You don’t have to be old enough to drink to enjoy the offerings of California’s picturesque wine country. With easy-access nature and a vast array of enticing activities, Napa and Sonoma valleys can be fun for children too, whether they’re toddlers or teens. From hiking under towering redwoods to ice skating at Snoopy’s favorite rink and even an overnight African-style safari, kid-friendly activities abound at every price point, even if you’re just a kid at heart.Read More
The 15 best things to do in wine country with kids
Where to take your wee ones in Napa and Sonoma
1. Catch a whopper at Smith’s Mount St. Helena Trout Farm
In business since 1936, Smith’s Mount St. Helena Trout Farm is a family-run operation that offers a day of old-fashioned fun. The property boasts several picnic areas and a pretty pond that’s well-stocked with trout. (The drive is up a scenic but twisting seven-mile dirt road.) When you arrive, the owners will have bait and poles at the ready; it’s not a catch-and-release pond, so you buy what you catch. The owners will clean the fish for you, and you can grill it on site.
Bring additional picnic side dishes and supplies, because there’s no other food for sale, and if you want to take your trophies home, bring a cooler with ice. (Cash or check only—no credit cards.)
2. Explore a medieval castle winery
Calistoga, CA 94515
If your kids are fans of Harry Potter’s alma mater, Hogwarts, they’ll also enjoy the real-life corridors of the medieval castle-winery Castello di Amorosa. Perched on a hilltop near Calistoga, the 21,000-square-foot Castello is built in the style of an authentic medieval castle with a moat, drawbridge, towers, ramparts, courtyards and loggias, a chapel, stables, an armory, and a torture chamber. Families are free to explore the castle corridors and rooms, which were conceived by Dario Sattui, a fourth-generation vintner and the owner of the Napa Valley landmark V. Sattui winery.
Sattui built the Castello over a 15-year period, with its artisans using materials and techniques from centuries ago, such almost 1 million antique bricks imported from Europe and 8,000 tons of hand-chiseled local stone. (Admission is $30 for adults and $20 for kids ages 5 to 20.)
3. Spend the night on safari
Known as the Sonoma Serengeti, the 400-acre Safari West animal preserve houses approximately 900 animals from more than 90 unique species, including wildebeest, rhinos, giraffes, and zebras. The preserve was founded in 1993 and has been devoted to the breeding and conservation of critically endangered species. A journey through the park means getting a close look at these majestic beasts, some of which are almost impossible to find in the wild today. Your three-hour safari means riding in an open-air vehicle and then exploring the expansive aviary. The extra adventurous can extend their stay overnight in African-made tents, which house up to six occupants. Each tent sits atop a high wooden platform with private decks providing panoramic views of the property. (Check website for availability and pricing.)
4. Stroll under the redwoods at Armstrong Woods
The towering, age-old redwoods at Armstrong Woods promise to blow minds of all ages. The Pioneer Nature Trail, a 2.3-mile loop, is the easiest walk from the park entrance, meandering through giant trees that date back centuries. The trail passes the Parson Jones Tree, the tallest tree in the grove (310 feet), which is estimated to be more than 1,300 years old. It’s flat, beautiful, and great for young ones: There’s no elevation gain, so strollers work, too. Armstrong Woods may be less crowded than Muir Woods, but still, get there early. The parking lot is small.
5. Take an art class at Nimbus Arts
Hands-on learning and fun are the goals of this well-loved community arts organization based in St. Helena in Napa Valley. Nimbus has recently expanded and updated its studio and offers a variety of classes and camps for kids.
Options include Toddler Ro-Sham-Bo, a Saturday-morning studio drop-in where little ones make a happy mess with color and paint (ages 2 to 5; $15/class or a five-class pass for $60). There’s also a Saturday U-Paint Pottery for kids (August 24; $10 and up depending on supplies) and an ongoing Wednesday-night teen and adult clay pottery open studio ($30 drop-in).
6. Float down the Russian River from Steelhead to Sunset Beach
For a long, lazy afternoon, tube on down this majestic stretch of the Russian River from Steelhead to Sunset Beach. Bring your own tubes, a wet bag, and a floating cooler. There are numerous beaches to stop and explore, as well as tons of fellow floaters enjoying the day. Since the river runs slowly, there are some things to keep in mind—start early (later in the day, the wind picks up and can push you upstream) and bring two cars so you don’t have to hike back to Steelhead with all your gear.
Come with lots of water, snacks, rope to tie your group together, sun protection (hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, etc.), and cash for parking ($7 per vehicle). You can bring your blow-up unicorn pool floatie for added fun, but make sure you have sturdier tubes at the ready, too.
7. Play to learn at the Children’s Museum of Sonoma County
The super-fun Children’s Museum of Sonoma County, targeted to kids 10 and under, provides a place where children can learn about science and nature in a hands-on way. Highlights include the outdoor garden, where an exhibit on the Russian River Watershed lets children catch and release toy salmon in a gently cascading man-made creek bed.
Other immersive play includes steel water tables where kids can twist and turn gauges to experiment with water pressure, dams, wave power, and flood plains. Indoors, there are exhibits involving everything from X-rays and dentistry to the life cycle of bees. A variety of public programming throughout the year enriches the museum’s offerings. (Adults and children: $12.)
