If you already knew everything there was to know about where you live — well, that wouldn’t be much fun, would it? To wander off the beaten path, if only for a day, is surely worth the leap of faith. Here’s our list of 50 secret Sonoma County destinations and insider tips, all meant to be shared.
3 Secrets from Nature Photographer Jerry Dodrill
Based in Bodega, Jerry Dodrill travels the world teaching photo workshops, from Kyrgyzstan to Death Valley — but he always comes back to Sonoma County eager to capture the latest sunset or stellar view. His secret spots:
“To the south of Stump Beach in Salt Point State Park is a beautiful sea arch and wild tafoni rock formations. To the north, when the rains are right, there’s a stunning coastal waterfall at Phillips Gulch. And north of Fisk Mill Cove is a coastal prairie with whimsical rock formations along the bluff."
“Hidden in plain sight, Mount St. Helena lies at the crossroads of Sonoma, Lake, and Napa counties. The North Summit, guarded by an arduous walk or bike up a steep service road, beginning on the Napa side in Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, is the highest point around at nearly 4,500 feet. Spectacular 360-degree views stretch all the way to the Sierra on a clear day.”
“Fort Ross Road offers a visual feast, especially on days when the coast is socked in with fog. You can drive or, if you feel ambitious, bike up the steep single-lane road from Highway 1. Once out of the deep forest and above the fog, take in big views up and down the coast range at sunset.” East of Highway 1 near Fort Ross State Historic Park.
Just Like Paris
At night, the narrow alley alongside La Gare French Restaurant in Santa Rosa’s Railroad Square is a magical dining spot, as lights twinkle overhead and retro favorites like cherries jubilee flambé glow against the red-brick walls. As a line cook told us, “People call up and reserve the alley because it’s the only place they want to eat.” 208 Wilson St., Santa Rosa. 707-528-4355
Think Prometheus meets the Jetsons: The retro, free-standing fireplaces from Malm have been built by a family-owned business in Santa Rosa since 1960. Made of porcelain, brass, copper, or stainless steel, the designs are coveted by collectors around the world. 368 Yolanda Ave., Santa Rosa. 707-523-7747, malmfireplaces.com.
Miracle Plum is a downtown wine and kitchenware shop full of treasures. But our most delightful discovery there? The 2-inch paletas in the freezer, just $1 each, and just right for a messy preschooler — “or a not-very-hungry grown-up,” quips co-owner Sallie Miller. 208 Davis St., Santa Rosa. 707-708-7986
Camp Like a Rock Star
Hit the road less traveled with the keys to a Land Rover Defender 110 in your hand and a rooftop tent overhead. Bohemian Highway Travel Co. provides the uber-cool Rover, camping equipment, and a map. You bring your sleeping bag and sense of adventure. 707-204-9660
Flowers on Your Honor
On Sundays during growing season, the designers at Dragonfly Floral leave the week’s leftover blooms out on a cart in front of the farmstand. It’s take what you like and pay what you will — or leave a small gift like a jar of jam in trade. 425 Westside Road, Healdsburg. 707-433-3739
Café Scooteria is an only-in-Sonoma mash-up of scooter mechanic shop and open-way-early coffee stand. Their lattes are pretty darn terrific. 455 W. Napa St., Sonoma. 707-938-0800
Three Little-Known Weekend Drives
Visit stunning Knights Valley, taking Highway 128 from Alexander Valley near Healdsburg east toward Calistoga. Along the way, you’ll pass a trout farm, a Wagyu cattle ranch, and several remote wineries all nestled in a quiet valley where it seems as if time has stopped.
Coleman Valley Road, heading west from Occidental to the coast. Once it emerges from the woods and the road plateaus into prairie pastureland (but before it descends to Highway 1), this is one of the best spots around to watch the sunset.
Stewarts Point—Skaggs Springs Road from Lake Sonoma to Stewarts Point is a delightfully curvy run through the redwoods and passing over the charming truss Haupt Creek Bridge, with plenty of pullouts for vistas and trails along the way. The prize at the end: A delicious lunch at Twofish Baking at the tiny Stewarts Point Store.
