Sonoma, California is a tiny town about an hour and a half north of San Francisco and is known mostly for its abundance of wineries. Like most of the wine regions I’ve visited, it’s a beautiful setting – full of mature, green trees and wide open spaces perfect for grape vines. But it’s also a historic town, with a downtown square home to Mission San Francisco Solano, the last of the California missions to be built, the Presidio of Sonoma, and other buildings built before California was even a state. Sonoma was also the home of author Jack London, who’s 1400 acre ranch in Glen Ellen is now a California State Park.
Whether it’s wine or history that brings you to Sonoma, this post will highlight some of the things you can do during your trip.
Jack London State Historic Park
Jack London, one of the most well known authors of the last century, is famous for writing gripping tales culled from his own life experiences. He was rocketed to fame after writing Call of the Wild at only 27 years old. With his wealth he sought to make a home for himself and his wife Charmian outside of Oakland, California – a city he referred to as “the man trap.” Between 1908 and 1913 London purchased adjoining farms and in 1911 he moved from Glen Ellen to a small wood frame house known now as the Cottage. Soon after he began work on his dream house – a massive home with two-story stone fireplaces, a huge library and dining room to hold an army. A week before move in the house caught fire and was unable to be saved. The ruins of Wolf House now serve as a memory to Jack and his vision.
During your time at the park, you can take a docent led tour through all the historic buildings on site. The Wolf House (and Jack London’s grave site) and the barn and outbuildings on Beauty Ranch are free. A guided tour through the Cottage has a fee of $4 for adults. I definitely recommend taking at least a tour of the Cottage, you’ll see the desk Jack used and learn about the legend himself – and the fun prank he used to play on his guests!
If you’re not much into tours, don’t worry! There are many other things you can do during your visit. There are multiple hiking trails to explore at your leisure. Or you could partake in a free fitness class like yoga, visit the House of Happy Walls newly redesigned exhibits, or just enjoy a picnic with friends or family – leashed 4 legged family members also welcome!
$10 day fee / car collected at entrance. Hours: 9-5 daily.
Wine Tasting in Glen Ellen
Sonoma County is a well known wine region, and the tiny city of Glen Ellen is a booming district where some pretty big names have been producing wines for decades. We wanted to do some wine tasting while we were still in the area and decided to check out Benzinger Winery. It’s on the same street as Jack London State Park, and there were two for one tasting coupons at the visitor center, so we thought, “what the heck?”
Tip: With a little research beforehand you’d probably find another option that works better for you. The tasting at Benzinger was $20 for 5 tastes, which is twice as much as I’ve ever paid anywhere else. The coupon brought it down to a normal price for two people.
Benzinger is a winery that specializes in biodynamic, organic and sustainable wines, which means all aspects of the wine making process from the grape to the bottling are carefully thought out to be as green as possible. Organic grape growing avoids the use of synthetic chemicals and uses natural methods like crop rotation, tillage and natural composts to maintain soil health as well as natural methods to control weeds, insects and other pests. Biodynamic farming takes organic even further. Instead of bagged fertilizer, weed killer and pesticides they rely on composting, natural predator-prey relationships, cover crops, and the animals that live on the estate, to keep the vineyard healthy and balanced. Benzinger is one of only fifty certified biodynamic vineyards in the US.
In addition to the tasting room the winery offers tours of their vineyard. There are a few variations, including a semi-private tasting of estate wines in their wine cave, but all of them include a tour of the winery and a special tasting.
A few miles south of Glen Ellen, is the central hub of the city of Sonoma. Sonoma Plaza is surrounded by old adobe storefronts which now house a mix of boutique stores, restaurants, historic hotels, tasting rooms and art galleries. The Plaza itself is lush and green, with towering trees, benches and playgrounds. It was a gorgeous fall day when we visited and the Plaza was filled with families having picnics or playing on the grass.
Throughout the year the Plaza hosts various events like music festivals, nature hikes, and wine weekends. They even have some gourmet food and wine tours given by Sonoma locals.
Mission San Francisco Solano
Mission San Francisco Solano was the last mission built in Alta California, and the only one built under the Mexican era. The mission was dedicated in 1828. Franciscan monks brought local and neighboring native tribes to live and work at the mission. Three years later the neophytes (what the Spanish called the native peoples) burned the original wooden buildings during an uprising. A new Friar was brought in to restore harmony and by 1832 the mission had 27 rooms and a great adobe church at the east end. In 1834 the missions were secularized and shut down. The new settlement of Sonoma was quickly becoming populated and building materials were purged from the mission for new homes. In 1841 General Vallejo ordered a new church be built. In 1906 the last remaining adobe structures became part of the California Park System.
The museum is housed in one of the wings of the adobe and displays artifacts, paintings and info boards explaining the history of the mission system in both Baja and Alta California. At the end of the wing is the chapel, which you can go into. It’s painted with traditional designs and features the traditional wooden altar at the end of the room. The rest of the mission consists of the outdoor courtyard behind the museum wing. There’s a lovely sitting area with benches surrounding a tree, a HUGE cactus that’s taken over the back end of the yard and an horno (adobe oven) that looks to be used for public demonstrations.
Across the street from the Mission is the Sonoma Barracks, a military outpost that was the center of the Bear Flag Republic. If you’ve ever seen the California flag, you’ve probably noticed that there is a bear on it. Even though the state animal is the Grizzly Bear, that’s not the reason why it’s there. Before the Mexican-American War, many American settlers who had come to the Sonoma valley become worried about the control Mexico had on “their” land, while the Mexican government wanted these “invader” out of their country. (California was a part of Mexico at the time) So a group of men decided to declare California a republic separate from Mexico, by raising a hand stitched flag in Sonoma square, and thus the Bear Flag Republic. The flag pole still stands as a reminder of that fateful day. While the Republic was short lived, it’s legend lives on with the current state flag. The bear, star, and red stripe along the bottom come directly from the original Bear Flag, with a little modernization in the design.
The rest of the Barracks include a display of what the bunk area would look like, cannons, a carriage, and displays explaining the history of the settlement of Sonoma and the Bear Flag Republic. We had only a few minutes to see the Barracks before they closed, but I quite enjoyed this museum.
Sonoma State Historic Park has a fee of $3 per person. Your admission also allows you to visit the Sonoma Mission, Sonoma Barracks, Toscano Hotel, General Vallejo Home and the Petaluma Adobe on the same day. Unfortunately we didn’t have enough time to see all the historic buildings in the area, but if you focused your day trip on Sonoma rather than including Glen Ellen or if you made a weekend out of it, you’d have no trouble seeing more of the beautiful and important structures in Sonoma and nearby Petaluma.
Sonoma was an easy couple of hours drive from the Oakland area. Having never been outside of the Bay when visiting northern California, it was a nice change to get out into the beautiful, quiet, and foresty Sonoma County. We visited in early October so there was not much fall foliage yet, but when the leaves start to turn it would be absolutely magical.