Colors of Fall: Hiking Sonoma County
In Sonoma County, each hiking season brings its particular joys.
On clear winter days — when the air is chilly and breezes brisk — hikers are invigorated by any kind of outdoor ramble, from a simple stroll on a paved path to a steep and rocky climb. In spring, trekking through fields ablaze with wildflowers and the sound of courting birds, the world seems to burst with joy. Summer’s long and lingering days bring carefree hikes with side trips to pick blackberries, picnic atop rocks and gaze at raptors cruising the skies.
And then there’s autumn. If you live in Sonoma County and hike year ’round, chances are that autumn is already your favorite time for hiking. If you’re visiting Sonoma County in the fall and hit the trail, it soon will be.
One thing that makes autumn special is that summer’s coastal fog pretty much disappears. The coast is sunny and warm — but not too warm — and you can see long distances north and south and seemingly forever out to sea.
If you’re on the beach or a nearby cliff at sunset, you’ll see the sun disappear into the ocean (rather than a fogbank). Stick around long enough and you’ll watch the skies change colors from red to orange to pink, and then fade from gray to black — when the stars arrive.
Other reasons to celebrate the county’s autumn hiking include vibrant fall foliage, fewer people on the trails, lower temperatures to ease passage up those steep mountains, the sight of migrating flocks moving across the sky, and the knowledge that you can later relax with a glass of wine at a harvest celebration.
Because, let’s face it: In Sonoma County, in autumn, there is always a harvest celebration happening somewhere … and you deserve to be there.
Here are three good ideas for your Sonoma County autumn hike:
On the Coast
Sonoma Coast State Park consists of 16 miles of incredibly beautiful scenery. Two excellent trails — Kortum Trail and Pomo Canyon Trail — begin at Shell Beach, located at about the park’s coastal midway point.
Kortum Trail proceeds straight along cliff tops to Goat Rock, a beloved local landmark with a wonderful beach for tide-pooling. It’s a relatively easy hike, about five miles round trip.
Pomo Canyon Trail leaves Shell Beach and heads east, crossing Highway 1 and then traveling upward into a redwood forest with a waterfall. This is a moderate hike, approximately seven miles round trip.
- Download the Sonoma Coast SP brochure, which includes a map showing the route for both trails.
- Parking at Shell Beach is $8 per vehicle.
In the Redwoods
Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve — in a canyon near Guerneville and just north of the Russian River — offers 805 acres of soaring redwood trees. The trails beneath the forest’s canopy are relatively short, but you can string them together and loop around to create a varied five to six mile hike (a trail leading into adjacent Austin Creek State Recreation Area allows access to 20 more miles of trails).
The self-guided Armstrong Nature Trail is the best bet for first-time visitors, since you’ll learn about redwood trees via interpretive displays as you stroll along. The Discovery Trail offers an unusual feature you’ll probably want to try: a tree-hugging platform. Both these trails are wheelchair accessible, and the Discovery Trail has interpretive panels in Braille.
Keep a lookout for the Colonel Armstrong tree (at more than 1,400 years old, it’s the reserve’s oldest), the Parson Jones (the tallest, at 310 feet), and Icicle (adorned with a huge number of burls).
Be sure to visit the Redwood Forest Theater. A 1,200-seat amphitheater built in the 1930s, it’s surrounded on all sides by towering redwood trees that give it the feel of a majestic cathedral. Armstrong Redwoods SNR also contains a small visitor center and nature store.
- Location: Armstrong Redwoods SNR, 17000 Armstrong Woods Road, Guerneville 95446.
- Parking is $8/vehicle (or park for free in the parking lot just outside the gate and walk in).
- Visit the website.
- Download a brochure about Armstrong Redwoods SNR.
On a Mountain
Nestled into the majestic Mayacamas Mountains between Sonoma and Napa valleys, Sugarloaf Ridge State Park is home to 2,729-foot Bald Mountain, where you’ll find amazing 360° panoramic views. On a clear day you’ll enjoy Sonoma and Napa Valleys, the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges, and even the Sierra Nevada range.
The Bald Mountain trail is six miles round trip, moderate in difficulty, and gains approximately 1,500 feet in elevation. The well-marked trail passes through riparian woodland canyons, open meadows, and chaparral, steadily climbing upward (you’ll pass an occasional bench and picnic table as you go). If you’d like a longer excursion, you’ll find plenty of side trails
- Location: Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, 2605 Adobe Canyon Road, Kenwood 95452.
- Parking is $8/vehicle.