8. Go ice skating with Snoopy
It’s no secret that Charles Schultz, the creator of Snoopy the cartoon beagle (and the Peanuts comic strips that made the dog famous), had a passion for ice skating. A long-time Santa Rosa resident, Schultz grew up in Minnesota and featured ice skating and ice hockey in many Peanuts strips. Schultz later owned and built the Redwood Empire Ice Rink, known as Snoopy’s Home Ice, which opened in 1969. Still going strong, Snoopy’s Home Ice has a variety of learning-to-skate options for children as young as 18 months and up through adulthood.
Worth a visit in any season, Snoopy’s Home Ice is also down the street from the Charles Schultz museum, which features interactive exhibits about the life of the canine superstar and his creator. (Adults $12; kids ages 4 to 18 $5.)
9. Celebrate apple season in Sebastopol
Before there was wine in Sonoma County, there were apples. Much of the canning and bottling happened in the Sebastopol area, which continues to celebrate this heritage with the annual Gravenstein Apple Fair. This two-day affair has activities for kids and families including crafts, games, and live music. Why not learn how to juggle apples, or try your hand at pie baking or racing in a potato sack? And who would want to miss the Ugly Produce Beauty Pageant? This year the festival runs August 17 to 18. (Adults $15; Children ages 6 to 12 $10.)
If you can’t make the festival, Sebastopol farms typically offer apple picking from September to mid-November, depending on the harvest. Gabriel Farm and Apple A Day/Ratzlaff Ranch are two local farms that have fun you-pick options. (Check its website for harvest updates and pricing.)
10. Taste the flavors at Screaming Mimi’s Ice Cream
This long-time Sebastopol ice cream shop with a down-to-earth feel is a favorite with kids (and parents too). Everything is fresh and homemade, including the hot fudge, caramel sauce, whipped cream, waffle cones, ice cream, and sorbet. Fun flavors include the popular Mimi’s Mud (cookies, chocolate, homemade fudge, and espresso) and Galaxy, made with “as many chocolate chips as there are stars in the sky” according to Mimi’s.
11. Fly a kite at Doran Beach
South-facing Doran Beach is one of the few Northern California beaches with waves that are usually calm enough for children. This two-mile-wide stretch of sand also offers opportunities for games, picnicking, bird-watching, and sand castle-building. Doran is often breezy, which makes it perfect for kite-flying, too. You can purchase a kite at Candy & Kites or Second Wind in Bodega Bay. If waves are gentle, Doran is great for boogie boarding or even learning to surf. Wetsuits and boards can be rented at Bodega Bay Surf Shack in Bodega Bay or Northern Light Surf Shop at its new location in Valley Ford.
A reminder: Northern California currents can be unpredictable and the water can be chilly. It’s always good to check the weather before you go and keep an eye on the waves and the little ones at all times.
12. Ride a miniature train at Train Town
Train Town is a must-stop for families with little ones or anyone with an eye for model trains, a love of miniatures, or a passion for engineering. The 10-acre park was founded in 1968 by Stanley L. Frank, a successful printing businessman from Oakland who had genius for model-making and expertise in scenery compression and landscaping, which gives the mini-park a life-size feel. The railroad Frank built features a quarter-scale train which takes a ride on four miles of hand-laid track through scale bridges, tunnels, and even a Western town.
There’s also an Iron Horse Carousel, a Ferris wheel, and other rides throughout the park. (Entrance and parking are free, but visitors pay by the ride.)
13. Ride the SMART Train
Kids under 18 ride free on the SMART train (Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit) through Labor Day, so it’s a great time to explore wine country and experience this new rail line. The train currently runs from San Rafael to Santa Rosa Airport with plans to open in Larkspur by the end of 2019. Make a pit stop in Petaluma and enjoy the Petaluma Arts Center—just next door to the SMART station in the historic Railroad Depot Freight Building (general admission $5).
Downtown Petaluma is about a 10-minute walk from the station, where you can enjoy shopping at spots such as Copperfield’s Books, Brian’s Comics, and Old Shanghai Decor. Have lunch at the New Orleans eatery Chef Gator’s Rustic Burger and his Creole Friends or a pastry at Acre Coffee on Fourth Street.
14. Explore the gardens at Cornerstone Sonoma
The wine country marketplace Cornerstone Sonoma lures visitors with its vintage design shops and tasting rooms, but for families, the big draw is the gardens. Nine landscape and garden design firms are currently showcasing their work, all having designed a “mini-garden” incorporating themes of art, nature, and landscape. Each section invites exploration, from a trompe l’oeil landscape of desert hills and crystal rain clouds by Andy Cao and Xavier Perrot to a giant echoing interactive industrial pipe set into a lush landscape by Roger Raiche and David McCrory.
Sunset magazine also sponsors a series of educational demonstration gardens focused on food production and seasonal beauty, bee habitats, cut flowers, and composting. Grab lunch at the new Cornerstone restaurant, Public Kitchen. (Admission to the gardens is free.)
15. Watch horse jumping at Sonoma Horse Park
This is an idyllic, 75-acre horse park on the banks of the Petaluma River, featuring a variety of internationally acclaimed shows and jumping competitions. Plus, admission is free. Grab sandwiches and salads for lunch or try a shaved ice treat while you sit at picnic tables or in lounge chairs on the immaculate grounds. There are also pop-up shops selling equestrian clothing, saddles, trinkets, hats, and souvenirs. In the mornings, kids will enjoy watching the children’s pony competitions. (Check the website for event listings and updates.)