SPECTACULAR SONOMA COUNTY: The Valley of the Moon abounds with flavor and activities
Once a sleepy agricultural community just north of San Francisco, Sonoma County has grown into a go-to destination with something for everyone to enjoy. From beaches to waterfalls to golf to wineries, there are many areas to spend time enjoying the many unique offerings.
Entering the southeastern part of the county on Highway 12 gives you a wonderful taste of the history, food, wine and excitement the county has to offer. The highway runs through the Sonoma Valley, also known as the Valley of the Moon — a name you won’t soon forget. One of the stories of how the valley got its name is that of General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo naming the valley because his friend Chief Solano said the word “sono” meant moon, and, in the General’s experience traveling through the valley, the moon seemed to rise and set several times.
The area’s history is not only tied to the many Native American tribes that have been in the area for thousands of years, but also to the missions built by the Catholic Church beginning in 1769. This desire to spread the Gospel ultimately led to 21 missions being built along the coastal regions of what would become California.
The town of Sonoma is home to one of them. Mission San Francisco Solano was founded on July 4, 1823. The 21st mission built, it was not only the last mission, but the only mission built when California was still a part of Mexico.
Wandering through the mission takes you back in time, as does visiting other historic buildings in the town, like the Sonoma Barracks. These were established by General Vallejo when he brought troops to the area in 1834 and Sonoma was the headquarters of the Mexican provincial frontier in the north.
The nearby Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa, also know as the Sonoma Mission Inn, reflects that Spanish influence in its architecture.
Long known as one of the best places to stay in Sonoma County, the hotel is just a short drive from the mission. The Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa provides guests access to the Sonoma Golf Club, an 18-hole championship course designed by Sam Whiting, architect of the famed Lake Course at San Francisco’s Olympic Club. Along with its amazing golf and culinary offerings, it boasts an unparalleled spa experience. It is one of only a handful of spa resorts across the nation that draws from its own source of mineral rich hot springs for its spa treatments.
The area is home to geothermic activity that gives rise to those hot springs. These were used by Native American tribes as sources of healing and relaxation, and modern day visitors to the many spas and hot springs enjoy the same benefits today.
Driving in the valley will take you through small towns named after a few of these hot springs, like Boyes Hot Springs, along with one of the county’s wine regions.
Since the early 1800s, when the first grape vines were planted, the county has weathered the ups and downs of history to emerge as a noted wine producer with 15 unique wine regions. Today, along with 60,000 acres of planted wine grapes, there are 350 wineries in the County (250 are open to the public). With 130 wineries in the Sonoma Valley region, a drive along Highway 12 is a wonderfully relaxing way to see some of them and taste the fruit of the vine. Rolling hills blanketed with vineyards as far as the eye can see gives you a picture perfect look at the wineries as you make your way through, whether you’re in a car or on a bicycle.
The valley is home to one of the first wineries in the region, the Buena Vista Winery. Founded in 1857 by the self proclaimed Count of Buena Vista, Agoston Haraszthy de Mokesa, you can experience history while you taste wines in the historic press room turned tasting room. You also have a chance to blend wines customized to your own palate from a selection of reds like Merlot and Zinfandel. The blends are then bottled, labeled with a personalized label and are ready to take with you the same day.
In General Vallejo’s day, traveling through the valley may have made the moon look as though it was rising and setting (depending on which way you drive, you may even experience this very same phenomena when traveling through today), but in the valley of today, there’s an easier way to get a little closer to the heavenly bodies. The Robert Ferguson Observatory, also known as the Valley of the Moon Observatory located in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, gives you the chance to see the stars through its many telescopes. You can also take a walk around the solar system at its Planet Walk. This small scale model of the solar system has been designed in such a way that you can experience the relative planet sizes and the distance between them as you make your way through the walk.
There are plenty of outdoor activities to enjoy at the park, too. Hiking to the top of Bald Mountain will give you a view of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range far off to the west, and a hike to the Canyon Ridge Waterfall, a 25-foot seasonal waterfall, takes a little effort to get to … but is well worth the effort.
No story about Sonoma is complete without mentioning the Fremont Café, a fabulous farm to table restaurant where you can eat eggs that were gathered fresh that day or lettuce that came out of the field that morning. It’s located where Highway 12 and Highway 121 overlap. The fare is Southern cooking with a flair and you can enjoy biscuits and gravy, pulled pork sandwiches and a variety of other mouth watering favorites.
No matter where you choose to eat, stay or what you choose to do when you visit the Sonoma Valley, the area offers so much you’ll be sure to put it on your travel list to come back another time to catch what the rest of the Sonoma County has for you to enjoy.