The Ultimate Pairing: Wine and Adrenaline in West Coast’s Wine Country
Put these two phrases together: Wine country and outdoor sports. Are you thinking about that time you sidled up to a Napa tasting bar only to be skunked out by a sunburned, sweaty guy clad shoulders to thighs in damp Spandex?
Don’t be that person. Hell, one up him! Roll in some dirt, or maybe even bat guano. Rub some fish scales in your hair. You’ll probably still smell better. You’ll certainly look less awkward if you’re wearing the right outdoor adventure clothing: the kind that says, “I’m pretty much in town for the adrenaline, but that Zin will hold me over in the meantime.”
Leave the road bike at home for this tour. I’ve selected my favorite four wine country towns with award-winning labels and proximity to outstanding outdoor activities.
Soledad, California: Rock climbing, caving, bird watching, hiking
Not too long ago, people associated Soledad with John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men or the Salinas Valley State Prison. Not too cheery. But for many years, local outdoor adventurers flocked to California’s secret Pinnacles National Park to explore Bear Gulch and Balconies caves, or to climb the many routes on the volcanic breccia formations.
Be warned: The park’s access policies are capricious. The caves are nesting areas for three ecologically-sensitive bat species, and the very same avian species that attract birders from around the world may cause route closures during nesting season. There’s nothing like a prairie falcon smacking you in the head when you get too close to an eyrie! The park’s website posts updates, and you can call to double-check. At worst, you’ll have the opportunity to hike the gorgeous trails and spot rare critters, including California condors.
Pinnacles is best visited in spring or fall. I prefer fall, as most young birds have fledged and the caves are less likely to be flooded. Midsummer is baking hot, and you’ll be more interested in crawling under rocks than climbing up them. No matter when you go, be sure to bring sun protective clothing!
Wine tasting in and around the town of Soledad
If you can’t tear yourself away from Pinnacles N.P., you can sample the area’s best vintages and grab dinner at Taste of the Pinnacles Wine Bar, but I still recommend that you head out to these on-site winery tasting rooms in the celebrated Santa Lucia Highlands. The views are spectacular, and the people are lovely.
Note, these are only the top three, based on visitor reviews, a quick tour by yours truly, and more experienced wine nerds than I. There are dozens of great wineries in the immediate area and, of course, many more in central California. Explore the region, and plan a side trip to Monterey, only an hour away to kayak among the sea lions and otters.
Guerneville/Russian River, California: Paddling, rafting, fishing, hiking, cycling
The town of Guerneville is the perfect place to set up a base of operations while exploring the most low-key corner of the Napa/Sonoma wine country. The Russian River itself boasts a few Class III rapids, but is best-known for its lazy floats, swimming holes, and seasonal steelhead and salmon runs. Just north of Guerneville, check out the towering coastal redwoods at Austin Creek State Recreation Area and the adjacent Armstrong Redwoods State Reserve. Follow the river to the west, and in 20 minutes you’ll meet the Pacific on the rugged beaches at Sonoma Coast State Park.
Guerneville is about 30 minutes northwest of Santa Rosa along Route 116. I suggest winery-hopping along this leg, spending some time in town or on the coast, and then heading toward Healdsburg and Highway 101 along River Road. Save plenty of time for stops along this route, both for sipping and for casting a few flies out on the river.
Best winery and activity guides
There’s no way I’m going to pick my top three favorites. You have to choose your own. Pull out your stash of corks from your favorite wineries and grab a handful at random. You’ll find at least one listed in these websites:
- Russian River Travel: The most comprehensive index of all things Russian River, including equipment rentals, guides, and hospitality.
- Wine Road: A great site with news relating to wineries in the Alexander, Dry Creek, and Russian River valleys. Scores major points for its user-friendly map.
- Taste Route 116: If you want to know more about the wineries and foodie/wine geek highlights between Santa Rosa and Guerneville, this is the place.
