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Two Ways to Enjoy The Wetlands in Sonoma County

Views from Viansa Winery

If you’re outdoor adventurers with a taste for ecological wonders, check out Sonoma County’s marshlands. Located on the southeastern edge of Sonoma County and the northern edge of San Pablo Bay, this area is fed by the county’s Sonoma and Tolay creeks, as well as by the Napa River.

In historic times, this land, submerged by daily tides, formed one of the richest wetlands on the entire Pacific Coast. It offered habitat for millions of resident and migrating birds, as well as for a huge variety of mammals, fish, and plants. 

All of that began to change in the early 20th century, when thousands of acres of salt marshes were diked off and drained to create fields for growing hay and raising dairy cows. Wetlands destruction was simultaneously occurring all around the perimeter of San Francisco Bay, which, by the mid-1980s, had lost more than 91 percent of its wetlands.

But today, thanks to the Sears Point Restoration project — which, together with the Napa River Salt Marsh Restoration project, forms the largest-ever wetlands restoration project in the Bay Area — Sonoma’s wetlands have begun to return to their earlier, pre-cattle grazing, form.

Marc Holmes, program director for a leading San Francisco environmental organization, the Bay Institute, has called the project “a phenomenal ecological restoration — one of the most important coastal wetlands projects ever done in the United States.”

Here are two great ways to enjoy this spectacular, hauntingly beautiful region:

Hike the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge: Against a fantastically beautiful backdrop, you’ll hike (or cycle) on land that has been largely restored. Wildlife abounds, and the refuge is particularly notable for the diversity of birds that either inhabit or visit here.

On sunny days, San Francisco will be floating in the distance like a hazy mirage. Fishing and hunting are permitted at certain times of the year, and ranger-led programs are also given (check the website). The refuge is located on Highway 37, near the Highway 121 turnoff to Sonoma. Visit the refuge website for detailed information, or read an article I wrote about hiking at the refuge.

Tour the Carneros American Viticultural Area (AVA): The wetlands of both Sonoma and Napa counties extend into the Carneros AVA, which is particularly known for the excellence of its Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and sparkling wines. This makes it easy to combine a bit of wine tasting with views of the stunning landscape. You’ll find many Carneros wineries along Highway 121 after the turnoff from Highway 37.

A fantastic view of the wetlands is yours at Viansa Winery & Marketplace (25200 Arnold Drive, Sonoma 95476). The winery sits atop a hill and overlooks the extensive wetlands below, as well as the distant mountains in all directions.

“More than 300 different bird species have been identified here,” said Sean Roney, the winery’s general manager.

Roney mentions that Vintage Wine Estates, the company that owns Viansa Winery, is “very eco-friendly. They’re committed to wetlands conservation.”

It’s easy and pleasant to enjoy the wetlands view here, especially on a sunny day. The marketplace offers sandwiches, salads, and other delicious edibles prepared by local, Green-certified Elaine Bell Catering.

Select your picnic items and maybe a bottle of wine, take it all out to the beautiful terrace facing the wetlands, settle beneath a table with umbrella, and prepare to feast on terrific food while feasting your eyes.

And here’s a special treat: On Saturdays (and some Sundays), noon-3 p.m., through the end of September, your feast will be accompanied by live music — and it’s free.

Find more info about things to do in Sonoma County.

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