Napa Valley is a mecca for wine lovers the world over, but what about those of us who find themselves in or invited to a trip to the Valley who aren’t so interested in that wine-life experience? What is there to do in Napa besides wine tasting? Well, I’m here to tell you that there is plenty to do in Napa Valley for everyone. In particular, I would like to share three of my favorite places for hiking in Napa Valley, along with a weekend-length itinerary for anyone interested in having a unique outdoor and cultural experience in this area. Feel free to use this guide as an inspiration for your own weekend in Napa or just as a short list of places that we loved in the area.
- 1 WEEKEND ITINERARY: DAY ONE
- 2 WEEKEND ITINERARY: DAY TWO
WEEKEND ITINERARY: DAY ONE
Birdwatching and Hiking in San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge
If you are interested in some hiking in Napa Valley that’s good for the whole family, you should give San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge a look. First of all, you can visit for free, which is really lovely for travelers of all budgets. Second, the hiking trails here are nice and wide and flat, which makes them a great place for all kinds of explorers to get out in nature. I will say, however, if you are looking for a “pristine” wilderness, this probably isn’t the place for you. While there are many places and trails to explore in the refuge, the trail that I ended up taking was actually nestled between an agricultural area and a giant dike. But if you keep your eyes open, even the most impacted trails in this area are absolutely vibrant and beautiful.
As its name would suggest, San Pablo is a great place to see wildlife, in particular birds. This is common of wetlands, because many avian species thrive where water and land come together. So, whether you are a hiker or a birdwatcher, this is a great place for anyone wondering about what to do in Napa besides wine tasting. In particular, if you are on the look out for coastal birds, this is a great place to stop by in order to work on your life list.
Where to Explore
When we visited this park for some hiking in Napa Valley, we traveled along the Tolay Creek Trail, which is about 3 miles in one direction out from the 37 to the bay. As I mentioned, this trail is tucked away behind a big dike, so you will need to do some finagling to view the creek. We also didn’t make it to Lower Tubbs Island due time constraints, but if you can budget your time and energy for this, definitely try to make it out to the Bay.
There are also plenty of alternative trail options, in particular, I think Cullinan Trail looked like a great option. This track will take you along one of the large ponds towards the interior of the refuge. For both this and the Tolay Creek Trail, you can park for free along the highway in little gravel parking. There is no bathroom at the Tolay Creek trailhead. This area is also very close to Sonoma so if you are looking for what to do in Sonoma, give the San Pablo Bay refuge a look!
Enjoying House Chai for Breakfast at Cafe Scooteria
If you are thinking about what to do in Sonoma, or just wanting a sweet treat for breakfast, Café Scooteria was an immediate favorite among all our travel group members. First, they have AMAZING house chai in a number of different flavors. I got matcha chai when I visited, and I absolutely loved it. I even wanted to go back for more even though we had a long list of places to try on our itinerary.
Second, they have such a unique set up. This little café is nested in a real-life scooter mechanic shop. You might need a little direction when you arrive, because there isn’t a static register that you just waltz right up to like most coffee shops. But the employees here are really kind, lovely people. Even though we were totally confused when we popped in, someone walked us through the whole process and guided us through the menu.
Finally, you can couple your morning caffeine with a light breakfast. Perch yourself at the bar, savor your goodies, and watch the world go by outside. It’s an amazing place to take a breather.
If you are interested, you can find this little gem at 455 W. Napa Street, Sonoma CA, 95476.
Jack London State Park
When I was in high school, I delved into the many works of Jack London, an author currently known for Call of the Wild and White Fang. Less people know that he has a wide variety of books, from real-like accounts of the slums of London to post-apocalyptic musings. And fewer people know about the fascinating, but short life that he lived. The Jack London State Historic Park is a great place for London fans as well as outdoor enthusiasts and history buffs. For history in Napa Valley, I really can’t think of a better place. Aalthough you would rightfully point out that it is Napa Valley adjacent.
