An Outdoorsy Winter Vacation in California (with Kids)

Sometimes we should add a little spontaneity to life. Two weeks ago, with the holiday weekend ahead and knowing that it would be the last weekend of our winter break, I booked a vacation rental and off we went. The time to connect with nature and with each other was refreshing for all of us.

We planned an itinerary based on previous travels in that area and my Michelin Guide to California, which thankfully indicates kid-friendly attractions. Perhaps this recap of our winter trip in beautiful Sonoma and Marin Counties will inspire you to make a similar winter vacation in California…? Just in case, a list of recommended places is at the bottom of this post.

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Rural Sonoma County

The house we rented was right off Old Redwood Highway just outside the town of Petaluma in Sonoma County. It’s a rural area, and the view from our back deck included rolling hills, cows, farms, and golden light at sunset:

Outdoorsy Winter Vacation in CaliforniaThe drives in Sonoma County are some of my favorites in California. This eucalyptus-lined highway is typical of the area we stayed.

Outdoorsy Winter Vacation in California

We divided our first day between Petaluma and the Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Preserve.

Petaluma

Petaluma is a city of about 55,000 known for its its Victorian architecture and beer. The Visitors Center is housed in the 1914 train depot just 2 blocks from the downtown.

Outdoorsy Winter Vacation in California

The yellow train depot is now the Visitors Center; the pink building is the Petaluma Arts Center.

Next to the Visitors Center is the Petaluma Arts Center; with free entrance and an interesting sculpture exhibition, it was a nice surprise.

Outdoorsy Winter Vacation in CaliforniaDespite its location in one of California’s finest wine regions, Petaluma is famous for its craft beers. Although we didn’t make it to to the most famous Petaluma brewery, Lagunitas, we had lunch at Dempsey’s brewery. It’s the oldest brewery in Sonoma County, right on the river that winds through the downtown. We loved the outdoor patio, kid-friendly placemats, and fresh California-style food. Plus, the 7-beer tasting flight introduced us to their beers, and all their ales were fantastic.

Outdoorsy Winter Vacation in California

Great beers in 3-ounce tastings and games for kids at Dempseys’

Outdoorsy Winter Vacation in California

An old bridge crosses the river and leads to blocks of historic architecture in downtown Petaluma

Outdoorsy Winter Vacation in Northern California

Architectural details in downtown Petaluma

Armstrong Redwoods, west of Healdsburg, Sonoma County

That afternoon we drove one hour north to Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Preserve, a forest of ancient redwoods that was saved during 19th century logging. This was my kids’ favorite part of the trip–they loved walking the winding paths under the towering redwoods and running in and out of the massive holes in the trees.

Outdoorsy Winter Vacation in Northern California

The forest is cold and dark, so even though the day was sunny and warm, the forest had a very different feel. The light also made it hard to photograph.

Outdoorsy Winter Vacation in Northern California

Outdoorsy Winter Vacation in Northern California

Point Reyes National Seashore and Point Reyes Station

The next day was dedicated to Point Reyes National Seashore. This is one of my favorite places in California–it’s a peninsula of rolling hills and dramatic cliffs where mid-19th century ranches mix with raw nature. It’s one of the best places to see wildlife in the state.

Point Reyes National Seashore

In the winter and spring, elephant seals come to Point Reyes to have babies. We came that day to see both the elephant seals and migrating whales, but, as I’ll explain, we saw no whales.

By the way, the drive through Marin County to Point Reyes is gorgeous.

Outdoorsy Winter Vacation in CaliforniaOnce we arrived, we went straight to the Bear Valley Visitors Center to get information about the whales and seals. We walked the Earthquake Trail, one of many easy walking trails near the entrance to the park.

Outdoorsy Winter Vacation in California

Bear Valley Visitors Center, Point Reyes National Seashore

Outdoorsy Winter Vacation in California

The Earthquake Trail, named for its position on the San Andreas fault and for evidence from previous earthquakes

We went back to the small town of Point Reyes Station to have lunch and found Cafe Reyes, the perfect lunch stop–great food, kid-friendly, free cookies for dessert, and a beautiful view of the hills from the outdoor patio.

Cafe Reyes

Delicious salad and wood fired margherita pizza at Cafe Reyes

We then drove to Drake’s Beach on the south side of Point Reyes National Seashore, where the cliffs form a long, arching beach and protect it from the area’s strong winds.

