California Itinerary – One Week North of Sonoma in the Russian River Valley

So you’ve planned a trip to Napa and Sonoma and you’ve heard of the Russian River Valley, but you’re wondering, what is there to do in the Russian River Valley?  Is it worth adding this area to my Napa or Sonoma visit? The answer is, yes absolutely, not only does the Russian River Valley have great wineries, it also offers great outdoor activities such as boating and kayaking on the river, swimming, cycling and walking in the spectacular redwood forests. In addition, the small towns on and near the Russian River including Guerneville, Healdsburg, Forestville, and Windsor are some of the most beautiful in California – and each has a distinct personality.  In contrast to wine-obsessed Napa, there are almost as many farm stands as tasting rooms along the wine region’s back roads.

map-russian-river

When is the Best Time to Go to the Russian River?

Summer has its appeal when it’s hot enough to get out and enjoy a day of water play, but the weather is best in spring and fall – and it’s less crowded then, too.

If you’ve been touring Sonoma, take the roughtly one hour drive from Sonoma to Guerneville vis Santa Rosa and Highway 101.  Guerneville is central to the Russian River area and is a good home location from which to visit the region.

For a great way to spend an afternoon, check out the wonderful — and wonderfully old-fashioned — shops, galleries, and eateries that line Main Street. Among the diverse offerings are Guerneville 5 & 10, where you’ll find candy brands and toys from your childhood, collectibles, camp supplies, greeting cards, and novelty items, and Sonoma Nesting Company, which specializes in antiques, art, and collectibles for home and garden. For dinner try Boon Eat + Drink which highlights the local bounty, or Chef Patrick’s dishes up luscious California-French cuisine.

Day 2 – Visit Armstrong Redwoods State Reserve

Another highlight of the Russian River is the Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve, located two miles north of Guerneville’s main street. Here you’ll be surrounded by the world’s tallest living trees — a living reminder of the magnificent redwood forest that once covered this area.  Armstrong’s remarkable redwood giants seem to soar skyward forever, with the sunlight filtering through their canopy and dappling the forest floor more than 300 feet below.

Pack a lunch and settle onto a picnic table, hike one of the trails, explore the 1930s amphitheater, and visit the Environmental Learning/Visitor Center. The park is open from 8 a.m. to one hour after sunset.

Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Preserve

After lunch head to Korbel Champagne Cellars and sample some champagne instead of wine for a change.  Korbel is surrounded by extensive gardens, with hundreds of bulbs blooming each spring, 250 varieties of antique roses, and more than 1,000 other types of flowers. Free garden tours are offered Tuesday-Sunday, from mid-April to mid-October. You can take the 50-minute winery tours which are offered daily, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. You’ll tour the historic champagne cellar, visit the museum, and end with a free tasting.

Day 3 – Explore Healdsburg

Head to one of the best known towns in the Russian River valley, Healdsburg, to explore the historic Healdsburg Plaza, which dates back to the late 19th-century and is filled with luxury boutiques, art galleries, gift shops and wine tasting rooms. If you’re in the mood for wine tasting, start at Selby Winery, the oldest tasting room in downtown Healdsburg, where winemaker and owner Susie Selby pours bold wines including sangiovese and zinfandel. Other tasting rooms worth visiting include Banshee Wines, pinot fanatics C. Donatiello Winery, and Siduri Wines, where you can pair small bites with their wines.

If you want to enjoy the outdoors in the surrounding area see if you can line up your vacation with one of the vineyard hikes offered by  Jordan Winery . The walks feature mountain views, wildlife, vineyards, lakes, wine tasting.  Our small group traipsed through chamomile blossoms, with dozens of little blue butterflies darting around as though we were in a Disney movie.

Jordan Winery Hike

Day 4 – Take a drive along the Russian River to Bodega Bay

Follow California Highway 116 along the Russian River toward the ocean, then south along California Highway 1 through Sonoma Coast State Park. Long sandy beaches below rugged headlands, a craggy coastline with natural arches and secluded coves are features that make Sonoma Coast State Park one of California’s most scenic attractions.  Continue on to Bodega Bay. On the way back head towards Sebastopol and then north on Highway 166.  There are many small side roads that offer infinite variation, but try to take in Graton, home to a nice art gallery, antique shops and two terrific restaurants, Underwood’s and the Willow Wood Market. Even smaller Freestone boasts Wild Flour Bread, one of the best bread bakeries anywhere, and Osmosis Spa.

Sonoma Coast State Park

Day 5 – Water Play on the Russian River

Kayaking, canoeing, and swimming are popular in summer. Bring your canoe or kayak, rent one or take a guided tour from Burke’s Canoe Trips or Rivers Edge Kayak and Canoe. Burke’s Canoe recommends the ten mile self-guided canoe trip through the Redwoods. You can comfortably do this trip in approximately 3 ½ hours of actual canoeing time. However, most people picnic, swim, sunbath, etc. and are usually out close to 4 or 5 hours. Last time we were in Healdsburg we did the 5 mile self guided kayak with Rivers Edge.  It was a very relaxing.  The water was very calm, so kayaking was easy with the kids. We stopped along the way for a picnic lunch and a swim.

Russian River Self Guided Kayak Tour
Picnic lunch during our kayak tour

If you haven’t had a chance to swim yet, you can head to the Veterans Memorial Beach in Healdsburg. From July through Labor Day, a seasonal dam creates a calm swimming area just south of the historic, steel-truss Memorial Bridge, and the beach is staffed daily with lifeguards.

Day 6 – Visit Forestville

Drive to Forestville along Highway 116, and visit Front Street.  If you’re hungry, visit Nightingale Breads, which uses a wood-fired oven to produce fragrant European-style loaves and other baked goods. Or visit the Tiny Town Café & Pastry for a cup of coffee and great pastry. If you are visiting on a Tuesday make sure you take in the Forestville Farmers Market, which is held 4 to 7 p.m. on Tuesdays, June to October. South of town, the family-owned Kozlowski Farms produces jams, vinegars, wine jellies and fruit butters, all sold in the original apple-packing house.  Don’t forget to taste local vintages in Forestville’s tasting rooms and nearby wineries.

Day 7 – Cycling in Russian River Valley

A good place to start is the Santa Rosa Cycling Club, 707-523-1878. Their comprehensive website features lots of opinions on the best and worst rides; their recommended ten great rides, most of the best are in the western Sonoma County/Russian River area. You can also use Sonoma County Bike Trails to plan your route, or stop in a local bike shop for advice.

If you are looking for more information on Sonoma and Napa check out our One Week in Sonoma and Napa post.

Tip – To quickly find more details on California attractions,  see the clickable attractions on our California map

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