History and Hiking in Napa Valley
When we visited, we caught up on our history lessons by indulging in the state park store and museum. The park stocks special editions of London’s works for purchase as well. We then took advantage of a volunteer offered tour of the trail down to Wolf House. This was London’s dreamt-of home which tragically burned down shortly before his death. During this tour, we learned all about Jack’s life, and many of the details that I had remembered were confirmed. The dusty, factual corners of my mind appeared to be correct for once!
This lovely park also offers an opportunity for hiking in Napa Valley. From the visitor center, it is a short trek down the wooded hill to the remains of the still-impressive Wolf House. You can also take a short side trail to visit London’s grave. You can also explore the cottage where Jack and his wife innovated on sustainability before the term was a twinkle in the rest of the world’s eye.
There is a $10 entrance fee for the park, and $3 fee if you’d like to tour the cottage. So, if you bring the family along, this is a very affordable attraction that should entertain everyone for a couple hours for at least a half day. The park is located at 2400 London Ranch Road, Glen Ellen, CA 95442.
Denman Ranch and Boxcar Chicken
If you are interested in tasting something other than wine but still alcoholic, the Denman Ranch Collective is the place for you! Acre and Spade and Sonoma Aperitif call this idyllic little place home (we have a full highlight on both of Denman Ranch here). If you purchase a tasting here, it will include a couple flavors of cider, two aperitifs, and sparkling mead. It is a journey of flavors that you won’t forget, and visiting will support some amazing small-business owners.
No guide to what to do in Napa besides wine tasting would be complete without some great places to get grub. While I could wax poetic about the expensive, classy restaurants that are sprinkled between Napa and Sonoma, I want to shine the limelight on somewhere more affordable and a little more “down home.” Boxcar Fried Chicken in Sonoma is a little roadside eatery where you can get your hands on some exceptionally good chicken. They have a little something for every meal of the day. No matter what you order, you won’t be disappointed. Even though it was the later afternoon when we popped in, I tried their chicken and waffles. It was the best version of this dish that I have tried since a visit to South Carolina.
Downtown Sonoma has a lot to offer for a nice, relaxed afternoon. There are several historic buildings that you can explore with a ticket to the Sonoma State Historic Park. Tickets are $3 for adults and $2 for children! If you are in the Plaza area, this includes access to Mission San Francisco Solano, the Blue Wing Inn, Sonoma Barracks, the Toscano Hotel & Kitchen, and the Servants Quarters (the remains of La Casa Grande). There are also several buildings elsewhere in the town.
Besides that, there are plenty of restaurants and shopping in the area. We hit up a very cute knick-knack shop called Tiddle E. Winks, and a store full of hundreds of sock options called Socks on the Square. If you’d just like a break from spending money and hiking, you can also relax in the park grounds in the middle of the plaza. There were even ducks to feed when we visited.
WEEKEND ITINERARY: DAY TWO
Skyline Wilderness Park
Skyline Wilderness Park is one of the best places for hiking in Napa Valley. It’s close to town, offers miles and miles of trails at different difficultly levels, and has some unmatched views of the valley on a clear day. Plus there is plenty of camping available here, along with areas for activities like archery! It’s $5 per vehicle for the day.
When we visited, we made a loop of the Lower Skyline and Skyline trails. This little loop was pretty challenging in terms of elevation gain. But it was short enough to get us back to the hotel before our families started wondering where we had gotten off to. If I had had longer, I would have liked to hike the length of the Skyline trail. This will take you to a lake tucked away in the park’s mountains. Walking along the ridge will also give you an enjoyable experience of the wilder side of Napa Valley. And allow you to take some higher elevation photos of the vineyards and town below.
Last stop on our itinerary was downtown Napa. Of course, the Oxbow Market is the most popular spot here. I really can’t blame anyone for wanting to give this place a look, even though it is really too crowded for my tastes. The food here is really great, however, so if you are a foodie it’s worth braving the crowds. My favorite spot outside of the main market was Model Bakery, which had lovely chai tea and bagels.
You can also walk along either side of the river near the Napa Riverfront Green. In particular, I enjoyed the beautiful building fronts and serene atmosphere of the Napa River Inn. The Inn has some really cute little gardens that you can visit, as well as some neat restaurants attached.
Thinking about exploring more of California?
Our Guide to California will inspire any nature and history lover to find more and more to love about this state.