(This article originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2009 edition of Touring & Tasting)
Everyone loves Sonoma County. Its narrow country highways snake past fertile valley vineyards, gnarled oaks, and rugged cattle grazing purposefully in grassy fields. The wineries are wonderful. Some are discovered at the back of dusty lanes, others on the main roads, and others in town. They’re at the top of every wine tourer’s “to do” list. But that’s only the beginning. There’s hiking, stargazing, fishing, and sunbathing for starters. We’ve asked several Sonoma locals where they like to go that’s off the beaten path—and came up with these seven secrets. Read, visit, and enjoy, but… shhh!
1| Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery, Franklin Avenue, Santa Rosa
A rarity perhaps, this quiet, peaceful spot on the west side of town is frequented by locals who like to loop through on a casual walk or serious run. It is the final resting place of many town pioneers, past dignitaries, and even three former U.S. Congressmen. Take a self-guided tour or, during the summer months, follow a docent and become acquainted with the history of the town through the tales of the people who are buried here. Special Lamplight Tours are conducted in September as fundraising events. They present dramatic vignettes from the lives of the famous and not-so-famous people buried in the park-like Rural Cemetery.
2| Foothill Regional Park, 1351 Arata Lane, Windsor
The bordering housing developments to the west and south of this 211-acre park give no indication that such a terrific park lies just beyond their boundaries. Press on and discover its rolling hills studded with wildflowers and oaks, three quiet ponds, and nearly a dozen trails for short, easy hikes. The steepest, Alta Vista Trail, climbs to the park’s highest point. The longest loop is about two miles, and shorter loops are plentiful. There are no paper maps, so look for the large map posted by the Sonoma County Parks Department at the trailhead to plan your route. Besides hiking, other popular activities at Foothill Park include bicycling, horseback riding, and fishing. Dogs must be kept on a six-foot or less leash. Bring a fishing rod, but swimming, wading, and boating are not allowed. 3| Robert Ferguson (Valley of the Moon) Observatory, 2605 Adobe Canyon Road, Kenwood
If you’re in town on the night of a monthly star party or other public observation night, enjoy dinner on the late-side. Then grab a heavy sweater or fleece and head out to this wonderful observatory located in Sugar Loaf Ridge State Park. See the moon, constellations, and planets through binoculars and telescopes, including the observatory’s 24-inch reflecting and 8-inch refracting telescope. Lucky locals can enroll in the Night Sky Program, designed to give everyone a greater appreciation of what shines above and beyond. One summer class is devoted entirely to the moon. Private use of the observatory and the adjacent campground can be arranged. In fact, you can hold a private party there for up to 50 people, complete with astronomer docents to help interpret observations and operate the telescopes. 4| Mom’s Beach, 10584 River Drive, Forestville
Why do locals call it Mom’s Beach? First-time visitors often guess it’s because moms can relax a bit while their children play or because they don’t have to drag all the kids’ stuff too far from the car. Regardless, when you’re ready to visit “Mom’s,” take River Road to just west of Burke’s Canoes and Steelhead Beach and watch on the right for the sign for River Drive. Park in the lot on the corner, walk about a hundred yards and follow the short trail to the beach. This wide piece of riverbank is considered a guaranteed good weather spot, perfect for swimming and just settling back. No lifeguards are on duty, though, so moms will have to fight the urge to nap. The beach is open from sunrise to sunset and parking is free. 5| Lake Sonoma State Park, 3333 Skaggs Springs Road, Geyserville
The long finger-shaped lake runs west of Geyserville and Cloverdale, offering lots of opportunities for swimming, biking, hiking, and camping out under the stars. Some campsites can only be reached by boat or by foot. Even if you’re just driving through, be sure not to miss the two-tiered observation deck perched above the lake for toe-tingling views. 6| Armstrong Redwoods State Reserve, 17000 Armstrong Woods Road, Guerneville
Some of the tallest first-growth coast redwoods in the state are located in this stream-fed canyon on the edge of Guerneville, including the 310-foot Parson Jones Tree and the 1,400-year-old Colonel Armstrong Tree, for whom the park is named. The secret here is: Take the road less traveled. When you pass through the entrance gate, watch for the split in the road. The right-hand road leads to the picnic area and lots of parking spaces. The left-hand road leads you to the Armstrong Tree and fewer parking spots, but it is the way to go. Most locals opt to go left, and feel rewarded when they arrive in a serene redwood grove. If you want to stretch your legs in this redwood cathedral, watch for the self-guided nature trail with interpretive panels and printed guide sheet. 7| Sonoma County (Charles Schulz) Airport, 2200 Airport Boulevard, Santa Rosa
It’s still the good old days (and even better) at the Sonoma County Airport, where you can watch planes take off and land, check out private jets, hot air balloons, vintage airplanes, and helicopters. But that’s not all. This little airport is also the home of Sky Lounge Steak House and Raw Bar, widely praised by locals for its sushi, appetizers, and sandwiches. Sit outside and enjoy lunch, dinner, or a random bite in between, while you watch the goings on at this fun unexpected venue.
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