It’s less than two hours from the San Francisco Bay Area to the Russian River in west Sonoma County, but why race up there when you could explore for a whole day? One of the things that we have come to love about the Russian River area is that vacation wonderland is so close, and most importantly, doesn’t include any travel on Interstate 80. A traffic jam from the bay area is no way to start a relaxing vacation or enjoy a road trip. Fortunately the only way to the Russian River area is through gorgeous countryside.
Do you want to take some extra time to see the best sights while on your way to Russian River? Do you like to visit the coast, check out farms, and eat really good food? Then we have 3 action packed itineraries full of amazing eye candy and excursions for you to choose from when you are traveling from the San Francisco area to the Russian River. We have also made a google map to help you with your trip planning.
Coastal Route starting at the Golden Gate Bridge
This route takes you north from the Golden Gate Bridge along the coasts of Marin and Sonoma Counties and provides striking panoramic views of the ocean and rolling hills along the coastline.
Site 1: Golden Gate Bridge
If you start in the morning and intend to take all day then your first stop can be the Golden Gate Bridge itself. You can either park at the lot on the San Francisco side and walk across the bridge to enjoy the views, or you can start in San Francisco and drive across the bridge then immediately exit at the North Vista Point. Beware, this exit is often closed on weekends in an effort to calm traffic on the bridge. If using Google Maps, this vista point is called the Golden Gate Bridge View Vista Point. It is guaranteed to be breezy so bring your wind breaker, your camera, and have a nice stroll. If you are lucky you will see seals and sea lions swimming in the water or maybe a ship will be passing under you. And of course you will enjoy the beautiful views of San Francisco.
Site 2: Muir Woods National Monument
It takes about 30 minutes to drive to Muir Woods National Monument from the Golden Gate Bridge View Vista Point. Advance Reservations for parking are required and they must be made online at this web site. While at Muir Woods you can take the classic out and back walk in the main grove of trees, about half of which is on a well maintained boardwalk and the other half is on a well maintained trail. Plan for this visit to take you about 1-2 hours. If you get hungry while you are at Muir Woods, stop in at the park cafe for the grilled cheese; its worth every calorie!
After Muir Woods you can drive west on the Panoramic Highway to Stinson Beach and then on to Jenner before you make your way inland toward the Russian River Resort Area. Pick 1 or 2 of the following options.
Option 3: Stinson Beach
Stinson beach is a nice long crescent shaped beach with soft fine sand. It’s usually chilly at Stinson Beach thanks to the coastal fog, but when it is hot then it is transformed into a summer beach wonderland! Its a lovely beach for walking, playing, and sunbathing. If you need a refresher after the beach then you can easily access a coffee shop, snack bar, and a restaurant simply by walking over a little foot bridge from the parking lot. There is also a mini park with a play structure that the kids can enjoy.
Option 4: Point Reyes National Seashore
The main attraction at Point Reyes National Seashore is the lighthouse on the end of a peninsula that is 10 miles out into the ocean. To visit the lighthouse you will turn left into onto Sir Francis Drake Boulevard from the town of Point Reyes Station and drive for about 40 minutes. During the wintertime this area is very active with wildlife, most notably elephant seals and migrating gray whales.
Option 5: Bodega Bay
Bodega Bay is well known for its seafood markets, restaurants, and spectacular views. Our favorite is the deliciously herby clam chowder at Spud Point Crab Company. Sit at the outside picnic tables or take your chowder over to Bodega Head and get a quick stroll in after. If you didn’t stop at Point Reyes to see the whales, then you could see whales here at Bodega Head. You can also enjoy the seabirds and other abundant wildlife.
Option 6: Sonoma Coast State Beach
Jenner is where the Russian River empties into the ocean. If you are very lucky you will get to see the resident pair of bald eagles which do their hunting at Goat Rock Beach and the Russian River estuary. On this part of the Sonoma Coast you will see magnificent rock formations, a beautiful beach with a mix of sand and colorful stones, and plenty of weathered driftwood which is perfect for making forts. Seals tend to congregate on this beach so you will get a good view of them here. If you are looking to do a little hike in this area then you can read an article we wrote about the Kortum Trail. Be careful when visiting Sonoma County beaches on the ocean. They have dangerous surf, especially in the winter and are not good for a person of any age to swim at. There is one Sonoma Coast Beach that is safe, called Doran Beach. It is a safer beach because it is in the relatively calm Bodega Bay.
Option 7: Jenner, CA
There is a very unique restaurant with an equally unique view of the Russian River estuary and it is called Russian House #1. It was even featured on SF Eater! This restaurant has no menu and no prices! When you are done eating you pay what you want. You will certainly eat something unique at this restaurant with interesting blends of spices. And my kids always enjoy eating outside with an overlook of the Russian River below!