Owl Hot Spot
Hard-core birdwatchers use “owl” as a verb, as in, “Let’s go owling tonight.” And one of the best spots to owl is at the wooded corner of Salmon Creek Road and Fitzpatrick Lane, a few miles northwest of the town of Bodega (there’s a small pullout along the road, with space for a few cars). Really, it’s more “bird listening” than “birdwatching,” as just after dusk, you will start to hear high-pitched pygmy owls with their sharp hoots, followed by saw-whet owls, and, if you’re really lucky, perhaps a spotted owl. Happy night-birding!
Just One Tree
Nearly hidden alongside Juilliard Park in Santa Rosa, the Church of One Tree was built in 1873 from a single, massive, 18-foot-wide, 275-foot-tall redwood tree milled in Guerneville. 492 Sonoma Ave. 707-543-3733, srcity.org.
Best Pop-Up Bakery
From baguettes to brioche, all of the breads and pastries from the new Deer Park Bread Project are crafted from naturally fermented sourdough with an emphasis on organic, ancient grains and flours. deerparkbreadproject.com.
Winery as Museum
The world-class open-air sculpture collection at The Donum Estate, nestled in the southern Carneros, can come as a surprise to guests focused more on single-vineyard Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Tastings include a tour of works from Yayoi Kusama, Ai Weiwei, and other superstars. 24500 Ramal Rd., Sonoma. 707-732-2200
The Labyrinth Builder
Lea Goode-Harris describes herself as not only a Ph.D., but also “an artist for the body, mind, and soul.” If that seems puzzling, put it this way: Her hand-built labyrinths are mesmerizing, experiential works of land art, meant to be walked, retraced, and cherished from a bird’s-eye view. For an introduction to her work, try the lavender labyrinth at Bees N Blooms (3883 Petaluma Hill Rd., Santa Rosa) or the Snoopy Labyrinth at the Charles M. Schulz Museum (2301 Hardies Lane, Santa Rosa). 707-418-0019, creativelabyrinths.com.
Best New Live Music
The Lost Church isn’t a church at all — it’s a new, speakeasy-style music hall shepherded by local bandleader Josh Windmiller. Featuring a varied lineup of jazz, blues, and singer-songwriter types, it’s just the kind of small-scale independent performance space we need. Enter on Ross Street between Mendocino Avenue and B Street, Santa Rosa. Show schedules at thelostchurch.org.
3 Secrets from Interior Designer Gina Gutierrez
Gina Gutierrez recently opened Storia Home in Sebastopol to share her thrill of discovery with others. Here are a few places she loves, plus a rare find from her own shop.
“Elizaberry Shop is a woman-owned, primarily online small business in Forestville that makes stunning polymer clay earrings, drawing inspiration from the desert, coast, and flowers.” Follow @elizaberry.shop on Instagram for info on in-person popups. elizaberryshop.com.
“I always love dropping by B-Side Flower Farmstand, where in winter, owner Lennie Larkin has seasonal dried wreaths perfect for your front door as well as ranunculus bulbs ready for planting.”3855 Roblar Road, Petaluma. 617 407-9272, b-sidefarm.com.
“Storia Home, my shop, has decor, art, textiles, and furniture, and everything tells a story. Check out the antique butter press from the late 1800s — it would make a showstopper of a coffee table.” 961 Gravenstein Highway S., Sebastopol. 415 501-0024
Climb atop a logjam, glide down an embankment slide, or get comfortable in the super-sized replica of a red-tailed hawk nest at Taylor Mountain’s Red Tail Play Area. 3820 Petaluma Hill Rd., Santa Rosa. 707-539-8092
Quick North Coast Day Trip
Hike past lush ferns and towering redwoods to stick your toes in the sand on the isolated beach at Stillwater Cove Regional Park (22455 Highway 1, Jenner. 707-847-3245).
