More NorCal Wine Country Recommendations: Extracurriculars

Anyone who has taken a wine-focused trip knows that there can be too much of a good thing. The understandable desire to maximize time on the ground can result in too much time in the car, palate fatigue, and a general gluttony that ultimately taxes us in unrewarding ways. On my first trip to Napa in the mid-90's, I managed to visit about two dozen wineries in two days, which left me exhausted and dizzy - not just from the wine, but from packing too many different experiences into too short a timeframe.

Since then I've made it a point to plan trips that are more holistically-focused on the destination (with a side order of wine experiences) rather than the other way around. This is pretty easy to do since most wine country destinations are steeped in culture, natural beauty, or both. If you enjoy getting out into nature, Northern California has abundant options. Arranged more or less south to north, following are some to weave into your itinerary.

Sunrise at Muir Beach

Marin Headlands
This is where people go for those iconic photos of the Golden Gate Bridge and city beyond it. The headlands are just across the bridge and wrap around the mouth of San Francisco bay.  High above the water a network of trails and turn offs offer incredible views (weather permitting.) Most of the postcard views will have the Pacific at your back, but continuing west will give you ocean vistas and a history lesson on wartime coastal defense. 

Muir Woods & Muir Beach
A half hour further north is the highly-rewarding and epic Muir Woods National Monument. Though the park now requires advance reservations for parking, this majestic preserve of old grown coastal redwoods is awe-inspiring and definitely worth the detour, no matter your age or interests. Two miles down the road is the ruggedly-beautiful Muir Beach - a great place to stretch the legs, have a picnic, or wait for your reservation slot at Muir Woods.

Helen Putnam Regional Park, Petaluma
This park is just a 10 minute drive from Petaluma's main shopping district, but feels like a world away. With six miles of wide-open paved and smooth dirt trails crisscrossing its manageable size, this place is an underrated gem and absolutely worth taking a hike in. Sonoma County is, at its heart, an agricultural area, and from the Panorama Trail, you really see it. Horses, cows, and sheep can be seen dotting the adjacent hillsides. If you're lucky enough to visit after some rain, the hillsides are such a rich green, you'll swear you're deep in Ireland. Stop at the welcoming Crooked Goat Brewery on your way back into town.

Helen Putnam Park, Petaluma

Sonoma Overlook Trail
Just outside downtown, the trailhead is off the parking lot at 198 1st St W #2, Sonoma, CA 95476. An out and back one mile hike offers breathtaking views over Sonoma and the Mayacamas, beginning at the historic cemetery and switch-backing through meadows and scrub oaks. The trail begins just a few blocks off the Plaza, but it feels like a world apart. 

Russian River & Armstrong Woods
The drive along River Road is windy and takes you through the heart of Russian River Valley's vineyards before tracing the heavily-wooded banks of the river. There are stretches of the road so deep under canopy that everything is covered in moss. The place has a magical feel to it, so much so that you wouldn't be surprised to spot a fairy or one of the seven dwarves here. Midway between highway 101 and the coast is free-spirited Guerneville, and the turnoff to the must-see Armstrong Woods State Natural Reserve. Way less known (and crowded) than Muir Woods, this is an absolute gem of a park, with many thousand-year-old redwoods, including the Colonel Armstrong tree, which is over 300 feet tall, 15 feet in diameter, and 1,400 years old. There are a variety of trails here, but the most popular is the flat and easy 1.5 mile out-and-back Pioneer Nature Trail. 

The Sonoma Coast
As you head west from Guerneville, River Road continues to hug the widening Russian River until it meets the Pacific. Along the way, the valley flattens out into a pastoral landscape, and you can see how the terrain welcomes the marine layer of fog that cools the inland vines. Twenty minutes from Guerneville, a stop sign signals the T junction with highway 1. Head north to check out the tiny hamlet of Jenner, or head south towards Bodega Bay for some coastal hiking. Just a mile past the stop sign is the right hand turnoff to Goat Rock. Multiple parking areas along this stretch indicate trailheads for the Kortum Trail, which overlooks Blind Beach, Goat Rock, and Mammoth Rocks. The coast is rugged and beautiful here, and the trails offer fantastic views and distances for every ambition. There is plenty of desolation to explore north and south of here, but both directions get you further from civilization quickly, and this small area will give you a great taste of Sonoma's coastline. 

Lake Sonoma
About a 20 minute drive north from Healdsburg, follow Dry Creek Rd as far as you can and the Lake Sonoma dam will become visible long before you get there. After you pass Sbragia Vineyards, the road turns west and takes you into the recreation area. Stay on the windy road past the visitor center and follow signs for the Overlook. Here you'll be treated to spectacular views from elevated platforms, and an easy one mile trail starts just off the parking lot at The Ranch.

Parkpoint Health Clubs
This small local chain of members-only health clubs has locations in Healdsburg, Santa Rosa and Sonoma. If you want to counterbalance some of the debauchery you find yourself engaging in, or just want a healthy (and less expensive) pampering, this is a great option. For just $30 you can buy a day pass, which will get you access to a well-equipped and spacious gym, fully kitted-out locker rooms, heated lap pools, hot tubs, sauna, and a steam room. While not as swanky as the mineral baths at the Fairmont Sonoma, it's also a small fraction of the cost. The friendly staff and on-site beverages are just bonuses.