Scenic Drive on Bohemian Highway
Unfurling across 10 miles of western Sonoma County, the two-lane Bohemian Highway wends through the tiny hamlets of Monte Rio, Occidental, and Freestone, passing towering redwoods, serene pastures, and rocky ravines for one of the most scenic drives in California.
One of the first areas in the region to attract settlers, this green corridor is protected from the extremes of the marine fog and the inland heat, creating a gem of a benign climate.
Today, the Bohemian Highway is home to a unique and soulful community of artists and nature lovers. Here you'll find organic farms and wineries, specialty nurseries, and innovative restaurants and shops. It's also a gateway for superb outdoor activities such as hiking, biking, kayaking, canoeing, zip lining, and more.
This guide to the charming townships along this 10-mile stretch starts in the north and heads south, but it's just as easy to reverse the direction, depending on your itinerary and your closest starting point.
Stretched along both sides of the Russian River, Monte Rio (pop. 977) greets visitors with a 1950s-style neon sign arched over the roadway, reading, "Welcome to Monte Rio - Vacation Wonderland."
Other significant structures in town include a 1934 pony truss bridge that spans the Russian River to connect the two halves of town, and the 1911 Monte Rio Amphitheater, a (temporarily-closed) outdoor showcase for concerts, theater under the stars, and other events.
Monte Rio also offers a golf course, tennis courts, kayak and canoe rentals, fishing, a wide choice of dining options, and one of the Russian River's largest public beaches, where you can enjoy river life.
If you want more time to enjoy this laid-back community, consider dining and/or staying at two special local properties, both built in 1906. The rustic-chic Highland Dell Lodge generally hosts the local OktoberFest, and The Village Inn & Restaurant once served as the idyllic backdrop for Holiday Inn, a 1942 Hollywood musical starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire.
Set at roughly the midpoint of the Bohemian Highway, pretty little Occidental (pop. 823) has a two-block long main street and plenty of charm.
Founded in 1876, Occidental was once the last stop on the North Pacific Coast Railroad, which brought in tourists from San Francisco. In the 1960s and early 1970s, Occidental became a hub for social movements who created several area communes.
Today this small but diverse town reflects both its historic roots and its dynamic present, featuring a variety of art galleries, unique shops, and the Occidental Center for the Arts, a performing venue with an exhibition gallery and superb acoustics.
For more adventurous travelers, Occidental also offers Sonoma Canopy Tours, a more than two-hour zip line experience that provides the opportunity to fly through the towering trees.
Italian food lovers are in luck here. Founded as a railroad saloon and boarding house in 1879, the Occidental Union Hotel Restaurant is an Italian cafe, bakery, and pizzeria, complete with red-checkered tablecloths. Occidental's famous Negri's Italian Dinners & Joe's Bar, with its vintage trattoria ambience, has been serving Italian classics since 1943.
Other cuisines in town include French, Mexican, organic, and pub grub. And on Friday evenings from June to October, 4 p.m. to dusk, the Occidental Community Farmers Market offers prepared foods, fresh produce, crafts, music, and more at the southern end of town.
Lodging is available in local vacation rentals; the pet-friendly Occidental Lodge, with a pool and 27 rooms with queen- and king-size beds; and The Inn at Occidental, providing a luxury inn experience.
Consider a side trip: The Coleman Valley Road heads west out of Occidental toward the coast, climbing steeply then descending into a stunning valley of rolling hills, then undulating along the ridge line with spectacular views of the coast.
Only about a half-mile long, Freestone is a common stop for cyclists tacking the west county roads, and for travelers heading to the Sonoma Coast via Bodega Bay.
Many folks go out of their way to drop by Wild Flour Bread, where sourdough loaves, scones, biscotti, and more are baked in a wood-fired brick oven. An extensive garden out back supplies the fresh fruit, herbs, and vegetables that go into many of the baked treats.
Want cheese with your bread? Housed in an 1880s redwood cottage, Freestone Artisan Cheese sells handcrafted products from a variety of Sonoma County artisan cheese makers, primarily within a 20-mile radius of the store.
For shoppers, Enduring Comforts offers fine browsing through antiques, collectibles and more. If further relaxation is needed, Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary is the only day spa nationwide that offers the cedar-enzyme bath, a rejuvenating heat treatment from Japan.
Exploring the Bohemian Highway can take less than an hour or several days, depending on your pace and the number of stops. Among the many other attractions to consider folding into your itinerary:
- The towns of Forestville and Guerneville along the Russian River.
- Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve, a living reminder of the magnificent redwood forest that covered much of this area before logging operations began during the 19th century.
- Korbel Champagne Cellars, where the winery's grounds include lush, sprawling gardens.
- The tiny village of Bodega (about four miles inland from the coast) and the coastal town of Bodega Bay.