After that, it’s a 20-minute drive north for a meal in the newly renovated dining room at The Sea Ranch Lodge (60 Sea Walk Drive. 707-579-9777).
3 Secrets from Chef Melanie Wilkerson
It should come as no surprise that Melanie Wilkerson of Sonoma’s FolkTable knows where to find the good stuff — after all, the restaurant was just named a Michelin Bib Gourmand.
“When you think of community, think Sonoma Garden Park. From vegetable and pollinator gardens to space for yoga and meditation, it gives that sense of grounding we all desire.”19996 Seventh St. E., Sonoma. 707-996-4883
"Valley Bar + Bottle is one of my favorite places — maybe not as much of a secret now. The wine list is approachable and imaginative, and their cuisine shows off the locally curated menu and the attention to detail I love as a chef.” 487 First St. W., Sonoma. 707-934-8403
“If you can get your hands on the perfection of Goguette Bread, it’s worth the wait. I was introduced to them when I first arrived in Sonoma in 2020, and have dreamed of their bread ever since.” Order ahead online. 59 Montgomery Drive, Santa Rosa
In Petaluma’s historic district, Maude Rare Finds (10 Western Ave., Petaluma. 707-763-1858) is an exquisitely assembled boutique full of hand-loomed textiles and small-batch perfumes. After a few years moonlighting as a small shop in Maude's back room, mother-daughter team Laural and Lily Reid just opened the standalone version of Good Gray (9591 Main St., Penngrove. 707-755-4535), their housewares and design boutique, in nearby Penngrove.
The airy, modern space is a wonderland of difficult-to-find treasures such as Japanese stationery, linen aprons, beeswax candles, and more.
A rite of passage for many a bored local teenager, and the inspiration for a song from indie singer Danny Sorentino, Gravity Hill is a surreal spot up in the hills overlooking Sonoma State University, where it feels like your car breaks the laws of nature. Instructions: The spot is located 2.4 miles up Lichau Road off Roberts Road, which is off Petaluma Hill Road. At the top of the hill on Lichau Road, look for a sign that says “Gracias Santiago.” When you cross the cattle guard, look for a sloping grade that clearly seems to run downhill. Go forward about 20 feet, stop, throw the car in neutral, and get ready to lose your mind as the car appears to roll uphill back toward the cattle guard. Trippy, right?
Pantry of Wonders
The extraordinary display of canned goods — house-made preserves, ketchup, and vinegars — at reopened slow-food mecca The Naked Pig is well worth a look. Weekend brunch is super-yum (try the whiskey-caramel waffles), and chef/owner Dalia Martinez says she is adding dinner service two nights a week. 640 Fifth St., Santa Rosa. 707-978-3231
Another Awesome Mash-Up
Jack’s Filling Station in Sonoma is the only place we know (probably the only place anywhere!) where you can fill up your tank and walk out with a vintage vinyl record and a bottle of natural wine from an up-and-coming winemaker. We love their tiger sweatshirts, too — locals-only swag for sure. 899 Broadway, Sonoma. 707-343-7203, jacksfillingstation.com.
Ring of Fire
Witness the creative process as master bronze sculptors at Santa Rosa’s Bronze Plus Art Foundry pour liquid metal into molds or fire-polish designs destined for galleries and libraries. 120 Todd Rd., Santa Rosa. Open by appointment; call 707-829-0716.
Landmark Watering Hole
It’s been decades since Ernie Sr. put up a sign at Ernie’s Tin Bar advertising “$1.75 Cold Beer” at the corner of Lakeville Highway and Stage Gulch Road. It may well be one of the cheapest beers you can swill in a bar ’round here. But just so you know, you’ll be getting Hamm’s in the can. “People usually just have one of those, and then go to a beer they can actually stand,” says Ernie Jr. 5100 Lakeville Hwy., Petaluma. 707-762-2075
3 Secrets from Master Distiller Ashby Marshall
Ashby Marshall is a devotee of the organic, grain-to-glass movement at Spirit Works Distillery in Sebastopol. Her favorite local bars share an undiscovered, independent spirit.
