Best Attractions in Wine CountryIn an area with dozens of attractions, you may have trouble deciding where to spend your time. Here are the highlights for this destination, as chosen by AAA editors. GEMs are “Great Experiences for Members.”
By Greg Weekes
Wine Country's gently rolling hills and peaceful living inspire creative minds, and three attractions honor those who made their mark in literature and the arts. The Robert Louis Stevenson Museum in St. Helena pays homage to the Scottish author. Stevenson spent his honeymoon at a cabin near Mount St. Helena's Silverado Mine in 1880 and recounted the experience in “The Silverado Squatters.” Fans of “Treasure Island” and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” can peruse mementos commemorating the writer and his classics.
The House of Happy Walls at Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen serves as a museum with photographs depicting the author's adventures. From there, paths lead to his grave site, marked by a lava rock on a small knoll, and to the Wolf House, a dreamlike haven that burnt to the ground shortly before London was due to move in. A half-mile trail circles through the heart of the 1,400-acre spread that the author fondly called his “Beauty Ranch.”
Santa Rosa's Charles M. Schulz Museum is a tribute to the creator of the beloved “Peanuts” comic strip. Have fun hunting for an illustration of your favorite character as you stroll among the lighthearted displays—Peanuts stalwarts Charlie Brown, Lucy, Snoopy and Peppermint Patty all make appearances. It's also an opportunity to learn about the cartoonist's life and philosophy.
Connect with nature at the Real Goods Solar Living Center , which promotes sustainable living and renewable energy at its 12-acre demonstration site in Hopland. Walk about the complex on your own or opt for a guided tour and learn about such topics as solar and wind power, organic gardening and environmentally friendly construction materials.
Of course the wineries are what really bring droves of visitors to Wine Country. Enjoy fine wine and gourmet cuisine while journeying through the Napa Valley aboard the Napa Valley Wine Train , an AAA GEM attraction. Relax in a beautifully restored vintage train car on this 3-hour round trip between Napa and St. Helena. In addition to the standard sightseeing excursion, you can also book tour options that allow you to disembark the train for visits to notable wineries like St. Helena’s V. Sattui or the Robert Mondavi Winery in Oakville.
The Napa and Sonoma valleys are famed for the pastoral countryside that provides a backdrop for all those thriving vineyards, but take time to explore Wine Country's wilder side—namely the grandly scenic wilderness, coastal mountain ranges and Pacific shoreline in Sonoma and Mendocino counties.
The loop trail that encircles AAA GEM attraction Bodega Head , the rocky headland that forms the entrance into Bodega Harbor, is a hike well worth taking. In spots the trail runs right along the edge of the elevated headland, permitting spectacularly unobstructed views of sheer cliff walls that descend practically vertically to the water far below (approach at your own risk and be sure to watch your step). Bodega Head is within Sonoma Coast State Park , a delightfully scenic stretch of coastline pocked with coves and offshore rock formations.
Kruse Rhododendron State Natural Reserve , on the coast north of Jenner, is a protected area that comprises 317 acres of second-growth redwoods, Douglas fir and a profusion of rhododendrons. While this serene forested habitat is wonderful to hike at any time of year, the most rewarding time to visit is in May, when the rhodies burst into bloom with showy flowers ranging from white to pink to red. Hike the reserve's short loop trail to really appreciate their beauty.
Take a walk through the Pygmy Forest , near Little River , and you'll discover that you're taller than most of the trees. These dwarfs are the result of poor soil conditions, but after more than a century they continue to survive. In addition to observing these stunted trees, you can hike the towering redwood groves and fern-filled canyons of neighboring Van Damme State Park.
Just north of Mendocino, Russian Gulch State Park has forests of redwoods, Douglas firs and California laurel trees and crisscrossing trails along craggy headlands that offer scenic ocean views. Check out the Devil's Punchbowl, a 60-foot-deep sinkhole formed by waves that over time carved a tunnel; it's of the park’s most interesting things to see. Then hike the Fern Canyon Trail, a peaceful woodland walk that is especially lush in the spring after winter season rains.
Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens , a AAA GEM in Fort Bragg , is notable for its location at the Pacific Ocean's edge. Meander through lovely gardens, view coastal bluffs speckled with wildflowers in the spring or catch a glimpse of crashing winter waves from the vantage point of the Cliff House. Definitely bring your camera.
Drive through the Chandelier Tree , near Leggett, and the resulting snapshot will be the talk of your photo album. The base of this 315-foot-tall redwood's carved-out trunk is wide enough to accommodate a car with plenty of room to spare.
Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve , a AAA GEM north of Guerneville, is not as well known as Muir Woods National Monument, but it's equally majestic, offering a magical opportunity to commune with nature in the moist, shaded, essentially silent environment created by a redwood forest. Notable specimens along the Redwood Discovery Trail are marked; the Colonel Armstrong tree, the grove's tallest, exceeds 300 feet in height.
The redwoods at Calistoga's The Petrified Forest never fail to impress, even though they're dead; lava and ash from a violent volcanic explosion millions of years ago created these stonelike wonders. Take the guided walking tour of the forest's upper meadow to observe a 100-foot-high ash fall and a scenic lookout point with a view of 4,341-foot Mount St. Helena.
At Luther Burbank Home & Gardens in downtown Santa Rosa , you can explore an acre of the renowned horticulturist's contributions, which include the Shasta daisy. Stroll through rose, ornamental grass and herb gardens, then check out the museum devoted to Burbank's life and work and the late 19th-century greenhouse that contains a replica of his office.
If roses are your passion, head south to Garden Valley Ranch in Petaluma . Pick up a brochure at the office and take a self-guiding tour through the grounds. This is Northern California's only official test garden, and you'll see many unique numbered specimens. The sheer variety and peaceful setting will entice rosarians and casual visitors alike.
Take a break from tasting and learn more about Wine Country's pre-Cabernet Sauvignon past. The Healdsburg Museum presents northern Sonoma County history through documents, artifacts and some 8,000 photographs. Standout things to see include 19th-century weapons and Pomo Indian crafts. The Napa Valley Museum in Yountville promotes the valley's cultural and environmental heritage and also has changing art exhibitions. Santa Rosa's Museums of Sonoma County mixes history, art and culture with exhibits that range from Sonoma County artifacts to the work of environmental artists like Christo and Jeanne-Claude.
Roam the great outdoors courtesy of an open-air vehicle at Safari West in Santa Rosa, where it's quite possible that a giraffe might nuzzle you. The adventurous trek through this vast preserve, a AAA GEM, offers panoramic views that are the next best thing to being on Africa's Serengeti, and you'll also experience up-close encounters with ostriches, zebras, gazelles and other animals.
See all the AAA recommended attractions for this destination.
Wine Country, CA
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550 2nd St W. Sonoma, CA 95476