During the crisp autumn months in California’s Sonoma County, you can find vineyards that explode with effervescent, fiery color, drawing in the eye like a moth to a flame. Visitors come to Sonoma County year-round, but fall reveals a distinct spectrum of illuminated color. Typically, vineyards begin to change at the very end of September and are nearly naked by December.
In the wine country, fall is known as “crush” — referring to the harvesting of grapes. The Sonoma wine country consists of several distinct regions, each with its own microclimate, so dressing in layers is recommended. Dry Creek, Alexander Valley and the Russian River are the regions that produce the most wine. The Russian River runs through Sonoma County and empties into the Pacific where ancient evergreens and the fierce ocean collide in the fog. The combination of glowing grape vines, endless evergreens, and gray-blue skies that fade into a misty ocean makes Sonoma County a unique fall destination to experience wine, food and the colors of California.
The Fruit of the Vine
Sonoma County is the perfect place to relax and spend some time sipping on the fine wines that the area offers, says wheelchair user Charlene Vine, a university student in Sacramento. “The countryside is perfectly picturesque with its rolling hills filled with endless rows of wine grapes. It’s the kind of place where the sun always shines and the people always have a smile for you.”
From San Francisco or Oakland, the southernmost part to begin your visit to the wine country is the city of Sonoma. The outskirts are surrounded by vineyards with bordering oak trees. On the way to downtown Sonoma, the Cornerstone, a popular setting for weddings, is a good place to stop. It has a vibrant blend of stores, galleries, gardens, food and, of course, local wine. Accessible parking is located in front, adjacent to the Meadowcroft Winery, which has a ramp and lowered countertop for tasting inside. The firmly packed granite pathway bends to the left to reveal a restaurant with an outdoor patio followed by more storefronts. The pathway then meanders through the garden with eclectic and often abstract displays of art.
Between the Cornerstone and downtown Sonoma are more wineries, farm-stands and specialty food stores. Some of these wineries are also featured in tasting rooms next to downtown boutique and antique shops, eateries, and gourmet food markets. A large grassy plaza marks the center of downtown, and every September since 1897 the Valley of the Moon Festival takes place here with music, local artists, food and wine. The three-day festival this year begins September 26. The visitor’s bureau in the center of the plaza is accessible by elevator. Across from the plaza is the California Mission San Francisco Solano.
For an aerial view of wine country fall colors, travel a little further north to the Sonoma County Airport in Santa Rosa and meet up with Mike and Patty from Up & Away Hot Air Ballooning for an unforgettable ride at dawn in their modified balloon basket, followed by a champagne brunch at the Kendall-Jackson Winery. Fall in California is milder compared to the rest of the United States, which creates ideal flying conditions for hot air ballooning, so autumn is open for bookings.
A few tasting rooms require reservations, but most don’t. Some tasting rooms are more accessible than others. Commonly, at least one accessible parking spot is in front of a venue if not located in a downtown area, but not every winery has an accessible restroom. Mondays and Tuesdays are typically slower days in the wine country, which means that a number of tasting rooms choose to close on those days, so call ahead to verify hours of operation and access details.
Tucked deep in the hills, surrounded by oak trees and east of Santa Rosa, is one winery that is doing more than just being ADA compliant. At Lookout Ridge Winery in Kenwood, a case of wine provides a wheelchair to someone in need who cannot afford one — through their “Wine for Wheels” program. Public tastings, however, are set up by appointment only, or wine can be purchased online.
North of Santa Rosa on Highway 101 is the town of Healdsburg in Alexander Valley. Like Sonoma, downtown Healdsburg is a popular tourist spot to stroll, eat, shop, and sample wine. Most of the tasting rooms here are from the Russian River, Dry Creek and Alexander Valley regions — the best areas in one place. La Crema Winery has a tasting room with lowered tasting bar right across from the central square. Just outside downtown Healdsburg is the Simi Winery Tasting Room, nestled among redwood trees with outdoor seating, with another lowered tasting bar and an accessible restroom. At Unti Vineyards you can experience a tasty small production winery that focuses on Syrah, Sangiovese and Zinfandel varietals. The tasting room is simple with a paved parking spot, lowered tasting bar and accessible restrooms.