“The Starling Bar in Sonoma is extra-awesome because of its secret menu of cannabis-infused spirit cocktails. You have to ask at the bar to see it.” 19380 Hwy. 12, Sonoma. 707-938-7442
“Another great place is the extra-divey Whiskey Tip in Santa Rosa. Not only do they make Manhattans with Spirit Works rye whiskey, but their Friday night karaoke events are very popular. “They’re as good — and as bad — as you can imagine.” 1910 Sebastopol Road, Santa Rosa. 707-843-5535
“Valley Ford’s Rocker Oysterfeller’s has expanded dining options in the gardens, among mounds of discarded oyster shells, and it’s really lovely. But the real secret is this: Their ‘hot butter’ sauce is great on oysters, but it’s even better in your Bloody Mary. You’ve got to ask the bartender for it.” 14415 Highway 1, Valley Ford. 707-876-1983
Botany Zhi is an urban jungle of carefully cared-for indoor plants, featuring an enormous, overarching monstera plant that practically takes over the store. 311 D St., Santa Rosa. 346-289-4004
Barn 5400 is a new marketplace and maker space inside a former lumberyard outside Petaluma. One of many standouts here: Kickwheel Sonoma (kickwheelsonoma.com), the working studio of ceramicist Andrew M. Kontrabecki, who has created custom designs for chefs, and offers ceramics classes to the public. 5400 Old Redwood Highway N., Petaluma. barn5400.com.
From routers to stud finders to wheelbarrows, the Santa Rosa Tool Library lends tools for free to any Sonoma County resident over the age of 18. That’s right — totally free. Why? Because it’s the neighborly thing to do, and founder Dustin Zuckerman believes money shouldn’t prevent weekend warriors from basking in all their DIY glory. 642 Fifth St., Santa Rosa. 707-2293949, borrowtools.org.
As much museum as shop, Sebastopol’s Sagestone Gallery is filled with fossils, crystals, agates, ammonites, and polished round stones that look for all the world like crystal balls straight out of a Disney movie. 112 N. Main St., Sebastopol. 707-827-6316
More and more, restaurateurs are incorporating unique finds into the design of their spaces.
At Healdsburg’s The Matheson, the walnut wine tasting table was custom-carved in the shape of the state of California.
And at the Seismic Brewing Co. tasting room at The Barlow in Sebastopol, a swoopy, floor-to-ceiling wood-paneled nook with a built-in bench is perfect for settling in with a made-in-Sonoma craft beer.
You don’t have to be religious to marvel at architect James Hubbell’s Sea Ranch Chapel, a wondrous creation of local wood, wrought iron, stained glass, and slate. The magical winged roof is just visible from nearby Highway 1. 40033 Highway 1, The Sea Ranch
New Year’s Wishes
The branches of a beautiful, century-old live oak tree, surrounded by vineyards at the Belden Barns winery, are flush with hopes and dreams. 5561 Sonoma Mountain Rd., Santa Rosa. 415-577-8552
Culinary Students Feed Us Well
The Santa Rosa Junior College’s Culinary Café and Bakery is a cutting-edge training kitchen for chefs on the rise (Steven Vargas of Petaluma’s Table Culture Provisions trained there). Try a Korean fried-chicken sandwich with kimchi slaw (just $12) or a winter salad with beets and Cara Cara oranges grown by sustainable ag students at the college’s Shone Farm ($9). The café was closed last fall because of the pandemic but hopes to reopen in September. 1670 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa. 707-522-2796
If you’ve never stopped at the little pink-and-white striped building along Highway 1 in Bodega Bay, you’re missing out. Patrick’s of Bodega Bay stocks more than 80 flavors of salt water taffy, including sugar-free varieties and our pick, peppermint. 915 Highway 1, Bodega Bay. 707-875-9816