California has several dozen state parks that focus on historic locations. Three of them just north of the San Francisco Bay have significant connections to the rancho era of Mexican Republic. This itinerary will take you through these three state historic parks in a day trip from the Bay area. Each is near a different city in California Wine Country.
Most historic parks focus on California's early history, especially the many California indigenous people and the Spanish and Mexican settlers. These three show the people native to this area plus two sites associated with General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, a Californio (a California-born person of Spanish descent) who became a significant part of the Mexican government and eventually in the formation of the State of California.
The first park, Olompali, is part of the traditional territory of the Coast Miwok people, who lived in this area for thousands of years and in a village in what is now this park for about 1500 years. The Miwok hoipu (head man) built an adobe house here in 1776, and in 1843, his son was granted their land by the Mexican government under the rancho system.
The next stop is the Petaluma Abode. During the Mexican era, it was the largest privately owned building in what's now California. Once the headquarters for General Vallejo's Rancho Petaluma, it has been turned into a museum of ranch life at the time. Like many of the Californios, Vallejo lost most of his land and wealth in a series of court battles shortly after the California Gold Rush.
The last park is a collection of sites in the heart of Sonoma. On the western side, in a green park is Vallejo's Victorian-style wooden town home. This "carpenter gothic" house was imported pre-built from the East Coast and assembled at this site in the 1850s. Next door is a building designed in Europe, which was called the Swiss Chalet. In the main downtown area are several other buildings from the era, including a mission church, a military barracks, a kitchen, and one of the oldest hotels in northern California.
Hours and prices
Most California state parks, especially outside urban areas, charge for parking but not for day use, which means that entrance may be free if you walk or bike into the park. Others have per-person entrance fees or separate fees for specific activities. The three parks listed in this itinerary are included in the California State Park's Historical Passport special day-use pass. As of 2021, this wallet card cost $50 and entitles the original owner to park one vehicle for free (if parking is charged inside the park) or to have up to four people enter the park (where entrance fees are charged per person) for a year.
Relevantly for this itinerary, the ticket for day-use parking fees is accepted at almost all of the other state parks in the system for the same day. This means that if you pay the $8 to park at Olompali, you can get free parking at almost any other state park on the same day. The entrance fees at the other two parks in this itinerary are paid per person; however, the Petaluma and Sonoma sites have a sharing agreement, so if you pay at the first you visit ($3 per adult, $2 per child), you can get into the other for free.
Many state parks are open from sunrise to sunset for people who want to walk around outdoors. The hours listed are the times when the main museum or other facilities are open.
You can bring dogs to most state parks. Normally, dogs must be kept on a leash and are not allowed in the buildings. In some parks, dogs are only allowed in certain areas. These restrictions are not always predictable, so it's best to check the details for each park separately. Overall, this itinerary isn't great for dogs.
From San Francisco, take Highway 101 north across the Golden Gate Bridge. About 10 miles north of the bridge in Mill Valley, Highway 1, also called the Pacific Coast Highway, will fork off to the west to find the coast. Stay on Highway 101 for another 13 miles, to Novato. Take exit 463 toward San Marin Dr, and then turn left onto Atherton Ave to get to the western side of Highway 101. Then turn right onto Redwood Blvd, which is a service road that runs north along the highway. The main entrance to the first park is on the left.
Most people would drive a car to these sites, but it's possible to visit all of these parks on bike or by bus. As you're planning, remember that traffic can be difficult. What should be a 30-minute drive may take more than an hour of creeping along a congested two-lane highway, especially on holidays or weekends.
These parks can be visited using the local bus systems if you don't mind walking for up to an hour after you get off the bus. If you decide to try this, consider using the Clipper card payment system, which will cost $3 for the card but get you a discount on the fares and obviate the need for carrying exact change. If you want to combine a bus ride with a bike trip, then all of the buses have a bike rack on the front can hold two or three bicycles (first come, first served). The nearest bus stops for the three parks are:
- Olompali: Novato San Marin SMART stop, about a 40-minute walk south of the park's entrance. Bus route 49 for Marin Transit runs from Novato to San Rafael. Consider also the bus stop at Redwood Blvd & Rush Creek Place, slightly further down the street, where bus route 101 toward Santa Rosa will take you to the Petaluma Transit Mall.
- Petaluma Adobe: Intersection of Ely Blvd and Casa Grande Rd, about a 30-minute walk southwest of the park. Several buses for the Petaluma Transit system stop near this intersection. About another 10 or 15 minutes further along Casa Grande Rd, in the shadow of the Lakeville Highway (Hwy 116), bus route 40 will take you to Sonoma.
- Sonoma Park: Sonoma Plaza, a short walk south of the park. Several buses for the Sonoma County Transit system stop here. Bus route 40 will take you back to the main Petaluma Transit Mall, where you can catch the 101 bus back towards San Francisco.
Our first stop is Olompali State Historic Park, just north of Novato. The area's history began with the people who were here before the missions crept north and before Mexico declared its independence from Spain. If you spend the morning at Olompali, then you can have lunch in Petaluma and dinner in Sonoma.