Murphy’s, California: Caving, rappelling, skiing, zip lining, hiking, paddling
In the past couple decades the quaint Sierra foothills town of Murphy’s has gone from a bucolic blip along Highway 4 to an upscale, yet casual, destination hot spot. I visited Murphy’s several years ago with a pack of girlfriends, and we spent an afternoon exploring the boutique wine, food, and clothing shops before crashing out at the Cottages at La Honda Park.
The next morning we hit Moaning Caverns, ten minutes south of Murphy’s. Great idea! Let’s get seven hung-over, almost-middle-aged women to rappel 180 feet through a crooked chimney to the floor of an enormous vaulted cave! Better yet, let’s have them all wriggle through the network of tunnels another hundred feet deeper into the earth, when one of them has really bad gas and a case of the giggles. I could have opted out and joined a couple of the others who chose to take the walking tour down the towering spiral staircase, but after comparing notes, my shrieking descent down the ropes was probably less terrifying.
Moaning Caverns isn’t the only cave in town. I haven’t been to Mercer Caverns, but I know many who have, and loved it. It’s closer to Murphy’s, and both have amazing formations and friendly, knowledgeable guides. If you go to Murphy’s in winter, you can skip up Highway 4 to ski at Bear Valley Resort, and in summer there are fantastic hiking, whitewater, and flatwater paddling opportunities on the road up the mountain.
Your Murphy’s wine tasting strategy should be two-pronged: Spend a day visiting the two dozen tasting rooms within walking distance of Main Street, and then enjoy a couple hours at Ironstone Vineyards for the complete winery experience and a different kind of cave tour. If you don’t have time to stay for a concert at their amphitheater, definitely sneak into their very own Fort Knox to ogle the world’s largest gold nugget!
Hood River/Mt. Hood, Oregon: Kite boarding, windsurfing, hiking, fishing, cycling, summer skiing
I have to squeeze in the Columbia River Gorge as perhaps the ultimate West Coast destination for wine, beer, and cider adventurers who happen to have an insatiable addiction to the great outdoors. Hood River is the northern gateway to Mt. Hood and an ideal base of operations for touring the many wineries on both the Washington and Oregon sides of the great Columbia River.
Download this map and guide from the Columbia Gorge Winegrowers’ Association and plan your trip accordingly, while driving responsibly, of course! And don’t box (wine) yourself in! This area of the Gorge boasts more than 35 wineries and 80 vineyards. Hood River is also world-renowned for its orchards, which is why there are at least a dozen cider houses and as many craft breweries.
Now, for your non-alcoholic delights:
- Hike or backpack in Mt. Hood National Forest and the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.
- Windsurf or kite board where the legends play. There might be more equipment shops in Hood River than there are wineries, and you can rent gear, too!
- Grab your snowboard or skis for a few runs at Mt. Hood Meadows or Mt. Hood SkiBowl in the winter, or as late as Labor Day at Timberline Lodge. You might have read about Palmer Glacier’s quad lift in this recent KÜHL article.
- Check out SkiBowl’s summer transformation into the Freeride Mountain Bike Park!
- Make a side trip to the Deschutes river for whitewater rafting and world-class flyfishing (The John Day river isn’t half bad, either).
- Charter a guide and fish for white sturgeon on the Columbia.
Take the Unimog. Ditch the convertible.
My apologies to the Napa and Willamette Valley wine countries. I’ve got a lot of love for y’all, and I know you’ve got some great hikes and beautiful rolling hills, but my idea of getting dirty has nothing to do with a mud soak in a fancy day spa. Plus, I’ve picked destinations where a little dust on my hiking clothes isn’t going to get me kicked out of a wine bar.
But here’s a tip for you, dear readers. Pack strategically, and bring lightweight, travel-friendly outdoor performance clothing that can easily double as in-town casual wear. You’re going to need plenty of room to take your adventure gear with you, and haul your wine stash home!
Featured image by Adele Payman.