If you’re not quite ready for summer to come to an end, and you feel the need to squeeze in one last sun-filled getaway, I have a recommendation you’re going to like: a road trip to the river communities of Sonoma County.
If you’ve already been to Sonoma Wine Country you probably went wine tasting or drove along the coast, but when’s the last time you set out to explore the three rivers that flow through Sonoma County? If you do, I can promise you that many of your sentences will start with “Wow, I never knew….”
I’m always amazed at how few Northern Californians have even seen the emerald-hued Gualala River, or explored the local shops and galleries of charming Russian River towns such as Forestville, Cazadero, and Monte Rio.
Even placid Petaluma River has something to offer visitors, such as renting a stand-up paddleboard and taking a self-guided wildlife tour.
The Rivers of Sonoma County is perfect weekend getaway, a trip filled with fantastic dining, eclectic shopping, world-class wineries, laid back towns, and outdoor adventures ranging from redwood forest hikes to riverside camping. And it’s all just an hour’s drive north of San Francisco.
Here are just a few suggestions for fun-filled late-summer getaways to the riverside communities in Sonoma County:
• Rent a canoe or inflatable kayak and take your dogs for a paddle down the placid Russian River (see below).
• Spend the first part of your day exploring Historic Downtown Petaluma. Then, when the afternoon heats up, head over to Petaluma Stand Up Paddle and either rent some paddle boards for a self-guided adventure or take a guided tour and lesson on the Petaluma River.
• Explore thousands of acres of private forest filled with wildlife, including osprey, herons, egrets, and river otters while paddling your rented canoe or kayak down along the Gualala River (see below).
• Take a guided Stand Up Paddle tour of the Russian River with Rubicon Adventures. Whether you’re a beginner or expert paddlers, this is a phenomenal way to explore Sonoma County’s Russian River region. Hugely recommended!
• Take an art & antiques tour of the numerous galleries and shops in the river communities of Petaluma, Guerneville, Gualala, Rio Nido, and Duncans Mills.
• Take a tour of Korbel Champagne Cellars followed by a stroll or guided horseback ride through a serene 805-acre grove of majestic redwoods at Armstrong Redwood State Reserve (see below), then splurge on spa treatments and gourmet dining at the nearby Farmhouse Inn.
Family (and pet-friendly) Canoe Trips Down the Russian River
One of my all-time favorite summertime excursions in Northern California is spending a weekend with friends canoeing down the Russian River.
Here’s how it works: You pack a lunch (ideally wrapped in a waterproof bag), drive to the town of Forestville to Burke’s Canoes, park the car, pay $65 for a canoe that can comfortably fit three adults, throw on a bathing suit, sunscreen, and a life vest, and launch yourself onto the Russian River. From there it’s a leisurely 10-mile journey past sandy beaches, redwood forests, and kids jumping off rocks and rope swings.
In the late afternoon you arrive at a well-marked beach where Burke’s staff will pick you up and take you back to your car. Though you can make the journey in about 3 hours, you’re more likely to spend 4 or 5 with pit stops to swim, eat, and laze. Definitely reserve your canoe in advance, as this is a very popular summer activity in Sonoma County. Overnight camping at Burke’s is an option too.
If you’d like to bring your dog along, Russian River Adventures welcome dogs on their super-stable inflatable canoes. I’ve done this canoe trip with at least a dozen times with friends and it’s always the dogs that are having the best time, hanging out on the bow sniffing the rivers scents, swimming around the boat, and being the center of attention.
Paddling On The Gorgeous Gualala River
Now here’s a recreational getaway idea you probably haven’t considered: Driving up the coast to Gualala (about a 3 hour drive from San Francisco), renting a canoe or kayak, and paddling the gorgeous Gualala River. Imagine silently gliding through thousands of acres of private forest filled with wildlife, including osprey, herons, egrets, and river otters.
You can picnic on the sandy banks of the river and swim in the crystal clear water, which is about 70-74 degrees in summer. It’s a heavenly setting for safe, self-guided outdoor adventure for the whole family. Believe me, this is a getaway you will take year after year. You can rent canoes and kayaks—or sign up for a guided tour—in the town of Gualala at either Adventure Rents or Water Treks EcoTours and Kayak Rentals.
Horseback Riding through Armstrong Redwoods + Korbel Champagne Tasting
Longtime Guerneville residents Laura and Jonathan Ayers, who run the Armstrong Woods Pack Station, offer a rare opportunity to experience the natural beauty of Sonoma County on horseback. Their guided trail rides through this beautiful old-growth redwood forest near Guerneville is an experience you’ll never forget. You can saddle up year-round, weather and trail conditions permitting.
After the ride, it’s time for some serious wine-tasting and restocking your personal wine larder. Some of my favorite wineries in this region include: Korbel Champagne Cellars, Ferrari-Carano Vineyards & Winery (a hands-down winner for most stunning landscaping), Bella Vineyards & Wine Caves (their Sangiovese-based Sienas are wonderful), Preston of Dry Creek (bocce, picnic, and barbera anyone?), and J Vineyards & Winery, best known for its sparkling wines (hence the rabid popularity of its “Bubble Room”).
All of the suggestions are just a fraction of the dozens of summer getaway ideas that await you along the rivers of Sonoma Wine County. The best way to plan your next weekend getaway is to log on to www.sonomacounty.com/river, where you’ll find everything you need to book a relaxing weekend filled with sun, fun, gourmet food, and superb wines.