- 1 Olompali State Historic Park, 8901 Redwood Blvd, Novato (Hwy 101 southbound), ☏ . 9AM–5PM. Two styles of ancient Miwok housing are shown: a bark house and a tule reed house. There is a natural "grinding rock" or "kitchen rock" behind the visitor center that was used to prepare food. The flat, bare rock has natural, bowl-shaped depressions that make a natural mortar for pounding acorns and other grain into powder. Some of the land was later sold, and what was once a large country home are near the picnic tables. Hiking to the top of Mt Burdell will take a couple of hours (9 mi., 1500' elevation), or you can take the shorter Miwok Loop Trail. Horseback riding is permitted, but bikes are prohibited and dogs are restricted. Geocaching site. Museum. Wheelchair-accessible restrooms and drinking water available. $8 per vehicle (cash only, exact change required).
When you leave Olompali, you'll be going south on Redwood Blvd. Turn left onto Atherton Ave to cross the highway, and then turn left to get back onto Highway 101 North towards Eureka. Nine miles later, take exit 472B onto Hwy 116 East, also called Lakeville Hwy. (If you're looking for lunch, you want to take exit 472A to Petaluma Blvd S. There are multiple restaurants on and near Petaluma Blvd S, about two or three miles off the highway.) Less than a mile after taking exit 472B off of Highway 101, turn left onto Casa Grande Rd. Follow Casa Grande Rd, straight through the traffic circle by the high school, until it dead-ends at Old Adobe Rd. You can see the old building through the trees from that intersection, but to find a place to park, you'll want to turn right onto Old Adobe Rd and then take the first left into the park's driveway.
- 2 Petaluma Adobe State Historic Park, 3325 Adobe Rd, Petaluma, ☏ . 10AM–5PM daily. The adobe has dirt floors with traditional thresholds, up to two inches high. Little ones may have a bit of trouble seeing over some of the museum's security barriers. Shady picnic areas with wheelchair-accessible portable toilet and drinking water. The parking lot is about a three-minute walk from the exhibits, and some paths are bumpy. Geocaching site.
The same Mexican general owned a house and managed a military outpost in the city of Sonoma, about 10 miles to the east, which is preserved as part of the Sonoma State Historic Park. To get there, turn left out of the park's entrance, which puts you back on Old Adobe Rd. Follow Old Adobe Rd southeast for 3.5 miles to the intersection with Hwy 116 E, also called Stage Gulch Rd, where the road will curve to the left. Follow that for 2.5 miles, past Carneros Vintners, and then turn left onto Watmaugh Rd. Watmaugh makes an easy 90° turn to the right, and you'll still be on Watmaugh Rd. Drive another two miles on Watmaugh Rd, and then turn left onto Broadway (aka Hwy 12 West). This will bring you into town. Follow Broadway two miles north, until the street reaches Napa St. Broadway dead-ends here, facing Sonoma Plaza. The official entrance is on the other side of the tree-filled plaza, so turn right onto Napa St, then immediately left onto 1st St E, and start looking for an empty parking space on the street, or go another block, and find the public parking lot behind the Sonoma Barracks.
- 3 Sonoma State Historic Park, ☏ . This park is six separate sites within the city: Mission San Francisco Solano (restored chapel, art and history museum), the Blue Wing Inn, Sonoma Barracks, the Toscano Hotel and Kitchen, the servants quarters of La Casa Grande – all near Sonoma Plaza – plus General Vallejo's in-town house and gardens, which are about a mile northwest of the Plaza. Tours available at some sites on weekends. Wheelchair-accessible unisex restrooms are in La Casa Grande, on East Spain St. Free parking behind the Sonoma Barracks, off of 1st St West. Sonoma Bike Path runs nearby. As this is largely in town, dogs are permitted on the sidewalks, but not indoors or in most other outdoor places.
- 1 Sonoma Barracks (Presidio of Sonoma).
- 2 Casa Grande Servants' Quarters.
- 3 Toscano Hotel and Kitchen. The dining and kitchen building is behind the hotel.
- 4 Mission San Francisco Solano (Mission San Francisco Solano). Northernmost California mission.
- 5 Blue Wing Inn. One of the oldest hotels in northern California.
- 6 Lachryma Montis, 3rd St W (N of W Spain St). General Vallejo's wooden house. Chalet Museum next door.
If you're ready for dinner, downtown Sonoma has many restaurants.
To get back to Highway 101, and thus to San Francisco and the rest of the Bay area, re-trace your path back to Petaluma. The total distance is about 13 miles. Find E Napa St by the Plaza, and turn south onto Broadway. Follow Broadway for two miles, and turn right on to Watmaugh Rd. Follow Watmaugh back through the curve (to the left, this time) onto the other section of Watmaugh Rd, and so forth, until you are less than half a mile from the old adobe. However, instead of turning right to go to the Petaluma Adobe State Historic Park and Casa Grande Rd again, keep going straight. The road will change names to Frates Rd, and it will lead you down to CA-116/Lakeview Hwy, which in turn will take you to Hwy 101.