Starting: Petaluma, Calif., located 30 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge
When “Father of the Golden Gate Bridge” Frank Doyle was born in 1863, the United States was mired in the civil war, and California was a new state which had cast its lot with the Union side, though there were plenty of residents with Confederate sympathies in the land that brought together immigrants from around the United States.
Doyle’s father was one such confederate sympathizer who had headed out west during the Gold Rush. He left the family ranch in Petaluma and moved his business to Santa Rosa, which was less of a Union town.
Start the 75-mile journey of Sonoma County in Petaluma, the southern-most town on the Redwood Highway (U.S. 101), the ribbon of road that runs from the Golden Gate Bridge through Northern California. Petaluma is known for its ornate Victorian homes and classic downtown comprised of historic Iron Front buildings. Farm-to-table restaurants join chic boutiques and unique stores that reflect the town’s agricultural heritage, like The Seed Bank.
Visitors may get the feeling that Petaluma is eerily familiar, and it should be for fans of movies. “American Graffiti” was famously filmed there, as well as “Peggy Sue Got Married,” “Mumford” and more. The town and surrounding green hills are still used for car commercials. Petaluma anchors Sonoma County’s agricultural belt, one of the prime reasons for the support of building the bridge even while the country was mired in the Great Depression.
In 1920, when discussions started about the bridge, Sonoma County was the eighth-largest agricultural-producing county in the United States. A bridge across the straits known as the Golden Gate would mean better access for North Coast products to markets, and shipments would not be at the whim of ferry schedules and maritime weather conditions.
Drive: From Petaluma, head north out of town on Petaluma Boulevard North, and meet up with Old Redwood Highway, the original north-south thoroughfare that connected Northern California towns to San Francisco via the Golden Gate.
Heading out from Petaluma, pass the Petaluma Village Premium Outlets for a chance to get great deals from stores like Nike, Banana Republic and Tommy Hilfger. Leaving the town behind, the landscape changes to small farms, dairies and wineries. The road becomes Old Redwood Highway, and then Petaluma Hill Road, and heads through the small farming community of Penngrove before passing to the east of Sonoma State University.
The unique sloping roof of the Green Music Center, the new, world-class performance venue that will be on par with Tanglewood for acoustic perfection, sits just off the road. It’s worth a look around to see the grounds and the performance halls.
Before coming into Santa Rosa, the road passes the Crane Melon Farm, where the world-famous Crane Melon was first developed. The melons are aromatic and sweet, and when they are in season in the fall, foodies and chefs alike come to get the melons for use in sorbets, gelatos or just to eat fresh. Jennifer Crane still works the farm with her family.
In downtown Santa Rosa the journey passes the home and final resting place of Luther Burbank, the agricultural genius who experimented with crops to improve yields and bring food to the world. Some of his innovations include the Russet potato, the Shasta daisy and the sweet Santa Rosa plum.
The grounds include an exhibit on his extraordinary life, when the scientific innovators of fin de siecle America would include a stop at his farm to learn more. Burbank once remarked about Sonoma County, “this is the chosen spot of all the earth as far as nature is concerned,” and a tour of his grounds proves he knew what he was talking about.
A quick turn to the left at Courthouse Square, which is surrounded by shops and restaurants, heads under the main highway of 101 and arrives in Railroad Square, sight of the California Welcome Center. Stop in to stretch your legs and get information about the local sights, including wine tasting rooms and great restaurants within easy walking distance.
The building itself is a once-and-future train station. That is, it was an important stop on the railroad when the connection to San Francisco was via train and then ferry across the open expanse of water at the Golden Gate. Proving that everything old is new again, a new rail service will come through this spot soon: the Sonoma Marin Area Regional Train (SMART) will be a 70-mile commuter train and bike path that will connect to ferry service to San Francisco. Soon visitors to wine country from San Francisco can take a ferry to the train, and see the famous Golden Gate Bridge from the water.
Before leaving Santa Rosa, you can see the work of Frank Doyle in places like the Santa Rosa Junior College, where he endowed a scholarship that has provided an education for more than 100,000 students in Sonoma County.
Drive: Head west on Highway 12 (Luther Burbank Freeway) toward the town of Sebastopol.
Highway 12 crosses the largely unknown Laguna de Santa Rosa, a massive seasonal wetland that encompasses the Santa Rosa plain. Small farms dot the land that is built up, otherwise seasonal pools and wildlife can be spotted from the road. The area is worth a look along the Joe Rodota trail, a rail-to-trail conversion that connects Santa Rosa to Sebastopol.
Sebastopol is known as an artsy, politically progressive community with a great farmers market. Some local favorite stops in town include Screaming Mimi’s for ice cream and K&L Bistro for fine dining. And, no visit to Sebastopol would be complete without a stop at the Sebastopol Cookie Company for a Backpacker cookie, which seems to have one of everything crammed into it just fine. (Side trip: Find Florence Avenue just out of downtown to see amazing folk art sculptures along this street-turned-outdoor-gallery.)
Drive: Highway 116 (The Gravenstein Highway) as it leaves Sebastopol and head to Guerneville.
Before western Sonoma County became world-famous for the Russian River Valley Pinot Noir wines that are produced here, the area was famous for hops, prunes and the humble Gravenstein apple.
Early-ripening, sweet and perfect for pies and fresh-eating, the Gravenstein is believed to have been brought to Sonoma County by Russian settlers along the coast. The apple thrived in the soils of “West County” and Sebastopol was the center of the industry. The apple’s popularity waned when supermarkets created the need for more uniform, better-shipping varieties bred more for storage and looks than edibility.
