commanded by General Mariano Vallejo, military commander and director of colonization of Mexico’s northern frontier. And everybody enjoys traipsing through the nearby Toscano Hotel & Kitchen, a 19th century wood-frame building furnished to look much as it did as a hotel in the early 1900s.

Inside Sonoma Plaza's lovely park area, be sure to check out the massive statue dedicated to the 1846 Bear Flag Revolt, which took place on the plaza and led to California becoming part of the United States. A short walk from the plaza is General Vallejo’s 1850s Gothic-style home, Lachryma Montis, which was originally shipped in pieces 'round the Horn.

An easy two blocks distance from the plaza, and housed in a former railroad depot, is the Depot Park Museum (270 1st St. W.). It’s filled with vivid displays and artifacts centering on California and, in particular, Sonoma.

The Oldest Commercial Winery in California

Buena Vista Winery the CountAnd for a last piece of important Sonoma history, visit Buena Vista Winery (18000 Old Winery Road, Sonoma). Less than a 10-minute drive from the plaza, it was founded in 1857 and is the oldest commercial winery in the state. The original stone buildings remain, and are now a California Historic Landmark.

Hungry? You’ll have your pick of wonderful eateries right on the plaza. For delicious sandwiches, try the Sonoma Cheese Factory (2 Spain St.). For comfort food with a French flair and a Rhone wine list, head to the girl + the fig (110 W. Spain St.). Hearty traditional Mexican food and a variety of margaritas are found at La Casa Restaurant & Bar (121 E. Spain St.).

Spend the night in the beautiful Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn, pick one of the cozy inns in Glen Ellen, or check our listings of hotels in Sonoma.

Petaluma

From Sonoma to Petaluma

Petaluma Adobe State Park

Now it’s time to drive to Petaluma, with a stop along the way at Petaluma Adobe State Historic Park. Head south out of Sonoma on Highway 12 / Broadway. After about two miles, turn right onto Watmaugh Road. In approximately 2.5 miles, turn right onto Highway 116 / Stage Gulch Road. Continue on Stage Gulch Road for slightly more than three miles to Old Adobe Road, where you’ll turn right. In one mile, turn right into Petaluma Adobe State Park. 

In the 1830s-1840s, the adobe compound that constitutes the park (3325 Adobe Road, Petaluma) was known as Rancho Petaluma. The largest privately-owned adobe building in the state, it served as headquarters for a profitable working ranch ruled by the region’s most important early historic figure, General Mariano Vallejo.

Today Vallejo’s rancho is a National Historic Landmark. Visiting here is like being transported back to the great rancho era: most of the adobe bricks are original, farm animals roam the property, authentic period furniture and equipment fill the rooms, and prickly pear cactus — a popular fencing material before the arrival of barbed wire — is plentiful. During Living History Days, docents in period dress perform chores in the old ways.

The park is situated amidst quiet farmland and oak-studded hills. Red-shouldered hawks fly overhead, and coyotes and foxes can be spotted in the grasslands. Shaded picnic areas practically beg you to bring a picnic and enjoy the view.

Downtown Petaluma

When you’re ready, drive into downtown Petaluma. Get back onto Adobe Road, turning right out of the Adobe. In about two miles you’ll reach an intersection with a light; turn left onto East Washington Street. Continue driving for about five miles, crossing over Highway 101, until you reach the intersection of East Washington Street and Petaluma Boulevard. Free all-day parking is available at the Keller Street Garage (on Keller between Western and Washington) and the Second Street Garage (on C Street between First and Second streets).

Settled in 1851, Petaluma is one of the state’s oldest cities, filled with beautiful Victorian homes and impressive iron front commercial buildings (the downtown area is on the National Register of Historic Places). Petaluma’s small-town charm and historic buildings have also made it a favorite film location—iconic movies filmed here include American Graffiti (1973), Basic Instinct (1992), and Peggy Sue Got Married (1986).

One of the best ways to enjoy Petaluma is to explore its historic areas on foot, starting with the charming downtown area. Here you’ll encounter not only history, but many entertaining diversions: antique stores, art galleries, excellent restaurants and cafés, and even an heirloom seed store housed in an ornate 1926 bank. A favorite of photographers is a huge clock atop the Masonic building; it was built in Connecticut and shipped ‘round the Horn in 1882. You can download a map of downtown Petaluma's historic buildings.

An enticing walk leads through the area containing the city’s stunning Victorian-era homes, where architectural styles include Queen Anne, Victorian stick, Gothic Revival, Colonial Revival and many others. Download a map of Petaluma’s historic homes.

