Take the Perfect Scenic Drive on Sonoma’s Bohemian Highway
A 10-mile stretch of winding pavement openly mocks Gelette Burgess who wrote “there are no roads in all Bohemia!” The San Francisco author did rather hit the nail on the head with “one must choose and find one’s own path, be one’s own self, live one’s own life,” and so it’s deep in the heart of the Russian River Valley that we’ll find the truth of the unbothered, adventurous life chosen by many an artist, writer, and winemaker.
The Bohemian Highway in Sonoma’s Russian River Valley calls to those who seek release from convention. It has called to writers, journalists, and artists in San Francisco across the years. The winding stretch of highway weaves through redwoods and across the Russian River itself from Freestone through Occidental to Monte Rio. It’s a glorious reprieve from the everyday, just 20 minutes from the Sonoma Coast and the sort of meandering slow roll trip that takes you further than the distance you drive.
The history here is deep, almost as deep as the woods. It was one of the first settled spots in the region thanks to the timber industry, and over the years the cloistered, remote reaches which kept both the marine fog and the inland heat away beckoned to a soulful community with an artistic lilt and love of the natural surrounds.
The History of the Bohemian Highway
Driving north from San Francisco, it takes about 90 minutes to arrive in the heart of Sonoma’s Russian River Valley. The river itself is a natural marvel, struggling up and east along the edge of the mountains along the Pacific Ocean. But we’ll wax being philosophical about geology and topography another day.
For today’s adventure, it’s the forest we’re looking at, specifically the lumber industry. In the 1870s the timber industry took off, railways developed to transport the lumber, towns to support the industry, and then…quiet. Through the Great Depression and into the 1970s, the Russian River Valley was a quiet hamlet and inexpensive retreat for San Franciscans looking for a reprieve from city life. In the 1970s, the river along which timber had once flowed now boasted river resorts. Among the river and redwoods, a natural splendor enchanted visitors then, much as it does now.
From the 1800s through the 1960s, the wine industry in the Russian River Valley started and sputtered through the Phylloxera epidemic which killed off vines by the acre, Prohibition, and the Great Depression. However, in the era of bell bottoms, artistic freedom, and creative living the Russian River Valley became hearth and home to brilliant winegrowers who revived the region by planting Chardonnay and Pinot Noir…bringing forth some gloriously good wine to go with all that natural splendor.
Where Does the Bohemian Name Come From?
The Bohemian Highway is a secret even in the wilds of the RRV (Russian River Valley shorthand). The moniker is courtesy of the Bohemian Club of San Francisco, a chapter of a national association of artists and writers who sought refuge in the less travelled paths of life. While a loose association to Bohemia exists, it’s a far more ephemeral than this particular writer is willing tackle.
In any case, the 10 mile stretch of what can loosely be considered highway we know as the Bohemian Highway runs for 10 glorious miles of wine, food, scenery, and experience that make it well worth the time for those determined to get off the beaten path and commune with their inner artist.
The Ideal Bohemian Highway Route
Plaid shirt? Check. Favorite sandals? Check. Artistic flair and a love of adventure? Double check. Bonus points if you still have a camera that takes film, but it’s not required. Let’s go, south to north, here’s what you can expect!
Between day spas and some of the best baked goods you’ll find (Wild Flour Bread Bakery among others) and Freestone Artisan Cheese, this is the perfect start to any day. The town was Sonoma County’s original historic district and sits on the southern end of the Bohemian Highway. Unwind among the art galleries, the majestic redwoods, and swing into the Joseph Phelps Freestone Vineyards Guest Center. You’ll find sustainably-farmed wines which perfectly frame the rest of your adventure.
This delightful town was the last stop along the Pacific Coast Railroad. Lunch time along the 2 blocks of downtown Occidental is about as bucolic as life gets. Union Hotel and Restaurant opened is doors as a railroad saloon in 1879 and is now an Italian culinary haven. If you’re roaming through in Summer or early Autumn, you can enjoy the Friday farmer’s market after checking in at Charles Heintz Vineyards or Boheme Cellar.
Continuing onto Monte Rio is a treat in and of itself. Swaying through this patch of wonderland where the redwoods hit an aria and Burgess’ command that you “live one’s own life” feels most at hand. Between charming inns and one of the Russian River’s largest public beaches, the world is your playground. You’ll even find a neon sign ushering you in with the words “Welcome to Monte Rio Vacation Wonderland.” Porter Bass Winery, INIZI Wines, Rio Crest, Pebble Ridge Vineyards, and Korbel are all nearby. CuttyMuggs Coffee offers more than coffee, it boasts immediate access to a poured cement skate park. And you’ll find no shortage of breweries and picnic spots.