Modern Guide to Lake County: Small Town Charm, Volcanic Wines + Outdoor Life
While you won't find tony resorts or even a handful of boutique hotels in Lake County, you can check into more intimate, authentic stays at wineries and farms such as Peace and Plenty, the largest saffron farm in North America. (Courtesy of Peace and Plenty Farm)

Modern Guide to Lake County: Small Town Charm, Volcanic Wines + Outdoor Life

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To some, Lake County is a beloved destination for getting outdoors and drinking wine just north of Napa and Sonoma counties. To others, it is, wait, where's Lake County again?

The truth is that Lake County is a little bit of both. Families have been camping here for decades; the grapes have been growing for years and years. And yet, there's still very little tourism infrastructure compared to our more popular wine regions, perhaps thanks in part to the very steep and winding routes one must take to get here, whether from Calistoga to the south or from Ukiah to the west.


Plus, the area's tourist attractions haven't changed much. The amenities we're all used to here in Northern California—boutique hotels, artisanal restaurants, wineries that charge for tastings, craft breweries—are only just getting started in Lake County.

But all this makes now is a special time to visit. You'll find a few lovely places to stay, a handful of great restaurants, and Main Street USA nostalgic vibes without crowds or attitude.

Of course, you don't need to hear the name of every town in the county to know that there's a lake around. Clear Lake is the largest freshwater lake in California that's completely within state boundaries. Unfortunately, nature hasn't been kind to Clear Lake in recent years. A toxic algae bloom and low water levels due to drought make swimming in the water a mostly bad idea (definitely keep your dogs away from the water!). Plus, parts of the mountains around the southern part of the county (in Cobb and Middleton) were devastated by the 2015 Valley Fire.

But the area is resilient, shaped in part by its iconic volcano, Mount Konocti, and distinct red soil; there's still a lot of beautiful scenery to take in. And several wine grape varietals thrive in the region—even Napa Valley's celebrity grower Andy Beckstoffer owns vineyards here.

Here's where to eat, drink, stay, and play in one-of-a-kind Lake County.

Where to Go Wine Tasting in Lake County

Wine tasting with a view at Laujor.

(Courtesy of Laujor)

Boatique Winery

The boat theme isn’t subtle—Boatique claims to have the West Coast’s largest collection of antique wooden boats—but the Red Hills AVA wines and Mt. Konocti view at are well worth a visit. // 8255 Red Hills Rd., (Kelseyville), boatiquewines.com

Laujor Estate Winery

Think of Laujor as a classic Lake County tasting experience where you can get a quick introduction to what makes the Red Hills AVA so unique. It has Mt. Konocti and vineyard views, an ultra-relaxed vibe, a standout Bordeaux blend called the Proprietor’s Reserve, and even an excellent dessert wine ( Little Ruby, made of petite sirah). // 8664 Seigler Springs Rd., (Kelseyville), laujorestate.com

Hawk and Horse Vineyards

Lake County's premier wines are the work of celebrated winemaker Mitch Hawkins, whose elegant petite sirah, petit verdot, and cabernet at Hawk and Horse are the real deal. Grapes come from an organic and biodynamic vineyard in the steep mountains near the tasting room off Highway 29. Yes, these wines easily rival those of Napa. And yes, there are horse stables. Call ahead to arrange a visit; the tasting room still hasn’t reopened since the pandemic. // 13048 Highway 29 (Lower Lake), hawkandhorsevineyards.com

Six Sigma Ranch and Winery

And the award for longest winery driveway in Northern California goes to…Six Sigma. There is a lot going on at this expansive ranch, including various tours and trails, but you're here for the rustic hilly setting and some terrific cabernet sauvignon and tempranillo. While many wineries in the county don’t offer food, Six Sigma can create a lovely assortment of cheese and charcuterie. // 13372 Spruce Grove Rd. (Lower Lake), sixsigmaranch.com

Fore Family Vineyards

Jim and Diane Fore’s wines are easily among the best in Lake County, made with grapes sourced from their Cobb Mountain vineyard—the grenache blanc and cabernet sauvignon are among the local highlights. But the couple of winemakers actually lives in Napa Valley, so don't hesitate to taste their pinot noir and albariño from Carneros. // 3924 Main St. (Kelseyville), forefamilyvineyards.com

Chacewater Winery & Olive Mill

Chacewater has a few solid wines (the Krev malbec and Nell cabernet sauvignon) and some that are less thrilling (they serve Jell-o shots and sangria in the tasting room), but it remains a main attraction in Kelseyville thanks to its bocce ball court, olive oil tastings, and olive oil soaps. // 5625 Gaddy Ln. (Kelseyville), chacewaterwine.com

Wild Diamond Vineyards

This stylish newcomer to southern Lake County has one of the most stunning panoramic views around. The so-called “wine tasting village” has a variety of outdoor tables and viewpoints centered around a small building that looks more like a pool cabana in the Hollywood Hills than the usual tasting room. You’ll likely be pleased with the Dumb Luck Mourvèdre and Wild Diamond Cabernet Franc. Note, reservations are a must. // 15015 Spruce Grove Rd. (Lower Lake), wilddiamond.com

Fun Things to Do in Lake County

Paddle boarding against the backdrop of Mount Konocti.

