Best Challenging Family Hikes in West Sonoma

During our early days of hiking with kids, our first child was whisked along through the wilderness like exalted royalty in a palanquin (AKA the Dueter KidComfort backpack carrier) complete with canopy to protect her pale complexion from the sun. Unfortunately for her royal highness, fate is a cruel mistress and at age three she found her throne usurped by mere weakling, her baby brother. What a truly pedestrian new existence to have to walk herself on hikes! From this unfairness was born our family hiking rule.

Kids under 3 get to ride in the carrier, kids between 3 and 5 have to walk on the flat downhill parts, and kids older than 5 have to walk all parts of the trail.

Strangely, our daughter found it much easier to walk now that she had great clarity on who gets to ride and when and assurance that one day the usurper would be subjected to the same indignity of having to walk as well. As the older child, she made darn sure that as her younger brother hit the milestones, the family hiking rule was fairly enforced. This turned out to be a blessing because it really set expectations for our son that just seemed to be the natural order how hiking works. His sister, the hiker, became his example to emulate. Now that our kids are 8 and 10, they are hitting the stage where they enjoy hiking and are able to make some of these strenuous hikes below without assistance (other than lots of snacks). A new world of hiking is open to us now and Sonoma County is here to deliver with amazing natural beauty only accessible by foot.

In this series we are highlighting our top 3 easy, moderate, and strenuous hikes in West Sonoma County. A few of our favorite trails in Armstrong Woods and Austin Creek were burned in the recent fires and remain closed. When they reopen we’ll post an update to these posts. We hope these other equally amazing trails inspire you to get out and enjoy the fresh air and natural beauty of Sonoma County.

This is part 3 of our 3 part “Best Hikes” series.

These strenuous hikes have steep uphill components and range from 4-15 miles, and great for adults and big kids. The shortest one may also be considered moderate.

Islands in the Sky Loop at Sonoma Coast State Park

Description: 4 mile loop, dogs not allowed, free parking on Freezout Road
Amenities: no restrooms & no water
Map: https://sonomahikingtrails.com/wp-content/uploads/willow-creek-state-park-map_2014.pdf

This hike has a nice variety of landscape including lush redwood forest and golden grassy hills with a vista of the Ocean. Take this loop counterclockwise so you can get the steepest part done with early on. 

To get to the trailhead go to Duncans Mills and cross the river on Moscow Rd. Take your first right onto Freezeout Rd. The trailhead is located on the left-hand side of the road, about 0.4 mile south of Moscow Rd. You can also use these coordinates in Google Maps (38.449365, -123.050466). Start out next to a cattle Ranch and hike about 0.25 miles and then take a right on the Sky Vista Loop trail. While on the sky vista trail you will enjoy the redwoods forest with its floor blanketed in ferns, mushrooms, western Columbine, nettles, and many other native redwood forest plants. Take a right on the Full Monty trail. There are a few spur trails that lead to various viewpoints. The most popular is the Fern Tree View Point where the landscape opens up and there are little rolling hills that look like islands. If the weather is clear you will see all the way to the Pacific Ocean. After you enjoy the vista make a left and go inland on the fire road (still technically the Sky Vista Loop Trail and continue down until you are back at the start.

Pomo Canyon/Red Hill Trail

Description: 7 mile lollilpop loop, No dogs allowed.
Amenities: free parking, restrooms available but no water
Map: https://sonomahikingtrails.com/wp-content/uploads/willow-creek-state-park-map_2014.pdf

This hike is just south of Jenner and starts at Shell Beach, which is the same starting point for the Kortum trail, which is a moderate hike we featured in this article. The Pomo Canyon Trail heads inland from the coast, over grasslands covered with spring wildflowers, and then into a grove of second-growth redwoods. The first part of the hike features amazing views of the Pacific Ocean and Russian River, and the inland part is in the redwood forest. 

Start your trip at the Shell Beach parking lot north of Bodega Bay. You have to carefully walk across Highway 1 to get to the Pomo Canyon trailhead. The trail begins on an old paved road. Follow this wide trail for 0.7 miles, where the path reaches a grassy plateau and bear right, and then bear left. You are now on a narrower trail in the grasslands. After about 1.75 miles you will pass a turnoff for the Red Hill trail. This is the trail you will take in the way back. As you continue hiking to around the 2 mile mark, you will see the first grove of Redwoods whose bark looks strange because it is covered in lichen.  The trail opens up to grasslands again and then after 0.5 miles you will reach the second stand of Redwoods and will start hiking downhill toward the Pomo canyon environmental campground. The campground is not in operation so you can find any picnic table and stop for a snack or lunch. Head back by taking the Red Hill trail 1.25 miles and then connect back up with the Pomo Canyon Trail for the final segment. The Red Hill trail is more open and exposed than the Pomo Canyon Trail but offers more views of the Russian River Valley.

Sea to Sky Trail to Pole Mountain

Description: 15 miles out-and-back, dogs allowed on leash
Amenities: free parking, restrooms & water available
Map: https://www.wildlandsconservancy.org/pdf/twc_jhp_trailmap_aug2018_maponly_web.pdf

This hike is a biggie but so worth it because it goes to the top of one of the tallest peaks in Sonoma County where you get to enjoy absolutely breathtaking 360 degree views. Pole Mountain, sitting between Jenner and Cazadero, presents crystal-clear views in all directions — the Pacific Ocean to the west, Wine Country in the east, Mendocino County’s snow-capped mountains to the north (in the winter) and, on especially clear days, Mt. Tamalpais and Mt. Diablo to the south. The trail has a lot of sun so bring a lot of water and sun protection. 

Start at the Jenner Headlands parking lot and be sure to use the restroom because you won’t see it again for 15 miles. Take the Sea to Sky Trail up the Headlands until you get to the junction with the Raptor Ridge trail. At that point you could make it a loop and makes your way back down to where you started or you could keep going on the Sea to Sky Trail to Pole Mountain. It follows an old logging road, straddling a small ridge before descending into the watershed of the East Branch Russian Gulch Creek. That’s where you lose the elevation you just gained over the last few miles. You could take the Russian Gulch trail back to the parking lot at this point as well, making your mileage total 12 miles. The next portion of the Sea to Sky Trail is a steady, steep 3.2 mile climb (with very little shade) up to the summit of Pole Mountain. At the top is an old fenced off fire lookout with a couple of picnic tables and an of course the incredible 360 degree view. To make your way back retrace the same steps you took on the way up. You may be tempted to take the Russian Gulch trail on your way back but be warned that it will make your hike a few miles longer with more ups and downs on the way back. 

This local insight brought to you by your hosts at Lucky Bend Lookout; a modern yet family-friendly Russian River vacation home. Check our availability and book online or call/text Sarah at 415-516-6961 to reserve.