It’s easy to see why California is a blessed state in the union. Sunshine, coastline, mountains, valleys – it’s gorgeous. And then there’s the food and wine. If California is the state that just keeps on giving to travellers and locals, then the rolling hills, vineyards, and valleys of Sonoma County are the sweet cherries on a fantastic Cali sundae.
There’s so much more to wine country and Sonoma County than wine, as fabulous as it is. Sonoma County is a beautiful, bucolic, almost off-the-beaten path destination compared to nearby regions (we see you, Napa Valley). And guess what? Sonoma County has a surprising number of family-friendly activities that go well beyond wine tastings and tours. Let me show you how you can enjoy Sonoma County with kids (and wine).
How to Enjoy Sonoma County with Kids
Sonoma County is part of the San Francisco Bay Area, in Northern California’s celebrated wine country. It’s less than 30 miles/50 kilometers north of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, and a 1 3/4 hour drive from SFO. Sonoma County is bordered by Marin, Napa, Lake and Mendocino Counties, and the Pacific Ocean and San Pablo Bay. This Northern California County is a large geographic area, with many charming little towns and villages sprinkled between vineyards, wine chateaus and family farms.
Visit a Family-Friendly Winery
You shouldn’t visit Sonoma Country without setting foot into one of its 400+ wineries. That would just be cruel. But you don’t have to feel guilty! Family-friendly wineries do exist in Sonoma. Not only do they serve fabulous wine, there are activities for kids to enjoy while parents have their fun too.
Benziger Family Winery, Glen Ellen
The family-owned Benziger Winery specializes in biodynamic wine-making. This process focuses on natural, dry farm techniques (no irrigation). Planting and harvesting take place in concert with the seasons and nature cycles. Begin your visit in the self-guided Biodynamic Garden. The garden is complete with stocked lily pond and bee houses.
The informative signage explains biodynamic agriculture, winemaking, and the history of the winery and the Benziger Family. The winery is also a working farm. The kids will love to see sheep, cows, and many birds among the rolling hills of the large estate. Hop on the tractor-pulled trolley for a winery tour (ask for guide Gary). It’s the perfect way to see the 85,000 acre vineyard and learn more about biodynamic agriculture and winemaking. Tastings are included in the trolley tour.
Francis Ford Coppola Winery, Geyserville
Care for a swim, game of bocce, or trip through movie-making history? You can sip house red or white wine while viewing Mr. Coppola’s Oscar collection and running your hand along the Godfather’s desk. Or enjoy a refreshing dip in the large outdoor pool while the kids read books in the giant teepee on the deck. The Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Geyserville makes for a great family day trip outing among the vines. The in-house Rustic restaurant serves up fabulous pizzas and pastas so staying for dinner is a no brainer.
Take a Bike Ride
One of our favorite things to do in Sonoma County with kids is biking. Sonoma County has more than 2,250 kms/1,400 miles of bike-friendly and off-road trails to explore. You can ride as hard or as leisurely as you see fit. If you have older kids, try a personalized cycling adventure and itinerary with Wine Country Bikes. The one day self-guided Dry Creek Valley Tour offers some independence as you explore a picturesque part of Sonoma County with light traffic and lots to see.
Sonoma Canopy Tour, Occidental
Adventure in the redwood forest awaits with the Sonoma Canopy Tour. The tour runs for 2.5 hours, and includes seven zip lines, two sky bridges, a suspended spiral staircase and a 60-foot rappel descent. It’s a fantastic adrenalin adventure in the deep green Sonoma forest canopy. You’ll achieve speeds of about 25 miles/50 kms per hour, and the tallest section is 200 feet high. The zip lines are secured to very large fir and redwood trees, the latter of which tend to sway with the wind.
Visit the Coast
The wind-swept Northern California coastline is less than an hour from many parts of Sonoma County. The high cliffs make for stunning views of the rugged coast and Pacific Ocean. Driving the curves of classic coastal Highway 1 is a road trip dream.
Stop in Bodega Bay for some clam chowder, or dip a toe into the Pacific if you’re really brave. If you’re a fan of The Birds, check out the Bodega General Store to see some movie memorabilia from that Hitchcock classic.
Take a Historic Tour of Sonoma
The historic town of Sonoma lent its name to the larger county. Another one of my favorite things we suggest checking out in Sonoma County with Kids is the historic tours. Sonoma is the site of the last Mission, San Francisco Solano, built by the Mexicans when California was still their territory. Stop in for a history lesson at the Sonoma Barracks and State Historic Park. They’ve recreated how soldiers lived in the 1800s, and the historical displays are really informative. A replica of the Bear Flag (part of the California Republic revolt in 1846) is on display in the barracks.
Sonoma Barracks and Park face onto the garden-like Sonoma Plaza and City Hall. There are many quaint boutiques and places to enjoy a meal. Basque Baguette Boulangerie is great for a quick lunch. follow up with a scoop of handmade ice cream at Sweet Scoops a few doors down.
