Souful Travel: Winter in West County

Lush greenery, foggy coastlines, seasonal harvests and unique wildlife sightings – Sonoma County in winter is a place where visitors can escape the hustle and bustle of everyday life and embark on their own personal journey to wellbeing. Renowned for its vineyards and stunning landscapes, winter in Sonoma County is an ideal time for a vacation focused on you. 

Here, we help you have that experience in West County.  

Laguna de Santa Rosa
Laguna de Santa Rosa

A Winter’s Trail 

Sonoma County has its own kind of winter wonderland, though it’s not snowflakes that fall from the sky and blanket the ground. Beginning in November and lasting through the final month of the year, our deciduous trees – that’s a Jeopardy question meaning trees with leaves that change color – turn shades of gold and vermillion. And if you happen to be in the right spot at the right time, a gust of wind will treat you to one of nature’s great enchantments as dozens of leaves suddenly take flight for a wild sweeping plunge to the ground below. It’s all part of nature’s great annual cycle, and a soulful winter adventure in Sonoma County offers a penetrating glimpse into Mother Nature and her cosmic secrets, which can be harnessed and seized to better manage our own lives. 

Running east to west through Sonoma County, Highway 12 spans the geographic diversity – forests, coast, rolling hills – that makes this such a special place, possibly even more so in winter, when raindrops glisten like diamonds on emerald ferns beside the ruddy redwood trees, and when our world-famous vines go into hibernation in preparation for next year’s fruitful bounty. 

And so east of the sun and west of the moon, let us take a drive through Sonoma County on a brisk afternoon. We’ll call it “a winter’s trail.”  

Luther Burbank
Luther Burbank

Starting from Santa Rosa, the county’s largest city, with our compass set for west, we merge onto Highway 12 headed toward the eclectic town of Sebastopol. Along the way we reach our first stop, the Laguna de Santa Rosa Trail, part of the Sonoma County Regional Parks system. What looks from the highway like a rather desolate field is in fact a nature trek tailor-made for the misty months. The park is flat with no treacherous elevation gains, and a loop can be done in under an hour. The magic resides in the wetland areas inside the park, where craggy trees angle out of still ponds reflecting the clouds above in eerie silence. Whatever fires your imagination – from 19th century Gothic novels to the imaginary worlds of Harry Potter, Star Wars and Lord of the Rings – you’ll find plenty of visual fuel to help your fancy take flight.  

From there, Highway 12 pulls into Sebastopol proper, where the westward route morphs into Bodega Highway. A mile past the town’s downtown shops and cafes lies the historic cottage of Luther Burbank, Sonoma County’s famous 19th-century botanist. Known as the Experiment Farm and managed by the West County Historical Society, this is where Burbank conducted horticultural experiments from roughly 1885 until 1925, introducing more than 800 varieties of plants, including the spineless cactus, which you probably didn’t know existed. Next door to the attraction stands Sebastopol’s historic cemetery, where sensitive souls stroll on winter afternoons when the air is crisp and fragrant.  

From there, your trail passes through charming hills where dormant grapes gather energy for future harvest. The one-room schoolhouse known as the Watson School, a historic landmark built in 1856, unfortunately cannot be entered, but makes for a convenient pitstop and the chance to ponder what life was like as a child during the Gold Rush era. Here, the varied terrain so dear to Luther Burbank changes before your eyes, as redwoods become eucalyptus trees and vineyards become cattle farms as the transition from inner county to Sonoma Coast begins.  

A right turn onto Joy Road presents the option of a side excursion to The Grove of Old Trees, about 15 minutes off the highway along a slow and narrow road, while the town of Bodega brings souvenir shopping options in addition to the popular sightseeing spot where Alfred Hitchcock filmed his 1963 masterpiece “The Birds.” A left turn onto Highway 1 a few moments later takes us to the charming coastal village of Valley Ford, where several restaurants seemingly frozen in time offer lunch options and the chance to ponder the season’s great lesson.  

Trees and water
Laguna de Santa Rosa

It is a staple of ancient teachings that the most quotidian manifestations of nature contain powerful teachings to those willing to look. So, while on the surface winter may seem like the time of year when the trees go barren and people come down with everything from sniffles to “seasonal affect disorder,” otherwise known as the winter blues, this, of course, is only part of the story.  

The world’s metaphysical doctrines teach us that nothing in the universe is ever completely at rest – all is ceaseless activity. Even while you sleep, your body is busy strengthening muscles and repairing cells, not to mention spinning fanciful dreams. Likewise, Sonoma County’s dormant grapevines are neither lifeless nor inactive, but simply undergoing the natural process of regeneration, of eternal death and rebirth in which nothing is every truly destroyed, but simply transformed into another form. And nothing symbolizes this process better than the sun as it yields to the longest, darkest day of the year on December 22 at the Winter Solstice.  

For it is the sun that makes all life on Earth possible. Solar energy pulls water from the oceans, which falls back as rain upon the earth, causing foliage to grow. The plant kingdom gives off oxygen, creating Earth’s atmosphere and providing air for living creatures to breath. Animals eat the plants, and humans – at least some of them – eat the animals, which is transformed into energy for human activity, such as going off in search of beauty and wisdom.  

The sun is more than a mere symbol: It truly is life-giving, for we not only consume solar energy, we are solar energy. And in the depths of winter, when all is silent and the sun is hidden from the sky, remember that it is still active, and will rise from its low point and commence its triumphant march back to its apex at the Summer Solstice next year. You can count on it.  

Other Soulful Adventures  

This trip through West County is just one of a series on soulful travel. For other experiences, visit our Soulful Travel page.  

Remember the Leave No Trace Principles 

Experiencing our destination through the Sonoma County Leave No Trace Seven Principles gives travelers an opportunity to make a difference. Together, we can protect and preserve this special corner of the world for generations to come. Find more info about sustainable travel in Sonoma County here.   

For a list of local businesses helping promote the important message of Leave No Trace, click here

Written by Christian Chensvold 

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