So, back to the road trip! Once you are in Jenner, you are at the end of the Russian River! Hop onto Highway 116 which parallels the river and you will soon be to Monte Rio and then Guerneville. If staying at Lucky Bend Lookout then your drive will take 20 minutes from Jenner.
Rural Foodie Route
This route takes you through the rolling hills of western Marin and Sonoma Counties. Once you are no longer on the freeway the drive is peaceful and the scenery is bucolic. You will drive through a lot of ranch land and open space and will enjoy the horses, cows, and sheep along the way. In the summer the hills will be golden with green oak trees here and there, and in the winter its green all over. Even though this route is quieter and more peaceful, there are plenty of places to stop along the way including lots of places to buy food products direct from the producers. As a foodie, this is a very important detail for me!
Site 1: Sausalito Fish Tacos
The first stop on this trip is the Golden Gate Bridge as described above. After you finish with the bridge, then stop at my favorite restaurant in Sausalito called Fish. When we go to Fish, we prefer to sit outside at the picnic tables so we can enjoy the harbor views. The food is fresh, sustainably caught seafood, but very casual. You can get some amazing fish tacos, fish and chips, and local beer and wine.
Site 2: Roy’s Redwood Preserve
Head north toward the town of Nicassio and keep an eye out for Roy’s Redwood Preserve in Woodacre. In this park bay trees and redwoods are the main attractions and George Lucas’ The Ewok Adventure were filmed at this park. The best trail at this park is the easy 2.4 mile Roys Redwood Loop Trail.
Site 3: Nicasio Valley Cheese
The next stop is for some local cheese! Nicasio Valley Cheese has their very own pasture raised cows and they make their organic cheese fresh every day. They make about a dozen types of cheeses in a variety of styles, so you are sure to find a cheese you will like. They even have a viewing window at their shop so you can peek into their production room. This unique local food you can only find in the northern half of the SF Bay Area is the best vacation souvenir you can get.
Site 4: Valley Ford Cheese
In the town of Valley Ford you will make your second cheese stop at Valley Ford Cheese and Creamery. At Valley Ford Cheese you will enjoy award-winning Italian style cheeses. Their signature cheese which is derived from a family recipe is called “Estero Gold” after the Estero Americano which runs adjacent to Valley Ford. For the kids, they offer their famous soft serve ice cream and other goodies at their store too.
Site 5: Hitchcock’s Birds
From Valley Ford you can continue north on Highway one for just a minute or two and then turn right on Bodega Highway. This road leads to the little town of Bodega (not to be mixed up with Bodega Bay) which is where the Hitchcock movie The Birds was filmed. The famous church scene is at Saint Teresa of Avila Church, which is on the right hand side as you drive through town.
Site 6: Wildflour Bakery
Continue five minutes on Bodega Highway to it’s ending at the Bohemian Highway then turn left at the town of Freestone where you will find the best bakery in West Sonoma County, called Wild Flour. They specialize in unique artisan breads that are so good you will want to eat the entire loaf! Our favorite bread is the sticky bun loaf. It is so sticky, gooey, and delicious but not too sweet. Watch out for operating hours. They close early and are only open Thursday through Sunday.
Site 7: Sonoma Canopy Tours Ziplines
At this point you are only about 20 minutes away from the Russian River itself! Continue north on the Bohemian Highway to the town of Monte Rio. The Bohemian Highway is a narrow winding road that cuts through a beautiful redwood forest. If you are looking for some excitement then you can go for a zip line adventure at Sonoma Canopy Tours. Once in Monte Rio, turn right on River Road/Highway 116 and continue 5 more minutes until you get to Lucky Bend Lookout and Guerneville.
Quickest Drive, But Still Beautiful
The quickest and most direct route to the Russian River area from the San Francisco is mostly freeway, but it is still a pretty drive. The first part of the drive will feature Marin County suburban scenery to the left and San Francisco Bay views to your right. Then when you are past the city of Novato, you start to see open space and ranch land. Soon you will be in Santa Rosa and that is where you will take the River Road exit. As soon as you are on River Road you are officially in the Russian River Resort Area and the scenery abruptly changes to vineyard views.
Site 1: Russian River Brewing
If you only have time for one stop along this route, we recommend that if you can budget an extra 20 minutes, you can make a stop in Santa Rosa at the famous Russian River Brewing Company for a growler of beer. It’s well worth it for a weekend’s supply of microbrew!
Site 2: River Road Wineries
If you get to the River Road exit by 3pm or earlier, it would be worth your while to stop at some wineries as you make your way along the river. Some wineries are located right on River Road or extremely close to River Road and they are Old World Winery, Fogline Vineyards, Martinelli Winery, Woodenhead Wines, and Joseph Swan Vineyards.