Take a Scenic Drive on California's Bohemian Highway
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.
Unfurling across 10 miles of western Sonoma County, the two-lane Bohemian Highway weaves 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.
The Bohemian Highway is home to a unique and soulful community of artists and nature lovers. Along the drive, 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, ziplining, and more.
This guide to the charming townships along this winding 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, an 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. The city also boasts one of the largest beaches on the Russian River — Monte Rio Community Beach. Known by locals as Big Rocky Beach, the beach offers a serene, family-friendly river experience, complete with watersport rentals, volleyball courts, barbecue grills, and a concession stand.
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 Gatsby-themed Boho Manor boasts a riverfront lounge and cozy speakeasy.
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. And, Occidental's famous Negri's Italian Dinners & Joe's Bar, with its vintage trattoria ambience, has been serving Italian classics since 1943. Learn more about these iconic Occidental restaurants. Other cuisines in town include French, Mexican, farm-to-table, and pub grub. And on Friday evenings from May to October, the Occidental Community Farmers Market offers prepared foods, fresh produce, crafts, music, and more at the southern end of town.
While in Occidental, consider taking a detour down Coleman Valley Road, which heads west toward the coast, climbing steeply then descending into a stunning valley of rolling hills, and undulating along the ridge line with spectacular views of the coast.
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.
The crowning jewel of Freestone is the Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary. The only day spa in the country that offers the Cedar Enzyme Bath, a rejuvenating heat treatment from Japan, Osmosis is the place go for secluded relaxation and pampering. Along with the Cedar Enzyme Bath, the spa boasts a host of treatments including massages, facials, and body wraps as well as a meditation garden and boutique complete with everything you need to create the perfect spa day when you get back home.
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, where you can stroll through paths that weave through the tranquility created by sky-scraping California redwood trees.
- Korbel Champagne Cellars, where the winery's grounds include lush, sprawling gardens.
- The tiny village of Bodega (about 4 miles inland from the coast) and the coastal town of Bodega Bay.
Looking for other scenic drives around Wine Country? Check out the Sonoma County Wine Tasting Road Trip Itinerary.