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On a summer morning the Golden Gate Bridge was immersed in thick fog, its iconic red rails barely visible. We drove into the void, surrounded by the thick haziness, unsure what we’d find ahead of us. Exciting as it was it didn’t bode well for the start of our road trip, yet only minutes later we emerged into the dazzling sun of Marin and left San Francisco’s cool summer behind. We headed up Highway 101 and in less than an hour reached the historic town of Petaluma, the starting point for our trip to Sonoma County.
Sonoma is mostly known as a wine destination and although we happily spent a day winery hopping we also discovered that the county has a lot more to offer. Our first day was spent visiting artisan cheesemakers, stumbling upon quirky art, and hiking through stunning scenery on the coast and inland in the redwood forests.
Sonoma Cheese Trail
The countryside north of San Francisco is home to dozens of artisan cheesemakers who use local milk from grass fed cows to create small batches of cheeses that reflect the unique flavour of the region. Like wine, cheese reflects the terroir, or flavours, of the soil as well as the climate, humidity and environment of the place where it’s made. We’d already discovered how wonderful these northern Californian cheeses are on our visits to Cowgirl Creamery in San Francisco’s Ferry Building, and we were keen to try more.
Marin and Sonoma Counties have created a cheese trail to help visitors discover the small cheesemakers in the area. On the Cheese Trail website you can download a map or use their free app to follow along. We followed the Sonoma County driving tour that’s detailed on the map which takes you to places that are always open to the public. There are plenty of other options and you can also arrange tours in advance.
Our trail began in Petaluma, a quiet riverside town, worth a wander to see some beautiful turn of the century buildings. We had a late breakfast at Della Fattoria Bakery, sampling their delicious vegetable and cheese pastry and pain au chocolate.
Nearby Petaluma Creamery was our first stop to sample Spring Hill Cheese. It wasn’t quite what we expected from the cheese trail as it was a rather large factory next to a shop/cafe that felt quite impersonal and lacking in character. Pre-cut samples were available in the fridge so we helped ourselves to their cheddars and jacks. The cheeses were nice enough but as Brits we’re unlikely to be impressed by American cheddar.
We moved on, east to the town of Sonoma though vineyards and golden hills. Thanks to the cheese trail app we knew the second stop on the tour was closed on Mondays so we went straight to Epicurean Connection by Sonoma’s main square. Again, it wasn’t quite what we expected. Although owner Sheana Davis does make her own cheese, this was a cheese shop and cafe rather than a cheese factory. Still, it’s a lovely cheese shop with a wide range of local, organic and artisan cheeses and other gourmet local products. We had their small but delicious cheese tasting plate for $10. The staff were really helpful and talked us though the cheeses we sampled including a parmesan-like Two Rock goats cheese and the excellent Nicasio Reserve that’s stinky and sweet at the same time.
From Sonoma we headed north on Highway 12 towards Sebastopol, the countryside becoming even quieter and prettier as we passed vineyards and fields of cows. Turning down a dirt track we reached the Matos Cheese Factory, a working farm with the pungent smell of cows and flies buzzing about. This was more like it.
Joe Matos is originally from Portugal and when he relocated to California he brought the recipe for his native cheese with him. The farm makes just one cheese, St. George, a buttery semi-hard cheese made in the style of the Portuguese Azores.
The Matos Cheese Factory offers a very simple tasting experience. In a small room marked “cheese factory” you ring a bell to get the attention of the staff. An unsmiling, robust Portuguese woman emerged from the back room full of wheels of cheese and without saying anything handed us each a chunk of cheese. It was wonderful—creamy but firm and flavourful—and we bought half a pound. At around $4 it was a bargain.
The rustic Matos farm experience was more what we’d expected from the cheese trail. I think the issue is that the working cheese factories aren’t open at all times to the public. I think to get the most from the cheese trail it would be best to make appointments in advance for some tours to get a greater understanding about what’s gone in to making Sonoma’s tasty cheeses.
The Junk Art Sculptures of Sebastopol
We set off for Sebastopol to locate some bread to go with our cheese and ended up discovering another side to Sonoma. By accident we drove down Florence Avenue where quirky, colourful sculptures made from junk metal are found in every front garden of this suburban street. For more photos and information about these sculptures see our post on Sebastopol’s Quirky Junk Sculptures. It’s definitely worth the detour if you are in Sonoma.
Our cheese trail was finished and the rest of our day was focused on Sonoma’s stunning natural beauty. We headed to the coast to Bodega Head, a rocky headland that forms the entrance into Bodega Harbour. Back on the coast we left the sun behind, but the fog adds to the striking effect of the cliffs tumbling into the sea. In season it’s an excellent place for whale watching but we contented ourselves with watching the fishing boats and a hike along the headland past hidden sandy coves, colourful wildflowers, and impressive views.
This whole stretch of coastline is part of the Sonoma Coast State Park, and heading north there’s a series of long, empty beaches you can stop at. Unlike the crazy surfers we weren’t tempted by a dip but the foggy coastal drive was dramatic with the ocean on one side and eerie moors on the other.
Armstrong Redwoods State Reserve
Just before Jenner we turned inland and followed the Russian River on the scenic 116 through an unspoilt valley with cows grazing in parched golden pastures and green forested hills. The only dwellings were a few wooden barns in a state of disrepair and the occasional Wild West villages with cute painted wooden country stores.
Past Guerneville we entered the Armstrong Redwoods State Reserve. It was late in the day and we were exhausted from a packed day but we found the short one mile walk through the giant redwoods revitalising. It felt peaceful and the sweet, woodsy smell of the trees somehow soothing.
Redwoods are the tallest living things on the planet and the Parson Jones tree is the tallest in the Armstrong Grove at 310 feet, which is longer than the length of a football field! It was the age of the trees that impressed us the most. The Colonel Armstrong tree is 1400 years old and it’s mind-blowing to think what it has lived through.
Our day in Sonoma exploring the other sides of the county was a long one and we could easily have spent three or more days following the same route, taking cheese factory tours, doing longer hikes, and seeing where else serendipity might take us. It has given us a taste of the area though and we know we’ll be back.
For recommendations of places to stay and eat in Sonoma, and wineries to visit see our post on wine tasting in Sonoma.
Thank you to Sonoma County Tourism who arranged our accommodation in Sonoma and helped us come up with such a great itinerary. See sonomacounty.com for more information to help you plan a trip to the area.