Redwoods, River Fun and Small-Town Charm Await on Sonoma’s Bohemian Highway

Story and photos by Dorothy O’Donnell

Wine may be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Sonoma. While you’ll find plenty of excellent wineries in the county’s Russian River Valley, this rural region boasts many other delights, especially along the scenic Bohemian Highway. The 10-mile, two-lane road got its name from San Francisco’s Bohemian Club. Founded by a group of free-thinkers and artists in 1872, today it’s an exclusive men’s club. 

Sure, you could devour the Bohemian Highway’s natural beauty and some of its attractions in a day. But this is an area best savored at a slower pace. Meandering through redwood forests and along the banks of the Russian River, the Bohemian Highway is sprinkled with quirky towns and lots of opportunities for outdoor fun. So give yourself a few days to linger in this special part of California. Cell phone service is spotty here, making it easier to unplug, slow down and find your inner bohemian.

Sonoma’s short but sweet Bohemian Highway winds through rural scenery and laid-back towns.

Day 1

Your first destination is the blink-and-you’ll miss it hamlet of Freestone. Don’t let its tiny size fool you. Named for a type of sandstone quarried in the area in the 1800s, Freestone is the site of several Bohemian Highway gems. You’ll see Wild Flour Bread first. Some folks swear its brick oven produces the best sourdough bread and other baked treats in Sonoma. Decide for yourself after sampling the goods. Craving some local cheese to go with those carbs? Pop into Freestone Artisan Cheese. 

Sandwiched between the bakery and the cheese shop, you’ll find Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary. Indulge in a massage or one of the spa’s signature cedar enzyme baths, a relaxing, detoxifying treatment that involves “soaking” in a tub filled with a warm, fragrant blend of ground cedar and rice bran. Then wander the lovely grounds. Drink in the soothing sounds of birdsong and wind chimes as you follow a bamboo-lined path to a Japanese garden with a pagoda overlooking a pond where fat Koi play hide and seek among the lily pads. 

Back on the highway, the road climbs from Freestone’s valley floor to redwood forest as you drive 3.5 miles to your next stop, the former logging town of Occidental. With basic, comfortable rooms, The Occidental Lodge is a good place to bunk for the night. Check in, then get a dose of Occidental’s laid-back, hippy charm. Browse downtown’s eclectic shops and swing by Occidental Center for the Arts, home to an art gallery. Time your trip right and you might also catch one of the center’s concerts or other special events.  

For dinner, feast on pasta and pizza served family-style at Negri’s Original Italian Restaurant. If you’re in the mood for upscale comfort food, try Hazel’s.

Day 2

Get fueled and caffeinated at Occidental’s newest gathering spot, Altamont General Store. The spacious eatery and shop sports modern rustic décor and serves a variety of delicious fare. Try a fluffy frittata or a healthy bowl. Now say goodbye to Occidental and head to Sonoma Zipline Adventures where thrill seekers maneuver towering sky bridges and soar over redwood tops at heights of up to 250 feet above ground. 

After your adrenaline fix, it’s time to chill in Monte Rio. Drive about three miles and look for a subtle fork in the road. Keep to your left to follow Main Street to Lightwave Coffee and Kitchen in Creekside Park. This popular local hangout features a skate park, communal garden and tasty casual grub. Snag a seat on the deck and watch the skaters hone their tricks while you eat.

Continue on Main Street for half a mile to reconnect with the Bohemian Highway where you’ll cross the Russian River via the Monte Rio bridge. Snap a photo of this striking landmark while you still can. Built in 1934, it’s scheduled to be replaced next year due to structural problems. 

From the bridge, turn left into the Monte Rio Beach parking lot. Kayak and paddleboard rentals are available from mid-May through September. Spanning the road just beyond the beach, a 1950s-style neon sign greets visitors: “Welcome to Monte Rio, Vacation Wonderland.” Tourists started flocking here by train from San Francisco in the 1870s. You can still feel that old-fashioned summer vacation vibe. Soak it up and relish the pleasures of a simpler time. 

When you’ve had your fill of river fun, turn left from the parking lot, then make a quick right. You’ll pass under the neon sign and by the historic Rio Theater housed in a colorful Quonset hut. New owners are transforming the theater into a multi-purpose venue. In addition to screening movies, this summer, the Rio will host outdoor concerts, barn dances and a farmer’s market, among other events. 

You’ve reached the end of the Bohemian Highway – but your adventure isn’t over yet. Continue northeast on Highway 116 for 4.3 miles to Guerneville, the Russian River’s largest town. Here, you’ll find an array of shops and restaurants, including Boon Eat + Drink, a favorite for foodies. Lodging options run the gamut from rustic cabins, hotels and Autocamp Russian River, a glamping resort featuring Airstream trailers.

Day 3

You’ve spent a couple of days driving through redwoods. Maybe you even ziplined over them. But the best way to experience their grandeur is to walk among them. Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve, just a couple of miles from downtown Guerneville on Armstrong Woods Road, is the perfect place to get up close and personal with these awe-inspiring giants. 

Make a pit stop at Coffee Bazaar, then continue to the park. The idyllic 805-acre reserve rivals better-known Muir Woods in neighboring Marin County – minus the crowds and parking hassles. Stroll the flat 1.5-mile Pioneer Nature Trail or hit a longer trail for a more vigorous hike. Whatever you do, surrender to the calming magic of the redwoods. Hold onto that feeling – and your memories of the Bohemian Highway – as you leave the reserve and come to the end of your road trip.

Take refuge from the bustle of the real world in Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve.
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