On those blisteringly hot August days in the Bay Area, everyone flocks to the coast. While Half Moon Bay, Carmel, and Big Sur get most of the attention, an absolutely beautiful stretch of rocky coastline lies north of the Golden Gate in Sonoma County. We set out yesterday morning to enjoy a full day of coastal walks, awesome food, and even an Apple Fair during the peak of Gravenstein season! Here are our suggestions for a 1-day itinerary in Sonoma County.
- Salt Point State Park (backup: Armstrong Redwoods State Park)
- The Barlow
- Gravenstein Apple Fair/Kozlowski Farms
- Sonoma Coast State Park
- Dinner in Sebastopol (and other alternatives we’ve tried)
The beaches and coastlines of Sonoma County can be steep and rocky, so hiking boots are definitely in order, as well as layers of clothing for the cool sea breezes.
Salt Point State Park
We started our day towards the northern tip of the Sonoma Coast at Salt Point State Park. It took a lot of sandstone to build the streets and buildings of San Francisco, and much of that rock came from Salt Point, so the area is of important historical and natural significance.
No matter which way you slice it, it takes about 2h:30m-3h:00m to get to Salt Point from the peninsula or San Francisco. We took Interstate 580 across the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge and then reconnected with 101 North before veering off to Highway 1 along the coast via Valley Ford. There are currently a couple of sections of Highway 1 that have reduction to a single lane, so you may be stopped for 10-30 minutes along your route to let oncoming traffic through.
A nice hike to explore this area of the coast starts at the Stump Beach Parking lot and then follows the Salt Point Trail towards Salt Point. Note that the bathroom at Stump Beach was out of toilet paper when we arrived, so be sure to pack your own (and some soap and water/hand sanitizer, if possible!). Erosion and sedimentation have given rise to beautiful tafoni, or networked holes, in the rocks here. In fact, the featured image for tafoni in Wikipedia is a picture from Salt Point State Park.
Besides the tafoni, the natural processes of erosion have given rise to beautiful gnarled rock structures, natural arches, and more.
If you can’t tell from our pictures, Salt Point was totally fogged in when we arrived at 11AM. We thought the fog would burn off quickly, but it actually stuck around until at least 1PM, and actually got a little denser! Nothing could really take away from the incredible rocks on the beach, and the fog did provide for some dramatic vistas, but be warned that the marine conditions here can make for a cold, windy, and foggy walk!
If by the time you reach Bodega Bay you think that the coast may be totally fogged in for your hike, there is a nice alternative hike inland about 0h:45m away: Armstrong Redwoods State Park, near Guerneville in the Russian River Area. When we visited a few years ago, we were awestruck with the giant coastal redwood trees here (as tall as 310 feet and as old as 1400 years), the amazing structure of the root system, and the relative quiet of the park compared to other more well-known groves in the Bay Area. Also, because of the shade, the park can feel cool even when the weather is very warm, and it is also quite nice on a foggy day.
After our morning walk, we took a 1h:15m drive along highways 1 and 116 to Sebastopol, one of the larger towns along the Russian River. One of our favorite spots to hang out here is The Barlow, a neat marketplace complex featuring a variety of shops, tasting rooms, and restaurants. Parking is free, and there are plenty of public restrooms on site. On this trip, we grabbed lunch at the Barlow. We had a vegetable and hummus sandwich at the Community Market (a very large supermarket focusing on health and specialty foods) and some delicious 6-month cheddar cheese made by local cheesemaker Wm Cofield (if you are a fan of blue cheese, they’ll be releasing a Stilton in the next couple of weeks!).
Gravenstein Apple Fair/Kozlowski Farms
Each August, Sebastopol is also home to the Gravenstein Apple Fair. Gravensteins are intimately tied to the history of Sonoma County and indeed of the entire country. Before the vineyards moved in, Gravensteins were the dominant crop in Sonoma County, and in fact the region supplied most of the apple products to American troops during the second world war. Now, only six main producers in the region grow the apples, but the annual harvest each summer is definitely something to celebrate!
Graventsteins are triploid, so they are very hard to pollinate; beyond that, they don’t keep terribly well on the shelf. Despite the fact that they are hard to wrangle, they are an amazing apple to use in baking, sauces, ciders, and other apple products, and it is totally worth sampling all of the wonderful apple products available near the Russian River (they call Highway 116 the Gravenstein highway for a reason).
The fair itself is a fun family event with live music, artisans, prepared food (including lots of types of pies), and of course apple growers! It is pretty big compared to similar fairs in Northern California, taking over Ragle Ranch Park just outside of downtown Sebastopol. It costs $15 to get in to the fair, plus you need to spend extra to buy food and do tastings. If you want to just take a quick peek, though, there is a cheaper option! If you leave your ID at the will call tent, you are allowed onto the fair grounds for 30 minutes to buy apples! We visited the Walker Farms tent, known for their amazing annual apple display, and made off with a 5 lb bag of apples for $6 – not a bad deal!
Although we couldn’t buy pie at the fair, we did spot some delicious looking options and made our way to the Kozlowski Farm Store in Forestville, about 15 minutes from Sebastopol. This cute farmside shop has an amazing Gravenstein Apple hand pie with a buttery, flaky crust and a filling that is just the right amount of sweet and spicy! The shop is also super cute, with lots of apple butters and sauces, as well as other food provisions and cute things for the table. The farm store is definitely worth a stop even if it isn’t Gravenstein season!
Sonoma Coast State Park
With our fingers crossed that the fog had lifted, we drove another half hour back to the coast to Sonoma Coast State Park, just south of Jenner. We were in for a treat! We headed towards Goat Rock Road but stopped short at Blind Beach. You can either walk down to the beach from here, or like us, you can just gaze over the amazing rock formations off the coast, including a beautiful natural arch.
We picked up the Kortum Trail from another nearby parking space and headed south towards the Sunset Boulders. These formations make for amazing pictures both from afar and from up close, and for the rock climbing set they provide a bouldering challenge with quite the view!
While we were here well before sunset on this trip, we’ve also been to nearby Jenner in the fall. If you are here when the sun sets earlier in the day, a wonderful place to watch the sun set is the River’s End restaurant just north of the park. The dessert we tried there was also pretty good!
You’ll probably be too hungry to head back home for dinner, but luckily there are a ton of great food options both Sonoma County and on the ride back south.
On this trip, we headed back to the Barlow in Sebastopol to have pizza at Vignette Pizza. Both sides of the restaurant open up to create an airy, light-filled space, and the margherita pizza was delicious, with a well-charred Neapolitan crust, a very robust tomato flavor in the sauce, and nice creamy buffalo mozzarella cheese on the top.
After dinner, we walked two minutes to Screamin’ Mimi‘s in downtown Sebastopol for ice cream. The concept of this ice cream shop is very unique: you pay for ice cream by weight, not by size or by scoop, so you can get as many flavors as you like and exactly the amount of each type of ice cream you want! No more ice cream dilemmas! We tried Mimi’s Mudslide (an espresso ice cream with Oreos, chocolate, and homemade fudge), coconut galaxy (which tasted a lot like a Mounds Bar), and Gravenstein Caramel Apple. All of the flavors were well balanced, creamy, and delicious! In a small cup, this cost us just under $5. That’s a good value for the money – check out the picture below.
If you aren’t heading back through Sebastopol, there are also a couple of good places to eat in Petaluma, which you’ll run into on highway 101. We’d recommend Rosso Pizzeria (the pizza here is really tasty) and Speakeasy (try the vegan tacos).
That puts the cherry on top of our day in Sonoma County. We’d love to hear what things you like to do in the area. Please leave your comments below!