For many visitors to California Wine Country, the notion of extreme vacationing might revolve around how many Napa and Sonoma wineries you can cram into one afternoon, or how many Michelin-starred restaurants you can visit before your stomach revolts.
Across the region, these tours include everything from ziplining through redwoods and paddling through a river estuary to organic farm bike tours, vineyard hikes, and more. The experiences serve up a totally different perspective on a region known most for its luxury. I live in the area and have tried all of them. Here, in no particular order, are my faves.
Zipping through history
Redwood trees are everywhere in Northern California. Most visitors to Napa and Sonoma only see them from a distance, lining the hills that flank either side of Highway 101. The Sonoma Canopy Tours zipline excursion, near Occidental (in Sonoma County), enables visitors to get up-close and personal with the majestic trees, zooming through a dense canopy of the West County hills.
There are seven lines in all—the longest of which requires zippers to scrunch up into a cannonball to gather enough momentum to make it across. The tour also includes a giant spiral staircase that wraps around the trunk of a tree, two suspension bridges and a rappel at the end to get back to ground-level.
Of course the experience also includes a hearty dose of local knowledge. As my group of seven (five grown-ups, two kids) congregated on the platforms of each tree, our guides regaled us with information about the local ecosystem, area wildlife, and the trees themselves (most of which were more than 100 years old).
Excitement and knowledge to boot—not many places in Wine Country you can manage that pairing.
Rolling on the river
The Russian River is the lifeblood of Sonoma County, irrigating most of the soil in the western half (and creating a valley that is world-renowned for its Pinot noir). It also happens to be one of the best rivers to explore by kayak.
The best area to paddle is in Jenner, where the river meets the Pacific Ocean. Here, WaterTreks EcoTours runs half- and full-day guided tours that are easy enough for just about all ages.
Most of these excursions begin from the dock behind Café Aquatica, the lone coffee shop in Jenner. After a brief orientation, guides lead paddlers across the river to Penny Island, a low-lying landmass in where Native-Americans (including ancestors of the outfitter’s owner, Suki Waters) farmed and raised cows for centuries. Groups get out of the boats for a short hike on the island.
From there, the tour stops again at the breathtaking Goat Rock Beach (which is part of the Sonoma Coast State Park), where groups get out of the boats again for lessons in erosion, tides and animal tracking.
The excursion concludes with a brief paddle over to a sandbar near the river’s mouth—site of one of the largest natural harbor seal rookeries in the state. On a recent excursion, I marveled from my kayak at the sight of dozens of seal pups and their mommas, frolicking in the surf. It turned out the seals were as interested in me as I was in them; a phalanx of the Pinnipeds followed our group halfway back to shore.
Viewfinder Tip: Book early for your Wine Country adventures. Especially on weekends, many eco-tours sellout well in advance.
Healdsburg (the Sonoma County city in which I live) has a preponderance of organic farms. The best way to experience them: the Organic Farms Bike Tour from Wine Country Bikes.
This tour, led by local (organic, natch) farmer Taylor Lampson, leads visitors from the bike shop in the southeast corner of town out into Dry Creek Valley, stopping at three or four organic farms along the way. Each of these stops includes a tasting and insider information from Lampson about the way the farmers work their land. At least one of the stops also includes a picnic lunch—the cost of which is included in the fee for the trip.
(In case you’re wondering, it *is* possible to bicycle while slightly inebriated.)
I took the tour early in the season, and Lampson stopped numerous times in between wineries to tell my group about how farmers care for vines through the winter and spring. At one point, we also stopped to watch the rushing water in the Dry Creek and look for spawning salmon (we didn’t see any).
Perhaps my favorite part of the tour was our visit at Truett-Hurst Winery, where, between swigs of Zinfandel, Lampson broke out an album with pictures of his organic farm—and his family working on it. The personal connection meant a lot to me; not only was this guy an expert in organic farming, but, clearly, he and his family were living it every day.
Hiking the hills
There are other eco-tours around Napa and Sonoma, and most of them involve hiking of some sort. At Kunde Family Estate, in the Sonoma Valley, visitors can sign up for a number of different vineyard hikes. One of these tromps includes lunch; another is dog-friendly. And in Napa, the Land Trust of Napa County hosts a number of guided hikes throughout each year; with views of the entire Napa Valley, the journeys through the organization’s Dunn-Wildlake Ranch Preserve are, without question, the best of the bunch.
What kind of adventures do you seek when you travel?