A carpet of green vistas unfolds along the drive deep into Sonoma’s “West County,” and somewhere along the road, cell phone service blissfully cuts out. Your blood pressure drops; your mind clears.
When the squeeze of city living gets to be too much, Occidental has your prescription.
The name of the postage stamp-sized hamlet means “west” for good reason—here, you’re only six miles from the ocean. Nestled among stands of firs and redwoods with slender church spires stretching to the sky, the town makes you feel as if you’ve stepped into the spine of a storybook.
An hour and a half from the city with no traffic, Occidental is close enough for a day trip but otherworldly enough you’ll want to stay for the whole weekend. With Sonoma Coast beaches, the Russian River, wineries and other enchanting towns nearby, you could spend forever exploring this triangle of riches.
Check out The Standard’s map and guide to eating, sleeping and playing in and around this charming town.
You don’t have to travel all the way to Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve in Guerneville to see old-growth stands of redwoods—there’s a magical grove near the heart of Occidental, preserved by the LandPaths organization. It is one of only two privately owned preserves in Sonoma County that is free and accessible to the public. Bring a picnic lunch and take a stroll around the level loop to gaze at the trees.
On your way in, be sure to check out the giant Buddha carved from redwood standing in its own grove on the left-hand side of the road—it’s the perfect place to stop and marinate in the sounds and smells of the sempervirens.
Take Coleman Valley Road out of Occidental all the way to the coast for an unforgettable scenic drive. The meandering road passes by bucolic farms and grazing cows before perching you high above the ocean, the Pacific laid out before you like a sparkling rug. It’s a scene you’re not likely to forget. When you hit the coast, you can make two loops, both equally appealing: Go right to make a circle back through the towns of Duncans Mills and Monte Rio, exploring Sonoma Coast beaches along the way; or go left and hit up some crab shacks in Bodega Bay before going through the quaint town of Bodega (where you can spy the infamous white church from Hitchcock’s The Birds) on your way back to Occidental.
With its five ponds, 34 bridges and three acres of rare plants, Western Hills Gardens is a multisensory delight. Recently taken over by Hadley Dynak and Kent Strader, the property is undergoing a transition and is open by appointment only. That shouldn’t stop you from forest bathing in this place, what the New York Times likened to a “Tiffany’s” of plants.
More green is in your future at the Occidental Art and Ecology Center, where an array of native, hard-to-find plants are for sale at their Mother Garden Nursery. A permaculture institution, the organization also offers retreats, courses and performances in its mission to support community resilience and the restoration of biological diversity.
The largest public beach on the lower Russian River is just a 13-minute drive from Occidental. Pack your towels and swimsuits and stop to refuel at Lightwave along the way before playing at the scenic beach with its bridge overhead.
Support a Black-owned business by tasting wine at Fog Crest, a gorgeous winery on Occidental Road in Sebastopol. Because Fog Crest is perched high on a ridge, you can enjoy a spectacular view of the Santa Rosa Plain while sipping choice chardonnay and pinot noir on its spacious patio. Its popular rosé, at one point only available to club members, is now available for all to purchase.
The newest addition to Occidental, the Altamont General Store is a one-stop-shop for many things: gourmet housemade coffee, a food menu highlighting local produce, delectable baked goods from mochi donuts to polenta cakes, wireless service and a carefully curated retail space. Grab a drink or meal, and peruse the expansive marketplace that also offers a host of cozy seating options. Don’t miss the Anjeanya Yoga Studio located above the store for invigorating and inspiring classes led by teacher Jenay Hofftin.
Occidental used to be the last stop on the North Pacific Coast Railroad, and Howard Station Cafe is the evidence of that legacy. Housed in what used to be the train station, this wooden outpost now serves up hearty breakfasts, a wide range of smoothies and housemade coffee drinks.
If thin-crust pizzas are your thing, Hazel is the place for you. Enjoy your wood-fired pie—with an array of starters and mains—in its cozy dining room or outdoor deck, along with a glass of wine or beer.
In the neighboring town of Freestone, Wild Flour Bread has been churning out brick oven sourdough breads and scones since 1998. It’s a must-stop on any pilgrimage to West County; be sure to pick up a loaf of their sticky bread, which very well just might be life-changing.
This roadside outfit on the way to the beach in Monte Rio is run by a charming Israeli couple who serve up smiles and goodwill alongside plates of shakshuka, bourekas, and date smoothies.
The cozy Inn at Occidental is nestled behind Downtown’s Main Street among stands of redwoods with 16 guest rooms and a two-bedroom cottage. This delightful bed-and-breakfast puts you within a stone’s throw of wineries, hiking and exploring.
The historic Valley Ford Hotel in the neighboring town of Valley Ford opened in 1864 and still offers well-appointed rooms to weary travelers today. While you’re there, eat at their Rocker Oysterfeller’s restaurant, a “farm-to-fork” roadhouse that’s a locals’ favorite, and check out the excellent Valley Ford Cheese & Creamery across the road.
Julie Zigoris can be reached at email@example.com