WEST COUNTY, THAT’S WHAT THE LOCALS CALL IT, the patch of Sonoma that encompasses the city of Sebastopol, the shores of the Pacific Ocean, the towering coastal forest, and acres and acres of rolling vineyards. Sandwiched between U.S. 101 and the ocean, West County grows California redwoods thick into the sky, grapes that ripen each fall and meadows carpeted with fog-slaked green green grass that feeds cows and chickens and hairy black pigs.
A particular loop of road circles from Highway 12 in the city of Sebastopol west on Bodega Highway to the coast, up Highway 1 to the point where the Russian River roils into the sea. The road then turns inland (Highway 116) to run through Guerneville, cross the river, bisect vineyards and return to the city. Take any offshoots—little bumpy roads like the Bohemian Highway into Freestone and Occidental (for a loaf from Wild Flour Bread or a soak in sawdust at Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary), or Graton Road deep into grape-growing country—and discover boutique businesses and wineries and picnicking spots. Life is peaceful out here, agrarian and artisanal, laid-back, with a coastal-woodsy-hippie-upscale-foodie-artsy-winelove vibe that layers the visitor’s experience with richness unrivaled by any other couple-hour drive so close to home.
Nothing like a whiff of the sea to spark an appetite, and in Bodega Bay—about a 20-minute drive west on Bodega Highway from Sebastopol—two side-by-side cafes across from Spud Point Marina serve clam chowder worthy of a stop. Spud Point Crab Company and Fisherman’s Cove—take your pick: Both are salty, clammy, a little garlicky.
The real reason you’re out here: the water. Sonoma Coast State Park runs for 17 miles along the Pacific Ocean, encompassing beaches and headlands. It’s spectacular, especially as you’re sitting in a horse’s saddle (group beach rides out of Chanslor Ranch for $125 a rider) or hiking one of the headlands paths, such as the Kortum trail between Wright’s and Goat Rock beaches.
Rife with riptides and relentlessly pounded, Sonoma County beaches aren’t for swimming. Some crazies surf out here, but these stiff-wind shores are best braved with a jacket and beanie, even on sunny days. Goat Rock Beach, particularly alluring with its big flat-topped behemoth just offshore and harbor seal pupping grounds at the north end, draws beachcombers awed by the tangled waters of river and sea. The Russian River dumps into the Pacific here, a sight better viewed from above, in Jenner, perhaps from a table at River’s End (lovely for dinner at sunset) or Cafe Aquatica (coffee to wrap breeze-chilled hands around).
From the turn near Jenner, Highway 116 follows the Russian River’s grassy banks deep into the woods, where California redwoods thicken in dark groves and cast cabins in shadow. The groves widen for the town of Guerneville, a super-liberal, LGBT-friendly community where the main drag includes an old five-and-dime and innovative restaurants practically side by side. Get your candy fix at the Guerneville 5 & 10, and a beautiful plate of burrata with beet hazelnut pesto and bread at Boon Eat & Drink. Big Bottom Market, a coffeehouse and wine bar, plates a mean chicken curry salad and sometimes has these blackberry pistachio biscuits that locals rave about. In town on the right Friday? Do the First Friday Art Walk—galleries and merchants stay open till 8, with food, wine, music and other festivities. On a warm day, rent a kayak or paddle board and take to the Russian River.
Just outside Guerneville, Armstrong Woods has trails so shady in some spots that sun splotch barely dots your path; it can be so foggy the mist drips from tree trunks and droplets gather on ferns. The mile-and-a-half Pioneer Nature Trail makes a nice leg stretcher. More trails can be found at the adjacent Austin Creek State Recreation Area, where the land opens up to wildflower-packed hillsides. While at Austin Creek, check out the remnants of Pond Farm Pottery, a 1940s artists colony and home and studio of ceramic artist Marguerite Wildenhain.
This area makes up one tiny slice of the Russian River Valley wine region, known for its warm days, its cool nights and—especially—its foggy mornings. Chardonnays and pinot noirs might dominate production here, but a favorite stop is Korbel Champagne Cellars, where the free tour includes a 10-minute movie, a walk through the cellars, lots of information about the champagne industry, and tastings of four or five champagnes.
Take Highway 116 out of Guerneville, across the river, and the wine country begins to appear in earnest around Forestville. Follow the signs onto back roads like the skinny one-laner up to Iron Horse, where the outdoor tasting shed overlooks the undulating hills of vineyards and trees. The breeze blows through, the chardonnay is crisp—this is quintessential Sonoma County wine country. Other tasting rooms include Graton Ridge Cellars, Paul Hobbs, Dehlinger, Dutton Estate, Dutton-Goldfield, Merry Edwards, where founder Merry holds unique status as one of California’s first women in winemaking back in the ’70s . . . winery after winery, each with something unique, such as Lynmar Estate’s garden or DRNK’s caves. Take Graton Road up to Marimar Estate—you can’t miss the Amiot/Laurent sculptures of the resident springer spaniels—and be treated to another breathtaking view as you sip a fantastic pinot.