Outdoorsy Winter Vacation in California

In the winter and spring, the park restricts traffic to the whale and seal viewing areas, and visitors are required to park at Drake’s Beach at take the shuttle. The line for the shuttle was long (it was a Saturday on a holiday weekend during the peak whale viewing week, after all), so we decided to walk the beach and hope the line would get shorter.

The beach was so wonderful that we ended up skipping the shuttle all together. We may have missed out on seeing migrating whales and groups of elephant seals, but there was one lonely seal at Drake’s Beach taking a long nap in the sun. We kept a safe distance but didn’t stop watching it, such a beautiful creature participating in an old ritual that bring them to this very place every year.

Elephant Seals in California

After a blissful afternoon at the ocean, we returned to Point Reyes Station to visit the toy store and get coffee and then made our way on the quiet roads back to our rental.

Outdoorsy Winter Vacation in California

Sonoma

The next day we left our vacation rental and stopped in the historic town of Sonoma. The laid-back feeling of the town’s park, with old trains, people strolling the bike path, and elderly couples playing bocce ball, reminded me of the many reasons I want to move to Sonoma County.

Outdoorsy Winter Vacation in Northern California

Part of the Sonoma Historic State Park with old train cars for the kids to enjoy

Outdoorsy Winter Vacation in Northern California

Eucalyptus trees line the public bocce ball courts in Sonoma

To me, these places are California at its best. We loved our time in Sonoma County and Point Reyes so much that the possibility of trying to buy a small vacation home there in the future even came up. With another holiday weekend approaching, I’ve already been looking for accommodations for a return visit, this time with whale spotting at the top of the list!

Have you considered taking a winter vacation in Northern California? What would you like to know about Sonoma County and Point Reyes National Seashore?

A list of my recommendations:

Vacation rental in rural Sonoma County

Dempsey’s brewery in Petaluma

Oliver’s Market in Cotati

Petaluma Visitors CenterPetaluma Arts Center, and downtown walking tour

Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve

Cafe Reyes on Highway 1 in Point Reyes Station

Bear Valley Visitors Center in Point Reyes National Seashore

Drake’s Beach in Point Reyes National Seashore (plus its Visitors Center and cafe)

Sonoma State Historic Park in Sonoma

More about Sonoma County in these posts:

Camping in Northern California, A Storyteller and a Sustainable Winery, a favorite restaurant in Geyserville

This post was a compensated post as part of partnership with Michelin Guides.

8 Comments

  • These are my favorite spots in Northern CA. Although I frequent them regularly, your post made me want to go back. And I don’t have to tell you to add Lagunitas next time (although expect some chaos. Fun chaos, but still). For meat eaters, I also recommend Marin Sun Farms in Point Reyes Station. Outdoor garden area w/ hay bales seats and Point Reyes backdrop captures the area well (as does Cafe Reyes!). And all of these areas are especially endearing during fall when pumpkin patches flourish.

    What I’ve recently discovered is great outdoor outing for our 4 year-old little guy: Earning a Junior Ranger badge at 3 GGNRA/local parks: Muir Woods (also freezing on winter mornings), The Marin Headlands and Alcatraz. Kids get an activity book to complete as they explore the park. And like all activities meant to inform children, parents end up learning cool new stuff as well. It’s a great way to engage what otherwise might get tiresome for little ones. At the end, the budding rangers are rewarded with a Junior Ranger badge (a wooden version of the real thing) and other items that may include a tattoo, badge, or certificate (parks differ). They even swear you in at Muir Woods. We’re up to 2, just have to hit Alcatraz next.

    Garrick
    Garrick Ramirez recently posted..Why Ojai? 7 ReasonsMy Profile

    • Jenna says:

      Great tips! Thank you so much for the information! And I can’t blame you for considering these your favorite spots in N. Cal. They are wonderful indeed.

  • Andi says:

    How much fun!!!!

  • rebecca says:

    these photos are great! oh how much I want to go to the states!!!
    rebecca recently posted..Chapter 79 – A valentines special – Dating A Travel GirlMy Profile

  • Charu says:

    Yet another reason for us to move to CA! What beautiful photos…i’m staring at gloomy skies and a half inch of snow everywhere
    Charu recently posted..North Carolina through InstagramMy Profile

    • Jenna says:

      Today was gloomy here, too, but the weather here in January-March can be very nice. Lots of sun.

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