Traveling with children through the Northern California wine country may seem like a potentially stressful undertaking, but there are a number of activities that can be added to an itinerary to make the journey as memorable for children as for their parents.
This roadside attraction, located within a 10-minute drive of the Robledo, Bartholomew, Three Sticks and Scribe wineries, encompasses a quarter-scale railroad and a miniature Western town. Stanley Frank, the former owner of a printing business in Oakland, envisioned a replica of a Sierra foothills town during the gold rush era. In the 1950s, he purchased a 10-acre cow pasture and by 1968 had made his dream a reality. The main attraction here is the 20-minute ride in a quarter-size steam train that chugs along 4 miles of picturesque track, crosses over bridges and passes through tunnels and by waterfalls. As a model train enthusiast, Frank personally crafted most of the cars himself. The train makes a stop at a miniature town, which has two rows of Old West-style buildings, including a jailhouse, school, church and firehouse, where children can get out and run around. The next stop is at a small petting zoo housing alpacas, goats and chickens. Though Stanley died in 1977, the park is still owned and run by the Frank family. Over the years, they have added railroad-themed amusement rides, including a carousel and Ferris wheel. This charming attraction feels like a step back in time.
Sonoma TrainTown Railroad
20264 Broadway, Sonoma. Tel. (707) 938-3912
This museum is dedicated to Charles M. Schulz, the famous cartoonist who introduced the world to the Peanuts gang. The humor illustrated by Schulz in his popular comic strip is witty and silly, yet simultaneously sardonic and melancholy. The quirky boy, Charlie Brown, and his pet beagle, Snoopy, as well as Linus and his security blanket, are well-known characters in the strip, and the adventures undertaken by the crew have inspired numerous movies, musicals and books. The museum’s mission is to “preserve, display and interpret the art of Charles M. Schulz,” and this art gallery-like space — packed with memorabilia, exhibits, illustrations and a memorable ceramic tile mural composed of more than 3,500 “Peanuts” comic strip images created by Japanese artist Yoshiteru Otani — does just that. In summer, the museum hosts adults-only evenings where guests can take cartooning lessons or partake in trivia contests while sampling local wines and beers.
Charles M. Schulz Museum
2301 Hardies Lane, Santa Rosa. Tel. (707) 579-4452
Set on a 400-acre wildlife preserve, Safari West is home to more than 900 animals, primarily African mammals, including giraffes, zebras, cheetahs, Cape buffalo, rhinos and wildebeest, plus a wide array of rare birds. Founded in 1993, this drive-through zoo is dedicated to wildlife conservation and environmental education. Three-hour guided safari excursions in custom vehicles through the “Sonoma Serengeti” can be booked, as can photography expeditions and nature walks. For those keen on glamping, 30 deluxe tents with en suite baths, hardwood floors and private viewing desks are available. Safari West was in the direct path of the devastating Tubbs Fire in 2017, and owner Peter Lang was forced to choose between salvaging his personal home or saving the zoo. Lang chose the animals. Without this noble sacrifice, the grounds and its inhabitants would have been devastated like much of the surrounding area.
3115 Porter Creek Road, Santa Rosa. Tel. (707) 579-2551
The historic Napa Valley Wine Train, composed of restored 100-year-old Pullman railcars, runs along a historic 150-year-old, 36-mile rail corridor from downtown Napa to St. Helena. Though this may seem like a questionable excursion to bring children on, the train’s vintage Silverado car is kid-friendly. Dining menus can be altered to suit your child’s preferences, movies are played, and coloring books are provided to keep your young ones entertained. The train also hosts seasonal events that have been specifically designed for children, including a 75-minute train ride “to the North Pole” during the Christmas season, where onboard games, sing-alongs, holiday elves, and of course Santa, are all part of the journey. Note that car seats and strollers are not permitted on the train.
Napa Valley Wine Train
1275 McKinstry St., Napa. Tel. (707) 253-2111