SONOMA COUNTY, Ca. – It isn’t a vacation unless you do something epic. I think my recent bike trip to northern California qualifies.
During a week of bicycle touring in Sonoma and Napa Counties in Northern California, one day stood out. Over the course of about 50 miles, I checked off two bucket list items and added one I didn’t even know I wanted.
There’s riding a bicycle, and then there’s riding amongst some of the world’s most beautiful and iconic scenery. This ride began from Bodega Bay, Ca. on the Pacific Ocean.
The first ten miles would be on California Highway One, which parallels the coast for 650 miles. It was thrilling to ride bikes along ten miles of the highway, with the blue ocean off to our left.
As we cycled, the high bluffs and rocky shoreline kept producing postcard-like scenery, forcing us to take our guide’s advice to stop for photos.
We toured with about 25 people from all over the U.S. and Canada, with a company called Backroads, which provided the bikes, gave us daily routes and support, made hotel reservations, and planned most of the meals. All we had to do was ride.
“It’s breathtaking. It’s absolutely spectacular. I’ve never been to the west coast to see this view of the Pacific. And it’s fabulous. There’s no comparison because you really take in the sounds and the scenery on a bike,” said Lucy Stephens of Charlotte, NC, a member of our group.
It would have been nice to stay on the coast longer, but that was not part of the plan.
So be it. Those ten miles crossed an item off that bucket list.
Ride Highway One. Check.
Riding to the Col. James Armstrong Redwood Reserve.
There was a good reason to turn off Highway One.
We would point our bikes inland along the beautiful Russian River on our way to lunch in an 805-acre park where the coastal redwood trees – the tallest trees on earth, are protected in a state reserve.
But first, coffee.
Thirteen miles into the day’s riding we pulled over in Duncans Mills, population 85, at a place called Gold Coast Coffee and Pastries.
The guides provided pastries, while we bought our own brew.
“It’s a great spot. They’ve got wonderful baked goods on top of coffee that they roast themselves,” explained Justin Helmkamp, one of the ride leaders.
“Next stop today… We’ve got about 10.7 miles and we are headed to our lunch location which is going to be in Armstrong Preserve which is a state preserve area that has some of the biggest trees on the planet,” Helmkamp said.
We started seeing a smattering of redwood trees almost immediately after our stop. About an hour from the reserve itself, we rode along on a small strip of asphalt called Moscow Road.
The trees towered above us, dwarfing the cottages and cabins that dotted the landscape and had me thinking about finding an Airbnb sometime in the future. It was magical, and yes, we stopped for pictures.
Soon we rode into the small town of Guerneville, turned north, and arrived at the Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve.
The redwoods covered most of the region at one point, but 95 percent were cut down during the California gold rush.
Here 805 acres are preserved forever, donated in the 1870′s by Colonel James Armstrong, who ironically was a lumberman.
Another of our ride leaders, Jason Stawiski stood on a picnic table and told us about the trees.
“This is the tallest living species on earth which is 300 feet. They can live to be 2,500 years old, or even older,” Stawiski said.
“We are looking at like 12–16-foot diameters with these trees. And the cool thing is their root system, it only goes six feet deep. That’s why you had all those bumps biking in – They will go 100-plus feet out. And all these roots will connect with all their sister and brother trees here, and they can actually pass nutrients, they can pass water and they can help each other survive. So, this is the tallest living species on earth,” he said.
The oldest tree, Col. James Armstrong, named after the reserve’s benefactor, was a sapling when Europe was in the Middle Ages.
“As of last time it was measured – which was over 50 years ago, it was 308 feet and 1,400 years old. So it’s a substantial tree,” explained Ron Rahari, a park docent.
Three hundred and eight feet. A tree — taller than a football field is long.
Riding through the Redwood Forest, cycling among these giants is humbling. It creates a certain feeling of insignificance.
These trees have lived perhaps 20 human lifetimes.
As you ride, and the sunlight strains to reach the forest floor, respect competes with awe - and the feeling you are just lucky to be there, on a bicycle not just seeing the forest, but experiencing it.
Check another item off that bucket list.
Wine tasting our way to Healdsburg
We had ridden from the coast to the forest, and yet more was to come on this bike ride.
With the redwoods towering behind us, the scenery gave way to acres and acres of grapes.
Our ultimate destination was our hotel in the town of Healdsburg.
But first, wine.
What would a bike tour in Sonoma County be without a stop at a vineyard or two since the county boasts 425 of them?
Over the next 20 miles, we stopped at two tasting rooms. The first, Gracianna is a small family-owned vineyard whose micro-climate lends itself to the growing of pinot noir grapes.
A few miles down the road, and acres of vineyards later, we parked our bikes at Twomey, a tasting room with a modern design featuring winding, wraparound patios, and views of the surrounding mountains.
From there, it was a short, two-mile ride to the hotel, where there was time to contemplate all you could see in a single bike ride.