A planning guide to a paved, gravel and singletrack paradise 

Words and photos by Cody Siler

Less than two hours from San Francisco, Sonoma County’s riding is world-class. Routes range from rocky dirt roads and singletrack to deserted stretches of swooping asphalt that feature soaring sea views, misty stands of redwoods and miles with barely a car in sight. Names like King Ridge and Fort Ross appear regularly on lists of the world’s best cycling routes, not to mention the incredible off-road riding that hides inland or the gorgeous stretch of coastal Highway 1 that runs from Gualala to Bodega Bay.

The riding in Sonoma isn’t easy. The county’s coastal hills are steep, and even the paved roads tend to be rough and remote. They’re often tackled by racers at iconic events like Levi’s Gran Fondo or the Grasshopper Adventure Series. But if you’re not in a hurry, there’s plenty of opportunity to enjoy a multi-day bikepacking trip in Sonoma. Hidden and not-so-hidden campgrounds abound, along with opportunities for swimming, quirky towns where you can resupply and quiet dirt roads that connect in surprising ways. If you want to enjoy the back roads of Sonoma County at a slower pace, read on to discover some tips to help you make the most of your adventure.

Camping in Gualala & Jenner

Unless you’re going for distance, it’s best to plan around your overnight stops. Sonoma county abounds with campsites both public and private, but two of the best for bikepackers are conveniently located just outside of Jenner and Gualala, both towns where you can pick up a few beers and some snacks to carry to camp. Just across the river from the town, you’ll find the Gualala Point Regional Park Campground, which has a hiker-biker site, hot (coin-operated) showers and even wi-fi at the bathrooms. This is a popular stop, and since it’s just off Highway 1, you might run into bike tourists who are riding the whole coast or a big section of it.

Slightly more off the beaten path is the Willow Creek Environmental Campground, tucked away across the river from Jenner. This one doesn’t feature a hiker-biker site, though you’re unlikely to have trouble snagging a spot when rolling up late on the bike, nor does it have showers. It makes up for it, though, with an amazing beach that’s perfect for taking an evening or morning dip in the Russian River when the weather’s warm. Watch out for skunks.

Stay Hydrated & Fend Off Hunger

North of the Russian River, potable water is scarce, especially if you’re riding off the beaten path. Luckily there are a few tucked-away places that offer water and snacks for bicycle travelers. The Ratna Ling Retreat Center on Hauser Bridge Road, a steep connector between two Sonoma classics, King Ridge and Seaview, usually sets out a water tower near the gate that cyclists can use. Similarly, if you’re lucky (and passing by in the summer), the Starcross Monastic Community on Annapolis Road sometimes opens up an honor-system store across the street where they sell homemade pickles and other snacks alongside a jug to refill your water.

If you’re not carrying your dinner, you’ll want to figure out your plans ahead of time depending on where you’re camping. Plenty of bike travelers have eaten dinner from the Sea Store, the quirky gas station in Jenner, but unless you really want a microwave bagel dog or mac n’ cheese with canned tuna, you’re better off going elsewhere. Luckily, the grocery down the road in Duncans Mills features delicious sandwiches and a full range of produce, hummus and a variety of delicious snacks for eating on the bike or at the campground. In the mornings, the café across the street also has delicious pastries and coffee, though the line can be long.

Another place worth a visit is Russian House #1. There are plenty of oddball establishments worth a visit in Sonoma County, but this Russian lunch spot might be the best—and the most eccentric. This restaurant, founded in 2015, harkens back to the area’s fascinating past of Russian settlement, also displayed in nearby Fort Ross. But it merges that history with the new-agey vibes of west county Sonoma by encouraging diners to “pay from your wisdom” and advertising local classes ranging from cosmology to breath work. Stop in for a borscht, a cabbage salad and an astrology reading before rolling on your merry way.

Route Planning

If you’re trying to stick to flat-ish riding for at least some of your trip, following the Russian River can be a great choice. It’s a beautiful area with lots of personality and plenty of towns where you can cool off, resupply and have a drink. But River Road, the main artery connecting Jenner to Guerneville to the 101 corridor, is busy and inconsistently bike-laned. One good car-free alternative is Moscow Road, a washed-out parallel route on the south side of the river between Duncans Mills and Monte Rio. Another slightly more challenging (and more thrilling) alternative is Old Monte Rio Road, which climbs up a hundred or so feet above River Road’s northern side and eventually crumbles into a sidewalk-width path before depositing you in Guerneville.

For those of us who live in the Bay Area, Santa Cruz or further south, an under-appreciated resource is the SMART train, which begins at the Larkspur ferry terminal (where the ferry connects to the city) and ends in Windsor. It runs Monday through Saturday and has a place in each car to hang your bike. From the northernmost station in Windsor, it’s an easy connection to River Road, Sweetwater Springs Road or West Dry Creek Road. And most importantly, as my friend Matt would say, taking a train to the start of your bike tour feels like being in France.

Once you get north of the Russian River in Sonoma, it can seem like every road offers world-class riding—albeit with plenty of elevation gain. Famous gravel routes like Old Cazadero Road and Willow Creek are featured in races and epic group rides every year and will doubtless scratch your itch for adventure. Otherwise, there’s nothing wrong with sticking to Highway 1, which offers endless sea views and relatively gentle grades. But if you really want to get off the beaten path, you’ll have to do your own research. There are a number of semi-private fire roads avoided by the big group rides but still worth exploring. Heat maps are your friend, and good luck!

Read more bikepacking adventures here