Classic Three-Day Road Trip from San Francisco to Sonoma County’s Top Historic Sites
Less than 45 minutes north of San Francisco, Sonoma County celebrates a long and glorious past that includes native tribes, Spanish and Russian colonies, the start of the state’s wine industry, and the birth of California itself as part of the United States. Historic parks and museums abound here, chronicling local, state, aviation, literary, railroad, and winemaking history.
Here’s a three-day road trip itinerary that takes you across mountains, valleys, meadows, and forests; into charming towns and cities; and ends with a jaunt along Sonoma County’s stunningly scenic coastline. Can't stay for three full days? Check out the Classic Two-Day Road Trip From San Francisco to the Sonoma County Coast.
Head north from the Golden Gate Bridge on US-101 for about 35 miles to the riverside town of Petaluma. Settled in 1851, this is one of California’s oldest cities, filled with beautiful Victorian homes and impressive iron-front commercial buildings. You can download a walking map of Petaluma’s historic homes.
Check out the Petaluma Historical Library & Museum, housed in a former Carnegie library built in 1904, with exhibits on the area’s poultry, dairy, and Miwok Indian history. On most Saturdays from May through October, costumed docents lead free walking tours of historic Petaluma.
There are many dining choices in this foodie haven. Find out where to eat in Petaluma.
About five miles east of downtown Petaluma, this park’s adobe compound was known as Rancho Petaluma back in the 1830s and 1840s. Today, it’s filled with authentic period furniture and exhibits. On living history days, docents in period dress do chores as they were done in the Rancho era.
It’s another 10 miles east to the historic Sonoma Plaza, site of the raising of the Bear Flag (the start of California’s road to statehood). This town is steeped in early California history, mostly on and around the eight-acre central plaza. Several of the buildings are part of Sonoma State Historic Park, including the last of the California missions. Explore California History in Sonoma.
One block north of the Plaza, the Sonoma Valley Historical Society’s Depot Park Museum offers displays on trains, the Bear Flag Revolt, and other local history. About two miles east of the plaza is the Buena Vista Winery, California’s oldest commercial winery. It includes a Wine Tool Museum that tells the story of winemaking through antique tools.
Lodging and Dining
Head about three miles east to the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa, a historic resort with its own underground hot mineral waters. Its acclaimed Santé Restaurant features the freshest local produce, meats, poultry, and seafood in elegantly simple dishes.
About seven miles north on a hillside above the town of Glen Ellen, world-renowned author Jack London’s Beauty Ranch is now a state park, with 26 miles of trails on 1,400 acres of lush forests, redwood groves, meadows, and hills with amazing views. Visit the cottage where London wrote and learn about his high-charged life at the park’s House of Happy Walls Museum.
Head about 18 miles west to Sonoma County’s capital city, Santa Rosa. Start by exploring the Luther Burbank Home & Gardens, where world-renowned horticulturist Luther Burbank lived for most of his 50-year career. His Greek-revival home holds its original furnishings, and the grounds include an acre of gardens planted with Burbank creations.
About a mile away, the History Museum of Sonoma County covers local history, starting with early Native American settlements. It’s housed in an historic 1910 post office building noted for its California-style classic federal architecture.
Half a mile from the museum, the Railroad Square Historic District includes a delightful variety of beautifully restored historic buildings. The Santa Rosa Visitors Center/California Welcome Center is housed in a gorgeous 1904 train depot building, and includes exhibits on Northwestern Pacific trains.
If you have time, on the northern edge of Santa Rosa is the Pacific Coast Air Museum, which offers a five-acre field covered with authentic, well-cared-for aircraft. On Open Cockpit Weekends, you can actually sit inside many of them.
Lodging and Dining
Built in 1907, the Hotel La Rose on Railroad Square offers an Old World atmosphere with a B&B ambiance. Walk to La Gare French Restaurant for traditional French cuisine in an elegant yet relaxed setting, or Stark’s Steak & Seafood, offering a clubby retro atmosphere with a thoroughly modern surf and turf menu.
From Santa Rosa, head about seven miles southeast to this dynamic small-town community, where a beautifully restored 1917 Mission-style railroad depot now houses the West County Museum, chronicling local history. It’s run by the Western Sonoma County Historical Society, which also operates the nearby Luther Burbank Experiment Farm, where the famed horticulturist did most of his work (Burbank commuted by bicycle from his Santa Rosa home).
Now it’s time to head to the gorgeous Sonoma coast. Head west on Highway 116 as it winds its way through the Russian River Valley to the mouth of the Russian River, and then go north on Highway 1. It’s less than 40 miles, but you’re going to want to slow down and enjoy the scenery, and perhaps make a few stops along the way.
On a gorgeous bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, faithfully reconstructed buildings recall the once-thriving Russian colony that from 1812 to 1841 was the hub of the southernmost Russian settlements on the West Coast. It includes a windmill and Rotchev House, the colony’s only surviving original structure.
Lodging and Dining
There are several ways to enjoy the beauty on this last stretch of the itinerary. River’s End Restaurant & Inn, the Timber Cove Resort, and the Sea Ranch Lodge all offer dramatic Pacific Ocean views and delicious on-site restaurants. Check the listings of Sonoma coast restaurants and lodgings for more ideas.
To explore more Sonoma County options, check out the Top 10 things to do in Sonoma County.