To learn more about Petaluma’s history — it was once known as “Egg Basket to the World,” thanks to the massive volume of eggs produced here — visit the small-but-fascinating Petaluma Historical Library & Museum (20 Fourth St., Petaluma). Housed in a former Carnegie library (1904), the museum is graced by Northern California’s largest free-standing leaded glass dome. Exhibits here center on the area’s poultry, dairy and Miwok Indian history. On most Saturdays the museum gives tours of historic Petaluma led by costumed docents (meet on the museum’s steps at 10:30 a.m.).

A good history-lover’s choice for your night’s rest is Hotel Petaluma (205 Kentucky St., Petaluma). A grand hotel when it opened its doors in 1924, this five-story hotel is in the heart of downtown. It’s a quiet, gracious place that honors the past but delivers modern amenities. Or pick another convenient Petaluma hotel.

When it’s time for dinner, you’re in luck: downtown Petaluma has a bounty of fine eateries, including some of the nation’s best farm-to-table restaurants and a diversity of ethnic cuisines. Explore and narrow your choices by checking our listings of Petaluma restaurants.

Sonoma Coast

From Petaluma to the Sonoma Coast

Bodega

Bodega ChurchEarly next morning, leave Petaluma for western Sonoma County, heading west on Bodega Avenue and then onto Valley Ford Road. At Highway 1, head north. About six miles from the Pacific Ocean you’ll enter the charming country village of Valley Ford. Once a stop on the North Pacific Coast Railroad, today the town’s handsome old buildings are home to antique stores, art galleries, and restaurants.

In 1976, one of the most controversial and famous art installations in history — Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Running Fence — ran right through Valley Ford on its 24.5-mile journey from Highway 101 to Bodega Bay, where it disappeared into the ocean. The white-nylon fence brought international journalists, environmental protestors, passionate art-lovers, and curious gawkers to Valley Ford. While here you can pay a symbolic visit to this amazing work of art at Sonoma County Historic Landmark #24 (14459 Valley Ford Road, Valley Ford). The Running Fence is long gone, but next to the post office you’ll find a bronze plaque commemorating its existence, as well as one of the poles used in the installation.

Continue heading north on Highway 1. In a few miles, turn right onto Bodega Highway and soon you’ll enter the charming town of Bodega, the site of significant motion picture history: much of Alfred Hitchcock’s famous movie, The Birds (1963), was filmed here.

Stroll around the one-block town and you’ll spot some of the very buildings used in the movie, including the 150-year-old Potter Schoolhouse.

Fort Ross

When you’re ready, get back on Highway 1 to Bodega Bay, then continue heading north. For the next hour or so you’ll be driving on steep cliffs along the Pacific Ocean, marveling over some of the world’s most stunning ocean views. Your destination: Fort Ross State Historic Park (19005 Coast Highway 1, Jenner).

Fort Ross Sonoma CountyFrom 1812 to 1841, Fort Ross was tsarist Russia’s southernmost outpost in North America. It was an ambitious community, home to California’s first windmills and shipbuilding “yard.” According to the historical record, there were at least three windmills on the site (the few mills that existed elsewhere in California at that time were powered by water or animals). Shipbuilding was accomplished in the cove below Fort Ross, where boats were constructed from redwood and fir.

Today, faithfully reconstructed buildings recall the once-thriving colony, including the stockade, a Russian chapel, a barracks, two blockhouses, and a windmill. The only surviving original structure, Rotchev House, was renovated in 1836 for the last manager of Fort Ross, Alexander Rotchev, who lived there with his family. The old Russian cemetery, on a bluff east of the fort, is relatively intact, and the historic orchard still contains fruit trees from the Russian era.

The park museum offers details about the site’s three main eras (Kashaya Indian, Russian, and Spanish rancho). Today, Fort Ross is a California Historical Landmark, a National Historic Landmark, and on the National Register of Historic Places.

When you’re through, spend the afternoon exploring the coast. Consider going hiking on bluffs overlooking the sea, checking out the natural oddities at Salt Point State Park’s pygmy forest, or — particularly in spring — visiting Kruse Rhododendron State Natural Reserve.

That night, check into one of the north coast’s oceanfront hotels, such as Fort Ross Lodge (20705 Coast Highway 1, Jenner), which offers great views of the Pacific Ocean, and is situated above a sheltered cove where seals play and grey whales are sometimes known to rest during migration. The Timber Cove Resort (21780 N. Coast Highway 1, Jenner) is dramatically perched on a high bluff with the Pacific Ocean spread before it and a skyward-soaring Benjamino Bufano sculpture on the grounds.

That night, enjoy delicious dining at the Black Point Grill at Sea Ranch Lodge, Coast Kitchen at Timber Cove Resort, or the Ocean Cove Lodge Bar & Grill.  

Time for more fun? Check out more Sonoma County road trip ideas here.

Written by Sonoma Insider Suzie Rodriguez.