West on Highway 12 from Santa Rosa, off Highway 101, you will first reach the town of Sebastopol. The downtown area is not as posh as others already mentioned, but it has a bohemian charm. An area a couple of blocks from downtown, referred to as “The Barlow,” is a new popular hub for tourists and locals. Industrial buildings house artist workshops and galleries, like the Wolfard Glassblowing Co., coffee shops, restaurants, tasting rooms, and even a brewery.
Off Highway 116 from downtown Sebastopol are a few wineries that feature varietals from the Russian River region, like Lynmar Estate, Merry Edwards Winery, and Graton Ridge Cellars. Lynmar Estate is very picturesque with a large outdoor patio along with one accessible parking spot, lowered tasting bar inside and accessible restrooms.
Beyond the Wine Country
Sonoma County has more to offer than wine. You can take Highway 12 from Sebastopol to two wheelchair accessible hiking trails: the Joe Rodota Trail and the Laguna de Santa Rosa Trail. Both trails weave around wetlands surrounded by vineyards and oaks and are particularly wonderful for bird watching. The Joe Rodota Trail, which links Sebastopol to Santa Rosa, is paved for nearly nine miles, making it a great trail to handcycle. The Laguna de Santa Rosa Trail, just under two miles long, is packed dirt and crushed stone with a couple of gradual inclines. On either trail, you may see local wheeler Abigail Stockinger with her horse, as both trails accommodate equestrians. She loves coming to Sonoma County often to be immersed in the rich wildlife. Both trails are beautiful in the fall with the vineyards and surrounding trees changing colors.
From Sebastopol follow the Russian River west on 116 to Guerneville, where you can find another set of accessible trails at the Armstrong Woods State Park [see sidebar], or continue west on 12 to Bodega Bay. Either windy route gets you to the Pacific Ocean and the Pacific Coast Highway — one of the most beautiful drives in the world. All along the Pacific Coast Highway are lookout points to pull over and enjoy the view. There is low activity on the coast — it is a place to truly relax and just be.
“For a day trip,” says Stockinger, “I love to stop at one of the many cheese factories to pick up a handful of artisan cheeses, a bottle of wine and some local French bread and then head to the coast. There is nothing like watching the ocean, smelling the salty air and eating some of the best cheese in the world.” There are more than two dozen farms and creameries in Sonoma County — and growing; a map is available at cheesetrail.org. The goat cheese here is particularly popular and exported all over the world. Olive oils as well as gourmet sauces and spreads are also commonly produced in this area and can often be sampled and purchased in tasting rooms and grocery markets.
The Pacific brings nearly continuous ocean breezes with fog that burns out as the day evolves, then returns at night. In the fall, the fog creates a marine layer that keeps temperatures from dropping and becoming too cold. Bringing a heavier jacket to the coast is recommended, but again, dress in layers because on clear days, the sun can heat up the coast.
Highway 116 West from Sebastopol follows the Russian River, where large packs of sea lions and seabirds frequently gather at the river’s mouth with the colossal “Goat Rock” towering in the distance. This is the town of Jenner, and whether you go north on the Pacific Coast Highway to Sea Ranch or south to Bodega Bay, you will find all different kinds of places to stay with varying accessibility. Many accommodations have a gourmet restaurant on-site that emphasizes local ingredients, due to the remote location of the coast. Where you stay, in a way, becomes an attraction in itself.
For a little outdoor activity, just north of Jenner is the Vista Trail that takes you through a preserved meadow to an overlook off the rugged California coastline. The one- to two-mile trail is equipped with accessible parking, restroom (no sink), and picnic tables. Continuing north on the Pacific Coast Highway you’ll find Fort Ross, established in 1812, with a weathered asphalt trail that takes visitors around the property; the Visitor’s Center has an accessible bathroom.
