Sonoma County might be best known for its world-class wine and quaint towns, but its 1,500 square miles of lush valleys, vineyards, winding rivers, redwoods forests, and dreamy coastline—much of it protected in state parks and wilderness areas—make it an ideal escape for outdoorsy types, too. With first-rate options for paddling, cycling, hiking, and camping, and plenty of places to stop for a glass of wine post-adventure, a trip north to Sonoma County should be on any Bay Area bucket list. With more 250 days of sun per year, Sonoma makes a great escape from the Bay Area’s fog, especially during the city’s traditionally gloomy summer months. Here, an outdoorsy guide to Sonoma County—there’s plenty to toast, indeed.
Paddle the Russian River.
One of Northern California’s major waterways, the Russian River winds through Sonoma County, irrigating farmland and providing a paradise for kayaking, canoeing, and stand-up paddleboarding. The river meets the ocean just south of the postcard-worthy coastal town of Jenner, creating sandbars that shelter the estuary from the swell. Here, you can rent paddleboards and explore the mouth of the river; be sure to keep an eye out for seals lounging in the sunshine along sandbars and on the beach.
Upriver, the waterway travels across miles of countryside and passes through several parks and small towns. Kayakers and canoers can navigate long stretches of the river, starting from several towns that flank the mainstem. Try paddling the 10-mile stretch between Forestville and Guerneville: You’ll pass verdant greenery, redwoods, and sandy beaches ideal for a picnic. For an even lazier summertime excursion, grab an inner tube and float a shorter section of the river (though be warned that you may not cover much ground without a paddle).
Cycle country roads.
Sonoma Country is one of the Bay Area’s best cycling destinations, with miles of rolling hills (and some hardcore climbs) through vineyards, along winding country roads and within spitting distance of stunning coastline. Less heavily trafficked than Napa, Sonoma’s bike routes range from casual jaunts between wineries, to some of the area’s most challenging (and most scenic) routes. For a casual ride, start from Healdsburg and cruise out the Dry Creek Valley for beautiful stretches of wine country backroads. For an epic ride, the King Ridge loop is one of Sonoma’s most notorious. Clocking in at around 50 miles with as much as 5,000-6,000 feet of climbing, the route makes you earn your views indeed. The ride climbs past vineyards, ranches, and rugged expanses of open space, revealing views across ridgeline after ridgeline—an even more epic experience if you’re the only one on the road for miles around. Riders can extend the route catch a stretch of the coast along California’s famous Highway 1.
Camp the coast.
If you are planning to make a weekend of your trip (and we recommend that you do), Sonoma County has several popular state and regional parks with excellent camping and outdoor activities. The rugged Sonoma coast beckons campers with high bluffs, rocky promontories, sandy beaches, and views over coastal waters teeming with marine life in the kelp forest and tidepools. For coastal camping, try Gerstle Cove Campground at Salt Point State Park, perched on the bluffs above the ocean on the west side of Highway 1. Other good options include Wright’s Beach and Bodega Dunes at Sonoma Coast State Park. Coveted spots at coastal campgrounds tend fill up during the summer, but the the park also offers some first-come-first-served, walk-in camping options. Willow Creek Environmental Campground offers the only state park camping along the Russian River.
Hit the trail.
To experience the beauty of Sonoma’s inland and coastal landscapes, plan a day hike through one of its parks. If you are planning a hike, remember that temperatures can rise into triple-digits in the summer, so opt for the coast during hot weather, hit the trail early in the morning, or save some of the inland trails for fall, when grapevines and oaks put on a color show. For coastal hiking, Sonoma Coast State Park has 17 miles of trails that explore the shoreline and bluffs. The Kortum trail traces the bluffs as it heads from Wright Beach to Blind Beach, showcasing views of Goat Rock and other landmarks and sea stacks. If you are camping at Salt Point State Park, explore over 20 miles of trails, including one that goes through a pygmy forest of stunted trees, one of the world’s coastal wonders. Shorter trails around Bodega Head offer views of the coastline and Bodega Bay (which is a great home base in itself for adventurous exploration).
For excellent inland hiking, head to the 5,500-acre Annadel State Park, known for its wildflowers in April and May and popular among both hikers and mountain bikers. To hike cool, shaded trails beneath towering coastal redwood trees, Armstrong Redwoods State Nature Reserve is just the spot. Hikes in the reserve are generally shorter loops through redwood groves, though you can connect to trails in the Austin Creek State Recreation Area to increase your mileage.