Among many other things, Sonoma County is a dramatic meeting of land and sea.
When thinking of Northern California’s great multitude of spectacular hiking destinations, Sonoma County does not often come to mind. It lacks the grand mountains of the Sierra Nevada, Cascades and Klamaths, the vast expanses of old growth redwoods of the northern coast, or the majestic coastline of Big Sur. There are no vast wilderness areas or singular geologic features that attract the seekers of beauty or the unusual. However, while these grand features may be absent, there is something else, something nearly intangible at first glance but a value that endows Sonoma County with a magic all its own.
Obviously charm can be attributed, to some degree, to the presence of viticulture in Sonoma County. The innumerable rows of vines, the grand wineries, the rustic-yet-fine country villages all create an atmosphere that makes the area, along with neighboring Napa County, a world famous destination. However, Sonoma has something that Napa lacks (which is certainly not to say there is anything wrong with Napa!), and that is the sea, the redwoods and the pastoral culture that permeates the county’s western half. These features added to the wineries of the eastern part of the county make a unique blend that demands exploration and savoring. Add to this mix a fantastic collection of parks and trails and Sonoma is elevated to a premier hiking destination that somehow remains under the radar as such.
Sonoma County’s position within Northern California.
Though few ever really consider it as such, Sonoma County occupies a transitional position in California. Though its southern end touches San Pablo Bay, the northern lobe of San Francisco Bay, its northern reaches can rightly be considered the beginning of the vast, low population density region that makes up the northern third of California. Indeed, the northwest quarter of the county, an area that can roughly be called “the Cedars” is one of the most remote and difficult to access parts of the entire state, an area that can probably count its annual visitors by the tens rather than hundreds. This is despite the county as a whole being one of the largest travel destinations in the state.
Geologically, Sonoma County can be divided into three main areas. In the west along the coast is an area of rolling hills composed of sedimentary rocks. Proximity to the coast results in far more rainfall than the eastern half of the county. Consequently, the area is lusher and is home to substantial coast redwood groves. The coast redwood is the tallest living thing on Earth. In stark contrast, the eastern half of the county is dominated by the Mayacama Mountains, which is one of the few areas in the North Coast Range, the mountains that extend along the coast northward into Oregon, that is volcanic in origin. The third and final region is the large alluvial plains that are drained by the Russian and Petluma Rivers. These flat regions are where most of Sonoma County’s population is found.
A rough outline of Sonoma County on the geologic map of California. The green areas are composed of sedimentary rock. The yellow is alluvium. The red areas are volcanic mountains.
The coast of Sonoma County is at once subdued and spectacular. The more accessible areas lack the grand cliffs found at the Lost Coast and Big Sur but the presence of sea stacks gives it some fantastic drama nonetheless. Farther north the mountains along the shore increase in size but the number of parks and trails is fewer, though this area can still be enjoyed via Highway 1. One particularly interesting feature is Bodega Head, a large rocky finger attached to the mainland by a large sandbar. The head itself invisibly divided from the mainland by the San Andreas Fault. Consequently, the bluffs of Bodega Head are composed of granite, the only place in the entire county where such rocks are to be found in significant concentration.
Just inland from the coast are a collection of relatively low lying hills where pockets of coast redwoods are common. This is, in fact, the beginning of the long strand of redwoods that stretches to the northernmost part of the state and culminates in the vast old growth stands in Humboldt and Del Norte Counties. Though redwoods extend further south, they are generally only found in isolated groves rather than vast stands. Unfortunately, though western Sonoma County has many redwoods, many of them are second growth, the majority of the ancient trees having been logged over 100 years ago. Redwoods are found throughout the county but nowhere else in the county has the concentration of these incredible trees like the western part of the county.
Running like a north-south axis through the county are the two major drainages. The northern watershed belongs to the Russian River. In truth, it is the only major waterway in the county. It begins about 65 air miles to the north, near Snow Mountain in the North Coast Range. It flows south through Mendocino County before passing through the Alexander and Russian River Valleys. These are both viticulture areas of world-renown. After passing through the valleys the river turns west, cutting through the coastal mountains before reaching the sea. The southern part of the county is drained by the Petaluma River. By every measurement this waterway is small compared to the Russian River, being little more than a glorified estuarine slough. However, unlike the its northern counterpart, the Petaluma River is navigable and sees a fair amount of boat traffic coming from San Francisco Bay. Worth noting also is Sonoma Creek, which drains the Sonoma Valley in the southeast corner of the county. However, this creek is often seasonal and does not have much watershed outside of the valley.