Around Bodega Bay there are a few more outdoor trails and overlooks. The Bird Walk is a mile-long loop trail through a salt marsh; it connects to the Doran Marsh Trail in Doran Beach Regional Park. Manual chair users may find the connection too steep and prefer to drive to each trailhead, but other than that, the trails are firm and flat. You can see sweeping views of Doran Park Beach from the Bodega Head Trail along the nearly two-mile firmly-packed dirt path.
Whether wine tasting or exploring the coastal region, you’ll find that California’s Sonoma County is a wonderful place to visit this fall.
Getting Around Sonoma County
The International Oakland, San Francisco and Sacramento Airports are approximately the same distance to Sonoma County, depending on your specific destination. Once you get there, a vehicle is essential for exploring. Mobility Works in Oakland and Burlingame offers adapted vehicles for rent, and accessible taxis are available from the Oakland or San Francisco International Airports to get you to either Mobility Works location. For an organized tour of Sonoma County, including transportation, travelers should book with Tapooz Travel; prices vary based on the size of the tour group.
Other Attractions in Santa Rosa
An unexpected surprise in the Santa Rosa area is an accessible African safari with overnight accommodations. Located in the hills and surrounded by oak trees east from the airport off Highway 101, Safari West consists of 400 acres of land dedicated to animal conservation through education. About 700 animals (100 different species, some even considered extinct in the wild) call Safari West home. Even in the fall, the safari can reach warm temperatures during the day, but then drops 30 degrees or so when the sun goes down.
Day-trips or overnighters are accessible at Safari West. The two accessible tent-cabins have paved parking pads, wood floors and roll-in showers. Heaters and extra blankets are provided during the fall because of little insulation. Near the café and accessible restrooms are a number of animal exhibits, including monkeys, giraffes and cheetahs — the majority of these exhibits have a paved walkway.
The main attraction, of course, is the safari itself. The standard safari jeeps will not be suitable for all due to the challenges of getting in and then staying on the seat without a seatbelt during a bumpy ride. The alternative ADA option is a shortened tour in a modified paratransit vehicle with a lift and wheelchair tie-downs. A portion of the park is inaccessible to the paratransit vehicle, but most of the animals on property are still viewed on the tour. Reservations for both the tour and to stay overnight are required.
Also located in Santa Rosa is the Charles M. Schulz Museum, where you can view original artwork and more of the classic Peanuts comic strip created in 1950. Peanuts is one of the most successful comic strips of all times with highly successful television specials and Emmy Awards. Since the museum opened in 2002, accessibility is stellar, starting with accessible parking and automatic front doors. On Halloween, downtown Santa Rosa hosts the Peanuts Parade, accompanied by music and vendors.
Sample the colors of a California Coastal Redwood Forest at Armstrong Woods State Park off Highway 116 West on Armstrong Road. “I have visited Armstrong Woods many times, notes local explorer and power chair user Bonnie Lewkowicz, “and each time I am as delighted as if it were my first time.” On the way to the park Lewkowicz, who evaluates access for wheelingcalscoast.org, suggests stopping at Kozlowski Farms in Graton for a beautiful view of vineyards and an organic apple orchard, as well as an old-fashioned gourmet food market. Afterward, stop at the town of Guerneville on the way to the park for fuel and food if needed — consider having a picnic under the trees.
Avoid the entrance fee by parking at the Visitor’s Center and then strolling to the gates about 50 feet away. Within the park, accessible parking and also restrooms can be found at the day-use picnic area. Start at the Pioneer Trail, which turns into the Armstrong Nature Trail, where Parsons Tree — the tallest tree in the park — stands. The oldest tree, the Colonel Armstrong, can be viewed on the Discovery Trail. Both trails travel under the redwood’s lush canopy, covered by clovers, mushrooms and ferns. They are made with firmly packed dirt or granite rock and are often saturated with redwood debris. Even the paved service roads allow for a lovely view of the forest. “The grandeur of the redwoods,” Lewkowicz so beautifully describes, “create a sanctuary that lends to contemplating my place in the world and the important role I can play in making sure that other people can experience these giant beauties. It’s truly a magical place.”