Sonoma, California—one of my favorite small towns—is just one hour northeast of San Francisco. Located in the wine country, near its famous neighbor, Napa, low-key Sonoma is a popular destination for wine aficionados and city folks looking for a weekend get away.
Unlike many cities in the U.S., Sonoma has a piazza, or what we call “The Plaza”, due to our Spanish roots. It’s fun to explore the small shops, tasting rooms and restaurants that surround the square. But when the sun’s out, head for the park with your picnic lunch and a bottle of wine (which is legal to consume openly here in the wine country). If you happen to visit on a Tuesday, there’s a great Farmers’ Market in the early evening. Many weekends, the Plaza hosts a variety of special events, such as the Plein Air Festival and wine tastings. This is also where you’ll find the Visitor’s Center with much more information about the area.
But with so many perfect, sunshiny days during the year, it’s great that Sonoma now has several walking trails to explore. The newest trail, Montini Ranch Trail is a great addition to the town’s trails that meander along the eastern side of the town, just a few blocks from the plaza.
This one is fairly new, so you may not find an updated map online. However, at the two trailheads there are detailed maps of the area. And the trails don’t go that far—so it’s fairly impossible to get lost.
The Montini trail is part of the 98 acre Montini Open Space Preserve, which was established in 2005. The land is adjacent to General Vallejo’s property (now a State Park) and was used for grazing his various herds of cattle. It belonged to his heirs until the mid 1930’s when it was purchased by the Montini Family, who also raised cattle and lived on the ranch. Now, as part of the Sonoma County Open Space District, the old barn and green pastures will continue to enhance the bucolic scenery of Sonoma.
To begin your hike you can choose from two options. I like to start at the entrance on Fourth Street West. From the plaza, walk east on First Street West and look for the Bike Path.
Turn left onto the bike path and you’ll have a pleasant walk past the city’s baseball parks and the old Vallejo State Park. If you have time, stop by for a visit to learn about some early California history. The park rangers will share great stories of the early days at the ranch and it’s worth it to explore the restored buildings and grounds.
If you keep walking on the bike path, you will reach Fourth Street West. Turn right and look for the trailhead sign with an excellent map of the options for a hike. This trail entrance is closest to the ranch and pasture where the cows like to graze. The trail winds up gently on a path surrounded by rock outcrops and stately oak trees. It heads east and south towards several different loops that are well marked.
I like to climb up high to get some views of the valley. On a clear day you can see almost as far as San Francisco—if you get up high enough. None of the loops are very long. They range from a short .7 mile walk to just a few miles.
However, any trail you take will meander through the oaks that offer a pleasant amount of shade, and there are several spots where you can rest and enjoy your peaceful surroundings. Amid much controversy, there are no dogs allowed on the trail, so watch out for some wildlife. This area has had sitings of cougars, but it’s rare to see one. The weather is often warm in Sonoma, so be sure to take some water with you. When you get to the top, there are a few places to sit and enjoy the view.
For those who like a longer hike, it’s easy to connect to the Overlook Trail nearby.
This trail climbs up into the hills with more great views of the valley and beyond. The trail is out in the open more, so be sure to take your sunscreen. There are a few loops to this trail as well, but the options are well-marked. Once you reach the highest point, you must turn around and retrace your steps back down to the beginning.
However, on your return, you can take a fun detour through the old cemetery with beautiful tombstones and elaborate memorials. The Cemetery Walk is not as well marked, but just keep heading down the hill. You’ll arrive at the Memorial Park and the Veteran’s Building, which are located on First Street East. It’s not hard to find the main plaza from there.
When you finish your hike, you’re only a few blocks from the plaza, where you can find plenty of choices for refreshments. The Sunflower Cafe on Second Street West may look crowded, but it has a fun garden in the back with plenty of tables. But my favorite spot—The Red Grape—is a few blocks further (walk 2 blocks down the same street and cross E. Napa). It’s the locals’ favorite for flatbread pizza, pasta and great salads. Tell Sam I sent you.
When visiting the wine country it’s nice to know there are some outdoor activities to offset the tempting food and wine. Walk a few blocks off the plaza and you’ll see where the locals hang out to enjoy the natural beauty of their valley. And with the Montini Ranch Trail, there’s another great choice for how to spend your time on a sunny day in this hidden jewel of California. NOTE: Most of these photos were taken in December, 2014!