Today “the Grav” is enjoying a renaissance among serious foodies and has been placed on the Ark of Taste, a way to draw attention to special, heirloom foods, by Slow Food USA. A drive along the Gravenstein Highway reveals acres of apples, although only a sliver of those that once covered the rolling hills around Sebastopol and which perfumed the air each spring with the blooms.
Outside of Sebastopol lie the small communities of Graton and Forestville. The acres are planted with vineyards, predominantly cool-weather varietals like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Small, family-owned tasting rooms abound.
In Forestville, Nightingale Bread (a bakery run by a former nurse), and art gallery Quicksilver Mine Company are worth the stop in this tiny town. The latter features a sculpture garden in the spring.
In Graton, Underwood Bar and Bistro is a favorite frequented by visitors, winemakers and grapegrowers alike. A stroll along the two-block downtown passes great galleries and shops.
The town spreads along the Russian River, here known just as “The River” and which provides recreation at its beaches and fishing holes.
In the summer, tubing, canoeing and just plain splashing in the cool water is popular, while Guerneville itself is an eclectic mix of gay and lesbian vacationers, families and outdoors enthusiasts. In true West County fashion, it all works.
A quick jog past the Coffee Bazaar coffee shop (where everyone eventually stops) is the main entrance to Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve. These remarkable trees live to be 500-1,000 years old, grow to a diameter of 12-16 feet, and stand from 200-250 feet tall.
This old-growth stand is named for Colonel James Boydston Armstrong, a lumberman who had the foresight to stave off their cutting as the surrounding North Coast was being logged for houses in San Francisco. (The beautiful rows of Victorian houses in San Francisco began their lives as coastal redwoods.) Though he died before the land was preserved, his vision was taken up by Sonoma County residents and the grove was saved.
Today the park, together with the adjoining Austin Creek Reserve, encompasses more than 6,000 acres of ancient redwoods, rolling hills, open grasslands, conifers, and oaks. Visitors can drive through the grove, but the best way to experience them is to walk along the easy trail and enjoy the stillness of these ancient giants.
Before leaving the town of Guerneville, a quick stop at Big Bottom Market yields great sandwiches. Stroll the downtown to see the many faces of this charming town.
Drive: Head east on River Road towards Santa Rosa.
River Road parallels the meandering banks of the Russian River, passing the blink-and-you-miss-it town of Rio Nido. The dance halls set among the redwoods were once a swinging spot for Big Bands as the town swelled with soldiers, sailor and marines on leave from San Francisco military bases during World War II. Today the Rio Nido Roadhouse brings in great music on weekends. Just less than eight miles east of Guerneville, Westside Road joins River Road.
Drive: Take a left on Westside Road.
Turning on Westside road, a quaint two-lane road that traverses west Sonoma Wine Country, brings family-owned wineries peeking from around the bends. One of them, Hop Kiln Winery, retains the buildings where the hops that used to be farmed here were dried.
Where Westside Road meets Wohler Road, travelers can see the historic Wohler Bridge. The one-lane bridge predates the Golden Gate Bridge by 16 years, and is a favorite among cyclists and photographers for it’s simple beauty and iron trusses that span the Russian River. Coming into Healdsburg, Westside Road becomes Mill Street.
Drive: Turn left on Healdsburg Avenue.
Driving through Healdsburg, a cute wine country town, Healdsburg Avenue passes the town square. Surrounding the square are tasting rooms and restaurants. Though the town has a Michelin two-starred restaurant, vestiges of the rural small town can still be seen in the one-chair barber shop just off the main plaza and the beautiful mural on Plaza Street at Center Street that traces the history of Northern Sonoma County from the Native Americans to modern times.
Drive: Healdsburg Avenue to Lytton Station Road. Left on Lytton Springs Road.
Quick right on Geyserville Ave. Head north on Geyserville Avenue to Souverain Road. Turn left on Souverain Road. The areas north of Healdsburg includes the famed wine regions the Dry Creek Valley and the Alexander Valley, and the road follows the borders of these American Viticultural Areas (AVAs).
Rows of grapes spread across the valley floor and cling to hillsides and benchlands, while Geyser Peak looms over the scene from the east. Geyser Peak’s flumes of hot air and mist used to be visible from the valleys, but have since been converted into one of the world’s largest geothermal power plants. The sprawling complex, appropriately called The Geysers, is open to the public for tours a few times each year.
A quick left on Souverain Road leads to one of Sonoma County’s great winery experiences: Francis Ford Coppola Winery. The famed Hollywood director made major changes to the winery he purchased here, creating a destination winery complete with a full-service restaurant, movie memorabilia and a large swimming pool/patio complete with bocce ball courts, changing cabins and even a kids story area.
A good place to taste and spend the day with family, visitors can see the desk from “The Godfather” movies, props from “Apocalypse Now” and even a suit of armor from “Dracula.” Fitting for a drive through Sonoma County, a rare Tucker automobile from the movie “Tucker: The Man and His Dream” sits in the front entryway of the winery.
Drive: Head north on Geyserville Road as it becomes Asti Road. Head to Cloverdale, the northernmost town in Sonoma County.
Cloverdale, recently voted one of America’s coolest small towns, is the end of the road for the 75-mile drive in Sonoma County.
This town of artists and winemakers is transitioning from a lumber and farming community to a quaint spot for wine tasters in the know. Public art dots the main road through town, and festivals like the Cloverdale Fiddle Festival, the Citrus Fair and Friday Night Live keep the area hopping.
The town also is the closest to Lake Sonoma, a huge reservoir popular with boaters, water skiers, and swimmers. Before heading on to your Mendocino County journey, just up the road, it’s it worth to slow down and have a root beer float at Pick’s Drive In or a frozen treat at Yogurtdale Blvd.
For a free visitors guide or information on hotels, wineries, events, spas, attractions, and
dining in Sonoma County, visit sonomacounty.com or call 800-576-6662.
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