Northern California's Wine Country sprawls longer and wider than many travelers realize. Hundreds of wineries and other attractions are spread across 3 different counties, making it impossible to see more than a handful each day.
With this in mind, we've pulled together 4 popular road trips through Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties that touch upon the region's greatest offerings. Grab your car and your friends, and be sure that somebody stays sober to lead the way.
Feasting in Napa
Distance: Approximately 20 miles
Main roads: Highway 29
Time: 8 hours
Highlights: Our first road trip is all about food, taking explorers to some of the Napa Valley's finest eating destinations.
Start in downtown Napa with an eclectic breakfast at the Oxbow Public Market. This culinary mecca was built in 2007 and features a variety of vendor choices. Our recommendation: free-trade coffee from Ritual Coffee Roasters and the "World's Best English Muffin" from The Model Bakery. Yes, the buttery muffin really is that good. In fact, you might as well just order 2.
Next, head up Highway 29, burning off breakfast with wine-tastings at Peju and Grgich Hills until you hit downtown Yountville. For lunch, hit Redd, where Chef Richard Reddington prepares local ingredients with classic French and Mediterranean flavors to create wonders on a plate.
Continue north on Highway 29 to the bustling downtown of St. Helena. There aren't any wineries on this 4-block stretch, but shops such as Baksheesh and Main Street Books serve as great destinations for window-shopping. End the day with a dinner at a Napa Valley institution: Gott's Roadside Tray Gourmet. Order simply: Cheeseburger, fries and a shake are best bets.
Distance: Approximately 75 miles
Main roads: Highway 29, Highway 128, Highway 101
Time: 8 hours
Highlights: Soak your weary bones in the natural hot springs at spas around northern Napa Valley and surrounding environs.
In the olden days, doctors in San Francisco advised patients to visit nearby natural hot springs and benefit from their healing powers. Most of them have been converted to spas located in Calistoga. First stop: Solage, the swankiest resort in town. Start the day in the mineral pools -- giant hot tubs (separate pools for men and women) with jets to massage you from your neck to your feet. Afterward, stop in for a scrumptious breakfast of shrimp and grits or lemon ricotta pancakes at Solbar, the on-site Michelin-starred restaurant.
Digest breakfast by walking a mile into Calistoga, where you can spend the afternoon spa-hopping through town. Among those we recommend: Dr. Wilkinson's Hot Springs, an old-school, motel-style place with a mineral pool and individual tubs; and Indian Springs Resort & Spa, which also offers volcanic-ash mud baths.
After lunch at Buster's Original Southern Barbecue, head north on Highway 29 to Highway 128 and turn north on Highway 101 toward Ukiah. There, in a valley east of the highway, sits the Vichy Springs Resort and Country Inn. This place was a favorite of author Jack London's. Luxuriate in one of the rooms' individual claw foot tubs, and you'll know why.
Distance: Approximately 15 miles
Main roads: Highway 128, Lytton Springs Road, Dry Creek Road
Time: 8 hours
Highlights: With most international focus on the Napa and Sonoma Valleys, tiny winemaking regions such as the Dry Creek and Alexander Valleys were often overlooked. Not anymore.
Start this drive in the tiny town of Geyserville. Following a breakfast of coffee and pastries at Geyserville Mud, follow Highway 128 as it parallels the Russian River. This is the Alexander Valley, a growing region known for hearty reds and crisp whites. If you like to gamble, stop at River Rock Casino for a little poker and some spectacular views.
Grab an olive-and-brie sandwich at the circa-1930s Jimtown Store, then take Lytton Springs Road over to the Dry Creek Valley, a growing region that spotlights zinfandel. Wineries worth visiting here: Papapietro Perry, as well as Unti Vineyards and Dry Creek Vineyard, the oldest family-owned winery in the valley.
End the day exploring downtown Healdsburg. There are more than 40 tasting rooms in walking distance of the town plaza, including the highly acclaimed Stephen & Walker Winery. For dinner, try the roasted chicken and other home-cooked Northern Italian cuisine at Scopa, a small, narrow restaurant with a broad menu.
Distance: Approximately 30 miles
Main roads: Highway 116, Highway 12
Time: 8 hours
Highlights: California earned the nickname "Golden State" because of its sunshine. Between picturesque preserves, grandiose open spaces and wonderful winery gardens, the Sonoma Valley is a perfect place to see the fruits of this natural growth-enhancer.
Start this drive at Gold Ridge Farm in Sebastopol, an experimental farm founded by botanist Luther Burbank. On these grounds, Burbank hybridized the Shasta daisy, which has become the official flower of Sebastopol. Celebrate his work with a killer salad at The Slice of Life, a vegetarian restaurant that specializes in Italian and Mexican cuisine.
Next, take Highway 12 from Santa Rosa into the Sonoma Valley. First stop: Glen Ellen's Bouverie Preserve, a 535-acre property with oak woodlands, evergreen forest and chaparral. This spot is famous for its spring wildflowers, but docents lead guided hikes all summer long. Also worth visiting: Quarryhill Botanical Garden, which features one of the largest collections of documented, wild-collected Asian plants in the world.
If you haven't had your fill of Japanese maples, swing by Wildwood Farm in Kenwood, which also boasts an elaborate sculpture garden and an organic vegetable garden. To complete the day, swing by Chateau St. Jean winery, where the perfectly manicured garden is a great place for a picnic with a bottle of the local cabernet sauvignon.