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Napa Valley Scenic Drive

Exploring the Napa Valley and Sonoma Wine Country
Including the Silverado Trail and St. Helena

This wonderful scenic drive highlights the most beautiful portions of the Napa Valley and Sonoma Wine Country, but is not meant as an in-depth connoisseur’s tour of wineries. You don't need to love wines in order to enjoy this scenic drive. At times, you’ll feel as if you’re driving in France, Italy, Portugal, and Spain.

Although many people visit only the most southern portions of the California Wine Country nearest San Francisco, I urge you to explore the northernmost and most scenic parts of the Napa and Sonoma valleys on this drive. These are the most rugged, least commercial, and most beautiful.

During part of your trip, you'll follow the scenic Silverado Trail along the eastern edge of Napa Valley. This takes you back to what all of Napa Valley was like years ago and will be a highlight of your drive.

You'll travel through historic and picturesque towns like Yountville, Calistoga Hot Springs, St. Helena, Rutherford, Napa, Sonoma, and Glen Ellen, with the chance to stop at the most prestigious wineries and restaurants.

With an early start, you can easily do this drive in one day. You'll be driving just over 200 miles—under five hours excluding stops. However, spend extra days if you want to explore the Wine Country in depth.

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Starting your Napa Valley scenic drive

For most travelers, the Napa Valley scenic drive starts northbound on the Golden Gate bridge. For directions to the bridge

From the Marin County scenic drive, begin at Santa Rosa below.

Or, if starting from Charles M. Schulz Sonoma Country Airport, head east on Airport Boulevard, then south on the U.S. 101 freeway, and then east on scenic Highway 12 to begin the tour in Santa Rosa below.

Golden Gate Bridge

As you leave San Francisco, stay in the right lane as you travel northbound over the Golden Gate Bridge. You are on U.S. Highway 101.

This is by far the most scenic exit from San Francisco.

At the north end of the bridge, take the off ramp on your right marked “Vista Point” for fantastic views of the bridge, bay, and San Francisco skyline. Even in fog, you may be able to glimpse these.

Get back on northbound 101.

As you travel quickly north on the 101 freeway, you will begin to pass vineyards. These produce sweeter wines than the drier Napa Valley region.

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Santa Rosa

Soon, you'll arrive in Santa Rosa, the hometown of the Peanuts cartoon strip, and the largest city in Napa or Sonoma counties.

In Santa Rosa, Luther Burbank found a climate ideal for creating new plants. He tested 30,000 new types of plums alone in this area and especially loved to work with roses, including his creation, the popular Burbank rose. Santa Rosa has hosted the Luther Burbank Rose Parade and Festival in his honor for over 100 years.

Santa Rosa and Sonoma were as far north as most Spanish settled. In the coastal towns north of the Bay Area (as well as in a few neighborhoods of San Francisco), you'll find a distinctly New England influence, which seems so unlike California. Because no transcontinental railroad reached California during the gold rush period, prospectors sailed around South America—often from New England ports—and bought their tastes in architecture with them.

In Santa Rosa, you'll pass near Johnny Garlic's California Pasta Grill, just off Highway 12. This your chance to enjoy the rich flavors of Guy Fieri of Diners, Drive Ins, & Dives fame on the Food Network. You may see him there, as he and his family live nearby.

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Northern Sonoma Valley

When you reach central Santa Rosa, exit Highway 101 onto the eastbound California Highway 12 freeway. If you're arriving from our Marin scenic drive, just stay eastbound on Highway 12.

Continue on Highway 12, which soon becomes a two-lane road. Driving in this area can be slow during the grape harvest season.

You soon reach the rustic upper region of Sonoma Valley, one of the most scenic portions of your trip.

This is nice countryside.

In late August and September, you’ll see plump clusters of grapes on the vines ready for harvest. During October and November, the leaves turn to autumn colors. However, any season is a nice time to visit.

As mentioned, this itinerary suggests scenic routes. It does not critique the wineries you pass. However, this area and adjacent Napa Valley produce most of the finest California wines, although some of our "Sideways" friends in the Santa Ynez Valley might vigorously disagree.

Please be sure to use a designated driver if you stop to sample wines.

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Highway 12 brings you into the town of Sonoma.

The newer areas of Sonoma may not make it the most picturesque city in the California Wine Country, but Highway 12 takes you past its venerable plaza, a fine area for walking.

The Sonoma State Historical Park website offers limited information. You're best just to walk around the old Spanish plaza and its side streets, the heart of the historic area.

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Napa Valley

From Sonoma, continue south and then east on Highway 12 towards the city of Napa.

At Napa, take the California Highway 29 expressway northbound toward St. Helena.

This brings you into the heart of Napa Valley.

The railway that runs parallel to Highway 29 hosts the Napa Valley Wine Train, and is one of the most popular tourist railways in the country.

From Highway 29, take the exit marked Yountville on your right.

This runs into Washington Street, the main commercial street.

You'll travel through the heart of Yountville, an especially attractive small Napa Valley town.

Yountville hosts Chef Thomas Keller's Michelin 3-star French Laundry, which some reviewers consider the finest restaurant in the United States, at 6640 Washington Street. Not to be outdone, Restaurant Magazine twice named French Laundry the best restaurant in the world.

The building really was a steam laundry—and before that a brothel and a tavern. Sadly, I have never planned a Napa Valley visit the months ahead of time needed to score a reservation here.

Continue on Washington Street to its junction with Highway 29.

Go right—north—on 29.

After passing Rutherford, another Napa Valley trading town, you'll reach St. Helena, the quintessential Wine Country town and commercial center of the northern Napa Valley.

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St. Helena

Besides its attractive downtown, St. Helena has two must stops. Moreover while here, be sure that you have ample gasoline for the next portions of your drive.

  • Soon after entering St. Helena, you'll notice "Gott's Roadside" at 933 Main Street on your left.

    Formally called Taylor's Automatic Refresher, this pre-MacDonald's era fast food place may serve up the best "fast food" in the U.S.

    Although upscale Gott's serves all the regular burgers and such and does them really well, the less usual items (for a fast food place) attract us most. Look for absolutely delicious fish tacos made with grilled Mahi Mahi, sweet potato fries "dusted in chile spice," an ahi burger "rare with ginger wasabi mayo," a rich white pistachio malt (I'm addicted), and on and on.

    Vegetarians are well served, and there's an extensive and well thought out wine list by the bottle, half bottle, and glass.

    In lieu of wine, drivers may wish to enjoy the excellent fresh lemonade while sitting at one of the sheltered picnic tables in back.

  • Past downtown, just before you leave St. Helena, the graduate school of the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, the premier chef training school in the U.S., pops up on your left. It looks as if it occupies an old monastery, as indeed it does.

    This is where the best chefs in the country come for advanced training, and you can sample their dishes.

    On the website, check out the Greystone Restaurant of the Culinary Institute open to the public. See the pages of the California Branch. If serious about dining here, book early. There's also a very nice gift shop, cooking demonstrations, and the grounds to explore.

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Calistoga Hot Springs

From St. Helena, continue northbound on Highway 29 toward Calistoga Hot Springs.

When you reach the main intersection in Calistoga, turn right onto Lincoln Avenue toward the town center, as you continue to follow Highway 29.

Calistoga is a true hot springs spa town—the town is literally chockablock with them. If you wish, “take the waters” at any place that appeals to you. Unlike some California spas, coed public areas at these require swimsuits, so please remember to pack these.

Because Calistoga's are not super deluxe spas, don’t worry if you’re dressed informally. You won't pay a lot either.

See the excellent Calistoga Chamber of Commerce website for descriptions and directions.

Continue eastbound on Lincoln Avenue, Highway 29, through Calistoga.

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Silverado Trail

Just past the commercial area of Calistoga and just past the distinctive small palm-lined entrance to the Indian Springs spa resort on your right, make a sharp right turn onto Silverado Trail. If you start going steeply uphill on Highway 29, you have missed this turn.

The Silverado Trail takes you away from the commercial areas of Napa Valley—and also away from service stations and restaurants.

You follow the base of the mountains that adjoin the eastern side of the Napa Valley, and go back to another time. This very pleasant Wine Country region will be a highlight of your scenic drive.

At each intersection, continue straight on Silverado. Watch out for bicycles on this road.

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Eventually, Silverado Trail reaches a "T" junction on the outskirts of the town of Napa. Because you cannot prudently drive straight, you will not miss this intersection.


Turn right onto Trancas Street.

Trancas Street takes you through a rather uninteresting commercial area of Napa.

As you approach the Highway 29 freeway, get into the left lane.

After crossing the freeway, take the southbound ramp onto Highway 29.


If you wish to visit Napa's pleasant city center, carefully turn left onto Trancas Street from the Silverado Trail.

Almost immediately, turn right onto the continuation of Silverado Trail. This is California Highway 121.

Go southbound on Silverado Trail, Highway 121.

Turn right on First Street. (This goes one way downtown. If traveling the other direction, use Second Street.)

After crossing the Napa River and a major intersection at Soscol Avenue, you'll reach the pleasant and very upscale Napa city center at Main Street, a great area to explore on foot (pdf file shows parking). There are many restaurants in this area that serve both visitors and a large and wealthy retirement community.

Continue westbound on First Street.

Just past the bridge at the Highway 29 interchange, veer into the left turn lane on First Street. Then turn left to take the southbound onramp onto the Highway 29 freeway. Because this onramp sits just to the right of a wider off ramp, be sure to stay to the right. Otherwise, you will end up facing oncoming traffic on the freeway!

Returning to San Francisco
Or San Francisco International Airport (SFO)

Everyone should now be driving southbound on Highway 29.

We offer three great routes to get you back to San Francisco or San Francisco International Airport. Fast or scenic. Your choice.

Go to Returning to San Francisco or San Francisco International from Napa.

For budget hotels, resorts, or camping, check our Marin, Napa, and Sonora accommodation suggestions.

All best wishes for an fantastic trip!

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Marin & Wine Country Scenic Drive, Part I (Introduction)
Marin & Wine Country Scenic Drive, Part II a (Reaching Marin from S. F.)
Marin & Wine Country Scenic Drive, Part II b (Reaching Marin from SFO)
Marin & Wine Country Scenic Drive, Part II c (Reaching Marin from Oakland)
Marin & Wine Country Scenic Drive, Part III (Marin County scenic drive)
Marin & Wine Country Scenic Drive, Part IV (Napa Valley scenic drive)
Marin & Wine Country Scenic Drive, Part V (Accommodation suggestions)

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