Famed for its scenery and fine vintages, the California Wine Country has much more than grapes to offer family adventurers. In addition to the many gastronomical destinations just 50 miles north of San Francisco, the agricultural Napa Valley and Sonoma County also offer a multitude of outdoor adventures and parks that the whole family will enjoy. For ideas on other attractions and cultural activities, please visit FTF’s Family Attractions in Napa and Sonoma Valley.
Exploring Sonoma County Outdoors
Dating back to the early 19th century and set amidst winding country roads and family-owned vineyards, Sonoma County offers all the perks of being in the heart of wine country, with the added benefit of a laid back vibe. Locals like to say it’s “like Napa was 30 years ago” and that means plenty of outdoor activities, award-winning wine and food at lower prices, and a more casual attitude towards rambunctious kids. Summer is the high season but the weather is good all year round.
The natural beauty of Sonoma County — once capital of the independent Republic of California and now intensively developed — still shines through. Gentle hills, some with trees, many with vines, flank valleys irrigated by creeks and rivers that flow together and down to the sea. The major tributary is the Russian River which provides a focus for outings in the region.
Beach & Lake Adventures in Sonoma County
Doran Beach in Sonoma Coast State Beach is the place for swimmers — an activity you’ll crave during the summer heat waves. It’s located off Highway 1, part of the 17-mile stretch of Pacific beach dotted with arches, coves and dramatic bluffs that runs from Bodega Head to Vista Trail. Approaching from Highway 1, you can watch the harbor seals and picnic at Goat Rock Beach near the mouth of the Russian River, or enter just South of Fort Ross to admire many scenic attractions. Doran Beach, between Bodega Harbor and the ocean, has calmer water and is one of the very few safe places for kids to swim. You can fish or crab from the jetty, and the local campground has shower facilities.
Lake Sonoma in Geyserville is a popular destination for fishing, camping and picknicking. You can reserve tables at both the Warms Springs Recreation Area and the Yorty Creek Recreation Area for group picnics, or head for a picnic table that does not require reservations. Warm Springs has several volleyball courts, a playground and a lawn for other sporting activities. Yorty Creek is located near the swimming area. Lake Sonoma has secluded coves for the quiet boater or angler (the lake is stocked), while water-skiing and jet skis are allowed in other designated areas. Facilities include boat and canoe rentals, a public boat ramp, full-service marina, swimming, a visitor center and a fish hatchery that kids will be interested in.
Novice boaters and families with small children can swim, canoe or kayak on the warm and placid Gualala River, camp in one of six campgrounds along the southern Redwood Coast and explore historic Fort Ross State Park and Salt Point State Park, where marine life is completely protected in one of the first underwater park preserves in California. The Redwood Coast Visitor Center (707/884-1080) in Gualala has all the parks Information you need.
Hike, Zip, Ride Through Tall, Majestic California Redwoods
The Armstrong Redwoods State Reserve is a huge state park of California redwood trees native to the central and northern coast. We love their beginner trail, a short and easy, stroller-friendly tour past one redwood that is over 300-feet tall as well as the famous, 1,400-year-old Colonel Armstrong Tree. Be sure to study the enormous cross-section of a fallen redwood with plaques announcing great events in history (ie. “Napoleon defeated at Elba”) next to certain rings. Short and longer hikes are available and there’s something for everyone here; there are easy, level trails that are disability accessible and markers in Braille for the blind. The Reserve includes a visitor center, large outdoor amphitheater, self-guided nature trails, and a variety of picnic spots. Leave the car at 170000 Armstrong Woods Road in Guerneville and just walk in. Unforgettable.
Really active tree lovers can continue their admiration for the regional forests on a local Sonoma Canopy Tours (888/494-7868). Their zipline is more than 800-feet long, zooming high above the forests of Occidental.
Horseback Riding in Armstrong Woods (707/887-2939) can be done through the Armstrong Woods Pack Station. Their guided horseback adventures roam through the beautiful giant redwood forests. Trail rides include panoramic stops along the way for rest or lunch, as well as some instruction on well-trained quarter horses. If this location is inconvenient, ask your hotel about other stables throughout the region.
Napa Valley’s Natural Attractions
California’s Napa Valley, which is adjacent to Sonoma and hard to tell apart, also offers some attractions of interest to children as well as a few wineries that welcome them on grape juice tastings and tours. Since the whole county seems more expensive and adult-focused than Sonoma, we suggest you don’t base yourself in Napa, the main city in Napa Valley.
Hot Air Balloons & Trains in Yountville, south Napa Valley
If you’re not at a Sonoma County hotel, we suggest avoiding Napa City‘s many convention hotels for inns in the Valley’s small towns. Yountville, site of Thomas Keller’s famous French Laundry restaurant (and a good Bouchon Bakery where you’re more likely to get a table), is home to the cute Napa Valley Railway Inn (707/944-2000). Classic rail cars on the original (but out of commission) Napa Valley Railroad tracks have been turned into compact suites with two queen beds and a sitting area, and rates are very reasonable. It’s in the heart of town on Washington Street.