Although the county has a variety of peaks and mountains that are named as such, there are two that deserve particular attention. In the north is Mount Saint Helena. This mountain is shared with Napa County but the summit lies in Sonoma County. It is the second highest point in Sonoma but it dominates the region like no other peak in the area. Whether on coastal hills, ridges of the Mayacama Mountains or almost anywhere in the vast flood plain of the Russian River, Mount Saint Helena towers above the rest of the geography. It is quickly evident that the peak is large, especially when compared to all its neighbors. The other notable peak is Hood Mountain. Although it is over 1,000 feet lower than Mount Saint Helena, it is still one of the taller peaks in the county. However, Hood Mountain’s west face, known as Gunsight Rock, is easily the most rugged terrain in the area. The dramatic cliff towers ominously above the beautiful Sonoma Valley, making it a landmark in one the prettiest parts of the county.
Sonoma County is blessed with a great deal of public land. Most of these are state and county parks but other agencies, both federal and local make significant contributions to the recreation potential.
What really sets Sonoma County apart from other neighboring areas is the fantastic job that has been done making the many beautiful areas in the county accessible. The centerpiece of this network parks is a handful of excellent state parks and an extraordinary county park system. The state parks feature beautiful scenery but their real benefit is their size. With a few exceptions, most of them are large, which offers the chance for hikers to immerse themselves in some surprisingly wild backcountry. In contrast, the county parks vary greatly in size. However, while the size may differ, the county has done an admirable job of developing parks in its many diverse areas. Nearly every major habitant can be explored in the county parks. Some parks are quite large and have robust trail networks that offer the potential for long day hikes and even some backpacking opportunities.
Heaven: rock climbing on crags above the surf in perfect Sonoma County weather.
Of course, Sonoma County is not just for hikers. Floating the Russian River, sipping wine, rock climbing, surfing and enjoying excellent cuisine that ranges from elite to rustic are all common Sonoma County activities. The diversity of the land yields diversity of activities.
One of the greatest features of Sonoma County is the enviable climate. Temperate throughout the year, hiking is a year-round activity hear. It can be rainy at times in the winter and the interior of the county can get hot periodically during the summer. In spite of this, the trails are inviting throughout the year. Snow is almost unheard of except for the highest peaks, and only occasionally then. Even better, when California’s grand mountains are buried in winter snow or thawing out through the spring, Sonoma County is a vivid green, exploding with wildflowers and the creeks and waterfalls are flowing vigorously. It is idyllic.
While Sonoma County is not often thought of as the keystone of California history, the county holds a critical position in the development of the state. Even more interesting, it is the site of one of the most unique events in the history of the world. The southern part of the county was home to the Sonoma mission, which was the northernmost of the 21 California missions. It was established to act as a counterweight to nearby Fort Ross, which was built by the Russians as an unlikely outpost of their possessions in Alaska. Only 30 miles apart, these two colonial bases were the only time that colonial powers established a boundary coming from opposite directions around the globe. The Spanish came west, crossing the Atlantic and North America. The Russians traveled east across Asian and the Pacific. In Sonoma County these two global empires established a boundary on the opposite side of the globe from where the mother country was located. Of course, this is not the only significant contribution Sonoma County has made to history. It was in the town of Sonoma that the Bear Flag Revolt took place. This event precipitated California leaving Mexico and eventually joining the United States.
The darkest chapter of Sonoma County’s history is its most recent. A series of fires erupted on October 8, 2017. Coalescing into three conflagrations, the Tubbs, Adobe and Nun Fires, thousands of homes and many of the county’s most beautiful parks all burned. While the fires were devastating, recovery, both human and natural, is underway. Most of the burned trails are reopened. Although the scenery has changed somewhat, beauty still awaits. Healing does as well.
Sonoma County is a special place. In the words of the illustrious botanist Luther Burbank, it is “the chosen spot of all the earth, as far as nature is concerned”. Herb Caen, San Francisco’s preeminent 20th century newspaper man, once described Heaven as “a place said to resemble Sonoma County in the spring”. For me, it is home. My wife and I grew up there and although we have put down roots in Mount Shasta, Sonoma County will always be home. Childhood for me was a time of perfectly comfortable afternoons playing in meadows, climbing through rugged creeks bathed by the ubiquitous smell of bay trees and hiding in the hollow trunks of redwoods while looking for ewoks. That time bordered on ideal, though I had little understanding of that. It took moving to Texas to realize just how much I loved my home and I am now grateful every time I return. It was an honor when I had the opportunity to write a hiking guide for Sonoma and neighboring Napa Counties. I mourned when the fires burned. My parents lost their house – my house – to the flames. A lot of suffering has been endured in Sonoma. It is my hope that this article, this love letter to my home, encourages readers to head back there, to explore, hike and enjoy this incredible place. If you do you will be glad you did.
Gallery of Sonoma County Trails
This gallery has the divided Sonoma County into quadrants for simplicity sake. Feel free to ask where any specific locations are.
Click to enlarge: