Napa and Sonoma Are Alive With Tourism

The post-fire spirit is robust for parks, attractions, and new businesses.


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Robert Ferguson Observatory

Photo by Diane Askew

As the Wine Country recovers from the fires that ravaged mountainous areas and leveled neighborhoods last fall, local tourism promoters face a dilemma. Is it better to prepare visitors for shocking views of charred land and freestanding chimneys, or is it smarter to spread the word that the area is still beautiful and open for business?

Both perspectives are accurate. In most Napa and Sonoma Valley towns, you won’t glimpse any evidence of the fires, and it will be hard to imagine that a tragedy recently occurred.

Meadows have turned bright green. Plants are regenerating like crazy. And perhaps more wildflowers than ever are blooming. Because the fires cleared away considerable undergrowth, sunlight has reached the soil and stimulated new life.

But if you drive 15 minutes from Santa Rosa up to the Mayacamas Mountains to see exotic animals at Safari West, you’ll pass empty lots where houses used to be. One Safari West guide lived on the property’s border, and his home burned to its foundation. Ten other employees also lost homes.

By now, the burned-out cars and piles of rubble have largely been removed. Nevertheless, “The drive up can be upsetting,” said staff member Jared Paddock. “That was a big concern of ours when we were getting ready to reopen.” Safari West opted for transparency, warning visitors about what to expect near the property.

It seems miraculous that although fire surrounded the 400-acre wildlife preserve, Safari West was largely unaffected. The first night, owner Peter Lang controlled spot fires with a garden hose. Not one animal died or even panicked. The camping facilities suffered smoke damage, some fence posts and two field trip vehicles burned, and a laboratory was destroyed, but that was about it.

With fences repaired, the camping facilities restored, and the vehicles replaced, Safari West is back to business as usual, with visitors being driven around the property to spot giraffes, cheetahs, rhinos, flamingoes, and more.

Having repaired its water system, fences, and trails, Calistoga’s Petrified Forest has just reopened, enabling guests to see fossilized redwood trees, which turned to stone after a volcanic explosion buried them in ashes 3.4 million years ago.

Last fall’s firestorm couldn’t damage those stones but did kill some surrounding trees and plants. This made the place less scenic but had unexpected benefits; by burning the vegetation, the fire exposed more petrified wood, now conveniently visible from existing trails, and the ruins of two Civil War-era houses.

About 90 percent of the fires occurred in the mountains, particularly wreaking havoc on Sonoma County parks. Fire swept through Windsor’s Shiloh Ranch Regional Park, Santa Rosa’s Trione-Annadel State Park and Hood Mountain Regional Park, and Glen Ellen’s Sonoma Valley Regional Park and Jack London State Historic Park. Ninety-five percent of Kenwood’s Sugarloaf Ridge State Park burned. Several employees were living there in century-old houses that are now gone.

But many trails at these parks have reopened. And there was one thrilling outcome at Sugarloaf. For a few agonizing weeks, it was widely believed that the fire had destroyed Sugarloaf’s Robert Ferguson Observatory, but it turned out to be fully intact. Smoke and ash penetrated the interior, which has since been cleaned. The telescopes that were evacuated have been reinstalled, recalibrated, and tested.

Planning a visit? Download SonomaCounty.com’s free Explorer Map. Bring it to participating businesses for special deals, and collect stamps on your map from visitor centers. With just two stamps, you receive a farmers market bag and can enter to win a two-night Sonoma County getaway.

Out of the ashes, much has risen. New Wine Country restaurants include Santa Rosa’s farm-to-table Perch and Plow; Napa’s gourmet Compline; Healdsburg’s casual, global-street-food-inspired Duke’s Common; and Kenwood’s scenic Salt & Stone.

Set for May 19, Santa Rosa’s 124-year-old Luther Burbank Rose Parade and Festival had a new theme that expressed the region’s post-fire spirit: Together We Rose.

Wine Country Attractions

Safari West

3115 Porter Creek Road, Santa Rosa, 707-579-2551, SafariWest.com

Petrified Forest

4100 Petrified Forest Road, Calistoga, 707-942-6667, PetrifiedForest.org

Robert Ferguson Observatory

2605 Adobe Canyon Road, Kenwood, 707-833-6979, RFO.org

Sonoma County Tourism

400 Aviation Blvd., No. 500, Santa Rosa, 707-522-5800, SonomaCounty.com

Duke’s Common

109a Plaza St., Healdsburg, 707-431-1105, DukesCommon.com

Salt & Stone

9900 Sonoma Highway, Kenwood, 707-833-6326, SaltStoneKenwood.com

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