Headquartered at Yountville’s historic vintage 1870 shopping complex, the Napa Valley Aloft ballooning company (800/944-4408) offers hot-air balloon launches every morning at sunrise. Other options include Napa Valley Balloons (800/253-2224) and Up & Away Ballooning (707/836–0171), the first hot air balloon operator in the US to accommodate wheelchairs. Their special basket with a lowered rail, easy access ramp and window makes it possible for a seated passenger to enjoy more than 180-degree visibility. Keep in mind that this is no sport for infants and toddlers, who won’t be tall enough to see over the basket walls. Although the rides are pricey (around $240 for each adult), it is fun just to watch these balloons inflate and take off if you have early risers.
Mud Baths, Bikes & More Around Calistoga
We also like St. Helena, Rutherford, and Calistoga along the world-famous wine trails. You can plan day trips with the family from there. The funky, rich-hippie town of Calistoga, 25 miles north of Napa, is famous for one adventure that literally put it on the map; its mud baths. Rumor has it that a Mr. Brannan from Saratoga Springs, New York (a famous hot springs resort at the turn of the last century), discovered the local springs and decided to strike it rich by opening this source of healing mineral baths to the public. In a fit of confusion, he called the town Calistoga, Sarafornia and the name stuck. We heard this story at his homestead, now the popular and family-friendly Brannan Cottage Inn.
If you really want to try a mudbath, the Indian Springs Resort comes highly recommended for a therapeutic treatment. We liked the casual Golden Haven Hotel with its small pool and mud treatment rooms as a budget alternative. There are many mud bath offerings in town and if you book ahead, you can try one on a day trip.
Napa or Calistoga are good towns to rent a bike and do some exploring. With younger kids, stick to the less busy Route 29 which runs past miles of vines through several small towns. More experienced riders can navigate the narrow shoulders of Route 128 otherwise known as the famous Silverado Trail, where more than 40 vineyards open their tasting rooms. If everyone behaves very well, you can treat them to lunch on the vineyard-view balcony of l’Auberge du Soleil, one of Napa’s top hotels near the Rutherford Winery.
Biking, Horses & Safaris around Santa Rosa
Sonoma County has level biking paths designed for the entire family to enjoy, but there’s so much vineyard touring traffic that anyone riding with kids will prefer one of the dedicated bike trails. You can rent a bike in any of the larger towns and most companies have kids’ bikes, tandems and/or trailers.
The 10-mile Joe Rodota Trail is flat, easy and paved and runs between Santa Rosa and Sebastopol. It’s built on a former railroad right-of-way and there are several bridges over the old trestles. It’s nice and shaded all year, but most popular in spring when the wildflowers bloom. It is also popular with bird watchers year-round.
An alternative is the West County Trail between the towns of Sebastopol and Forestville is a paved path and relatively flat with a few gentle climbs. An unpaved horseback riding trail runs parallel. You can follow the top racers from the Amgen Tour of California and ride the King Ridge Route, Coleman Valley Road or choose a more relaxing ride amongst the vineyards.
Safari West (707/579-2551, 3115 Porter Creek Road Santa Rosa, CA 95404) in Santa Rosa is a wildlife preserve created to protect endangered animals. Their daily guides tours are best with older children because they are quite lengthy, but little ones will enjoy seeing the animals up close. Read more about Safari West and its overnight accommodations in our firsthand review.
Paddling Healdsburg and the Russian River
Healdsburg, a very fashionable town with elegant rental homes and small B&Bs, has become a new foodie mecca in California’s Wine Country. In the summer, families can spend time shopping, dining, dropping in and out of the many tasting rooms, or heading out to explore the area. However, nothing beats a day canoeing, rafting or kayaking on the Russian River.
We were lucky enough to enjoy the river for a delightful 9-mile, six-hour kayak trip organized by Getaway Adventures (800/499-2453). Our journey began with the launch from Veteran’s Memorial Beach. Our incredibly able and accommodating guide Jesse led the way from his canoe, which ferried the makings of a sumptuous picnic, eaten in the welcome shade on the banks half-way down. The water is clear and clean and just cool enough to make swim breaks a total treat. The occasional modest rapids and steady current made the trip both fun and un-taxing. Only the last stretch required a bit more effort to paddle. The experience was a pleasure from start to finish.
Our only regret was that we didn’t have enough days to tackle the other Getaway Adventure offerings like the “Cycle and Sip” bike expedition which explores some top vineyards on two wheels or the 3-day kayak trip that takes you all the way to the sea, with overnight riverside camping along the way. Getaway Adventures will customize any kind of trip — whether leisurely sightseeing or outdoor adventure — making it ideal with multi-generational groups. Another outfitter, Rivers Edge Kayak and Canoe Trips (800/345-0869) rents canoes without guides if you want to row it alone.
For more activities to do with younger children, elders or less active family members, visit FTF’s Guide to Family Activities, by the ages, in Napa and Sonoma, California.
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.