Here’s a roundup of 11 free things to do in Sonoma Country.
1. Within the county are 13 American Viticulture Areas (AVAs, or appellations) — regions with unique soils and climates that allow certain grape varieties to grow particularly well. Many premium wineries in the county offer free wine tasting. Search all wineries.
2. Visit a piece of Sonoma County’s agricultural heritage. Get a Farm Trails map and visit a farm, nursery or ranch. Seasonal berry picking, apple picking, pumpkins and gourds in the fall, Christmas trees in winter and baby animals and fields of flowers in the spring. Can’t visit a farm? Attend a wine country farmers market. Most are seasonal, but some are year round, including the one at the Santa Rosa Veteran’s Building.
3. Western Hills Garden in Occidental. Western Hills Garden has undergone a complete restoration of its three gently rolling acres, with unusual or hard-to-procure varieties of plants, vines, shrubs, and trees, many of which are seen nowhere else in cultivation.
4. See a live seal show in Jenner. Kayak or canoe the Russian River at Duncans Mills to the mouth of the river and get close to the seals and sea lions that sun themselves on the beach.
5. Bodega Harbor. The harbor side provides a popular crabbing area along the jetty, and there are many hiking trails on the ocean side that allow access to small, sandy coves and spectacular scenic bluff-top views. The high cliffs offer excellent vantage points for observing migrating gray whales. Goat Rock, near the mouth of the Russian River, is known for its scenic shoreline and easily accessible sandy beach. Picnic tables and restroom facilities are also available. Goat Rock beach is home to a colony of harbor seals (stay 50 yards from the seals, especially during pupping season from March – August.) Due to the protected status of the seals, no dogs are allowed on Goat Rock Beach.
6. Check out LandPaths for unusual, off-the-beaten-path hikes on preservation land.
7. Stroll through the grounds at Paradise Ridge Winery and look for the giant American eagles.
8. Christopher Queen Galleries, located in Duncans Mills, specializes in early California paintings and contemporary art. The early California art, dating from the 1860s to the 1940s, features artists who are represented in the Oakland Museum, the De Young, the Crocker Museum and other museums and institutions. The downstairs salon features contemporary representational art depicting landscapes, figural, still life and genre. Open daily except Tuesdays, 11 a.m. – 5 p.m.
9. Sonoma County Art Trails Open Studios allows you to travel the back roads of Sonoma County and visit artists in their studio. See how established and emerging artists work, and talk to them about their inspiration and motives. This annual event takes place over two weekends in October.
10. Armstrong Redwoods State Reserve, an 805-acre park, features a magnificent grove of ancient redwoods, a large outdoor amphitheater, self-guided nature trails and a variety of picnic facilities. During the 1880’s, this area was set aside as a “natural park and botanical garden” by Colonel James Armstrong, an early-day lumber man who recognized the beauty and natural value of the forests he harvested. Today, it’s the largest remaining old-growth redwood forest in Sonoma County. It is a living reminder of the magnificent primeval redwood forest that covered much of this area before logging operations began during the 19th century.
11. Nestled at the end of Dry Creek, Lake Sonoma is one of the prime recreational areas in Northern California. Warm Springs Dam forms Lake Sonoma with more than 2,700 surface acres of water for canoes, sailboats, motorboats, fishing and skiing. Some 40 miles of trails are available to horseback riders and hikers. In addition to developed campgrounds, boat-in campsites and many picnic areas, Lake Sonoma hosts the Don Clausen Fish Hatchery, which is the most modern fish hatchery in the State of California.