I get it. We need the water. But enough with the rain already. My skis are stowed in the basement, which is the official sign that I’m ready for summer—and I’m betting you are too. So for the fourth and final edition of my Secrets of Sonoma series, I’m covering all of my favorite summer activities in Sonoma County—from canoeing and biking to horseback riding and hiking. With more square miles than Rhode Island, 250 wineries, 50 miles of shoreline, 40 spas, 20 beaches, 18 golf courses, and 13 state parks, there always something fun going on in Sonoma County, and here are a few of my top picks.
SUMMER CANOE TRIPS
One of my all-time favorite summertime excursions in Northern California is spending a summer weekend with friends canoeing down the placid 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 $60 (cash only) 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.
A SUNNY DAY AT THE BEACH
Linking Bodega Bay and the nearby town of Jenner are the Sonoma Coast State Beaches, 16 miles of pristine sand and gravel beaches, tide pools, rocky bluffs, hiking trails, and one heck of a gorgeous drive along Highway 1. While all the beaches are pretty much the same—divine—the safest for kids is Doran Park Beach, located just south of Bodega Bay. When the water’s rough everywhere else, Doran is still calm enough for swimming. Tide pool trekkers will want to head to Shell Beach, a small low-tide treasure trove 10 miles north of Bodega Bay near Jenner. But if all you want to do is get some sun on the sand, deciding which of the 14 beaches along Highway 1 looks the best will drive you nuts; just pick one and park.
If it’s foggy along the coast, go with Plan B: Johnson’s Beach, a popular riverside resort in downtown Guerneville that’s been the go-to weekend getaway for Sonoma County families since 1918 (FYI, no alcohol or dogs are allowed). You can also rent a kayak, canoe, inner tube, or paddleboat. The beach is open daily from mid-May to October.
PADDLING THE GUALALA RIVER
Now here’s a summer 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 in the town of Gualala at Adventure Rents.
HORSEBACK TRIPS THROUGH THE REDWOODS
Another exceptional way to experience the natural beauty of Sonoma County is on horseback with longtime residents Laura and Jonathan Ayers, who run the Armstrong Woods Pack Station. 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, and they even offer overnight camping rides. Give ‘em a call at 707/887-2939.
HIKING & TIDE-POOLING
One of my favorite state parks in California is Salt Point State Park, located on the coast about 18 north of Jenner along Highway 1. This 3,500-acre expanse encompasses 30 campsites, 14 miles of coastal trails, dozens of tide pools, old Pomo village sites, and the 317-acre Kruse Rhododendron Preserve, a forested grove of wild pink and purple flowers that grow up to 18 feet tall. There’s all kinds of things to do at Salt Point, from free-diving and tide-pooling to hiking through coastal woodlands’ wildflower-filled meadows and poking around the park for wild berries and mushrooms. Simply pull the car over anywhere along the highway and start walking.
Another fantastic hiking opportunity is at Armstrong Redwood State Reserve near Guerneville, a serene 805-acre grove of majestic redwoods—some more than 1400 years old—with numerous hiking trails (think Muir Woods without the crowds). You can even schedule a docent-led nature and wildlife hiking tour through the forest with Stewards of the Coast and Redwood.
WINE-TASTING BIKE TOURS & MOUNTAIN BIKING
If you’re in no great hurry, there’s no better way to tour Sonoma County’s wine country than by bicycle. Bike rental and tour companies such as Goodtime Bicycle Company in Sonoma and Getaway Adventures in Santa Rosa rent bikes for about $25 a day, which includes helmets, locks, everything else you’ll need (they even offer delivery and pickup to and from local hotels). Tandem bikes are available as well. Both outfits also offer guided wine-tasting tours of Sonoma County wineries, which is a very fun (and romantic) way to spend a summer day.
For mountain bikers, some of the best single track in Northern California is in Santa Rosa and Annadel State Park. Every time I ride here I’m amazed at how fun the trails are and how lucky we are that it’s open to bikers. And right now the wildflowers are in full bloom throughout the park—an added bonus. If you like mountain biking, you will love this park.
HOT-AIR BALLOON RIDE
If you’re interested in a quintessential Wine Country experience, consider a hot-air balloon ride with Up & Away Ballooning. But this one isn’t for late sleepers. The adventure begins at the crack of dawn at Sonoma County Airport, outside of Santa Rosa. From there you travel to the best launch site given the conditions. Then you’re off on a 1-hour ride, drifting over the countryside and finishing with a champagne brunch—after both of your feet are back on the ground.
If you have your own tips and recommendations on your favorite summer getaways in Northern California that you’d like to share, feel free to add your own comments to our blog below. We’d love to hear from you.