Sonoma TrainTown Railroad
All aboard the ride-along rail cars on the Sonoma TrainTown Railroad. The ride takes about 20 minutes along four miles of track. It’s perfect for any young Thomas or old-school train fan. The park also features a petting zoo, carousel and some vintage amusement rides.
Go Hot Air Ballooning
For families with kids 7 years and older, a hot air balloon adventure with Up & Away Hot Air Ballooning would really be above and beyond. If budget, time and age limits allow, an aerial flight above the rolling hills and countryside of the Valley of the Moon would make for an unforgettable family experience.
Safari West Wildlife Preserve, Santa Rosa
A Sonoma Serengeti Safari awaits at the Safari West preserve. Get up close to giraffes, flamingos, cheetahs, zebras and other wildlife at the 400-acre animal preserve. The Classic Safari includes a 2.5 hour, occasionally bumpy drive in an open air safari jeep. Kids must be 4+ for this safari experience. Younger kids can still get their animal fix walking through portions of the grounds, seeing African cats, monkeys and the aviary.
Visit Charles M. Schulz Museum, Santa Rosa
If you have a Peanuts fan in the family, you’ll need to visit Snoopy and the gang at the Charles M. Shultz Museum in Santa Rosa. Exhibits feature a recreation of his cartoon studio, and the largest collection of Peanuts cartoon strips in the world. Go ice skating next door at Snoopy’s Home Ice stadium area. Pose for selfies with large statues of Charlie Brown and Snoopy.
Stroll and Eat in Healdsburg
Okay, so maybe the chic boutiques and art galleries in affluent Healdsburg won’t be quite the kids cup of tea (or glass of wine). But it’s a great place to stop for a stroll, lunch or dinner in between activities, so I’d highly recommend even a brief stop in this pretty little town.
Visit SHED Cafe, an architecturally-pleasing combination of market cafe, restaurant, condiment cornucopia and housewares store. SHED supports a local community of farmers, ranchers and artisan producers of gorgeous food products. Enjoy housemade kombucha at the fermentation bar. Find the spicy mustard or hot sauce of your dreams. Or just ogle the gorgeous, fresh artichokes like I did in the market. Gather lunch picnic supplies, or get dinner to go and park yourselves on the front patio in front of the lovely building.
Stop for lunch or dinner at Campo Fina. The meals are delicious and family-friendly – lots of pizza and pasta choices to ensure kid contentment. The menu is seasonal and builds upon what is fresh in the fields and markets of Sonoma County. Sit outside on the back patio.The outdoor bocce court next to the patio will keep the kids entertained and out of your hair.
Finish with artisanal ice cream or pie from Noble Folk. Because why wouldn’t you?!
Where to Stay in Sonoma County with Kids
The historic Flamingo Conference Resort and Spa in Santa Rosa was established as a northern California getaway for the rich and famous back in the 1950s. While much has changed in the county since then, the family-friendly nature of this hotel property remains true to its heritage, and its family-run, independent ownership.
There are 170 rooms, including several family and connecting suites for kids and parents to enjoy their own space. The vintage hotel wings were built in a circular pattern around a large courtyard swimming pool. Most of the rooms have a view of the pool and inner garden. Many rooms have been renovated in a warm palette of browns and golds. The resort has free Wifi, is pet-friendly and accessible on the patio level. There are no elevators, as the hotel is only two storeys tall.
The in-house Terrace Grill Restaurant and Bar offers continental and hot breakfast served with a poolside view. Brunch, lunch and seafood dinners are also available daily. We found the service to be friendly and accommodating. As Sonoma Country is the home of Charles Schultz, creator of Peanuts and Snoopy, large statues of the cartoon characters can be found throughout the hotel. The vintage photos of Jayne Mansfield visiting the hotel in 50s are a bonus for history and celebrity buffs.
Spa and Health Club
The adjacent Montecito Heights Health Club can be accessed for a daily fee for hotel guests. It is also open to local residents. The Health Club has its own lane pool, tennis courts, spin and yoga studios, and cardio and weight facilities. We really wanted to play tennis as the kids love their Atlanta Tennis Lessons, they’re great fun! The Spa menu features massage, facials and mani/pedi packages. It’s worth the $15 fee to work out at such an extensive fitness facility if you need to begin your day in an active manner. Otherwise, the hotel’s courtyard pool is 25 meters and perfect for lane swimming as well.
Photo Credits: C. Laroye, Shutterstock, Flamingo Conference Resort and Spa, Sonoma County Tourism.
Disclosure: The Travelling Mom’s visit was hosted by Sonoma County. As always, her opinions and love of rolling hills and wineries is all her own.
Have you visited Sonoma County with your family? Share your favorite spots in the comments.