(Courtesy of @aftermyown_heart)

Clear Lake

If you’re coming to Lake County, you should probably see the lake, which actually isn’t all that clear thanks to toxic algae bloom that makes it unsafe for swimming in most areas. And, thanks to low water levels, the boat docks are currently closed (as of May 2022) to all boats except kayaks, which you can rent at Disney’s Boat Rentals(401 S Main St., Lakeport). But there is still plenty to do around the lake. Clear Lake State Park(5300 Soda Bay Rd., Kelseyville) is the primary spot for viewing the water from lakefront trails. For a quirky way to see the lake and surrounding region, check out the popular Quilt Trail which features painted quilt designs on structures at more than 100 farms and wineries.

Hike Mt. Konocti

Besides the wineries and Clear Lake, this lakeside dormant volcano, whose majestic silhouette can be spotted from all over the region, is Lake County’s marquee attraction. Opt for an active visit with a six- to seven-mile hike to its highest summit, Wright Peak; it’s doable in about three hours round trip. // For info on trails and wildlife, go to konoctitrails.com.

Blue Lakes

Clear Lake isn’t the only body of water in Lake County. Smaller and more intimate, Blue Lake and Lower Blue Lake are calm, beautiful spots for kayaking, lingering on a pontoon, and jumping in for a refreshing dip. Most of the shoreline is private property, so plan to access it with a rental from the Lodge at Blue Lakes. // 5135 State Hwy 20 (Upper Lake), thelodgeatbluelakes.com

Hot Springs Retreats

Just up Highway 29 from Calistoga, Middletown lacks the fancy hype of its hot springs resort neighbor, but it's still a pretty well known go-to for those nourishing waters, especially at Harbin Hot Springs (18424 Harbin Springs Rd., Middletown). The oldest hot springs in California, nonprofit Harbin offers spring pools, body treatments, yoga, and even overnight accommodations on 1,700 bucolic acres. Nearby, Mandala Springs (14117 Bottle Rock Rd., Cobb) is a soothing wellness retreat with a variety of activities (hikes, sports, mini golf) on 200 acres in the Mayacamas Mountains.

Boggs Mountain

Anchoring the densely forested southern part of Lake County is Boggs Mountain, a prime spot for hiking and mountain biking with 10 miles of trails and another 10 or so planned for the future. Three "new/old" trails—Bear Bones, Boggs Peak and Gails—opened in 2022 thanks to the efforts of the Redwood Trail Alliance. // Find trail maps at boggsmountain.org.

Peace and Plenty Farm

Did you know that Lake County is home to the largest saffron farm in all of North America? The spectacular farm founded by two former San Franciscans is an IG-friendly destination with a cute farmstand stocked with saffron honey and lemonade as well as fresh produce; a farm dinner series; and even a vintage Airstream and cottage where you can stay the weekend. You know it’s a big deal when Martha Stewart Living wrote about it. // 4550 Soda Bay Rd. (Kelseyville), peaceplentyfarm.com

Bell Haven Flower Farm

For something pretty to take home, stop by Bell Haven's sweet little shop for market-fresh floral bouquets in Kelseyville. As the name suggests, Bell Haven’s does have a beautiful flower farm right on the lake in Soda Bay; it's part of the eight-acre Bell Haven Resort, which is open for special events. // 3835 Main St. (Kelseyville), bellhavenflowerfarm.com

Where to Eat + Drink in Lake County

The Tallman Hotel's Blue Wing Saloon serves up signature wings with blue cheese and also hosts live music.

(Courtesy of Tallman Hotel)

Restaurants

Red’s at the Skyroom

Watch small planes come and go with mountains in the background at Lake County’s Lampson Field airport, where the menu at Red's comes courtesy of Hog Island Oyster alum Jeremy Zabel. It's comfort food with real technique and quality ingredients: Keep an eye out for the signature Aunt Den’s French chicken, a better-than-the-norm take of chicken piccata. // 900 Sky Park Rd. (Lakeport), redsskyroom.com

Saw Shop Public House

Hours can be tricky in small town Lake County where many restaurants aren’t open for both lunch and dinner and perhaps only four days a week. This Kelseyville stalwart is open almost all day, Dishes are all over the map—crispy cauliflower in sweet gochujang chili sauce, ahi poke nachos, crispy shrimp tacos—but the wines are local. // 3825 Main St. (Kelseyville), sawshoppublichouse.com

Danny’s Road Side Kitchen

Lake County still has a distinct vintage Americana vibe, and no place here captures that character better than the outdoor-seating-only Danny’s Road Side. Bring cash if you hope to dig into barbecue ribs, tri-tip, and burgers, and bring home bottles of their sauces. // Closed Sundays;9800 CA-53 (Lower Lake), facebook.com/dannysroadsidekitchen

Blue Wing Saloon Restaurant

If you happen to be in the region but can’t find time to visit the wineries, Tallman Hotel’s restaurant and bar is your best bet for trying several local wines by the glass, though they also make great (and strong) margarita. Order the signature Buffalo-style wings with blue cheese, as well as more refined entrees like pan-seared salmon with pineapple salsa and smoked grits. With Edison lights and sycamore trees, the patio is IG-ready. // 9520 Main St. (Upper Lake), tallmanhotel.com

Park Place

If there’s a power lunch spot in Lake County, it's this almost-waterfront favorite adjacent to Library Park and Clear Lake itself. Enjoy the wonderful ambience while you dine on shrimp and grits and seasonally driven specials like summer roasted corn and crispy prosciutto with tomatoes and blue cheese. Do not miss thehousemade fettuccine salad with Lake County walnuts. // 50 3rd St. (Lakeport), parkplacelakeport.com

Juicy’s Pizza

This Lakeport spot is a favorite for its rooftop patio and killer pizza. Founders and well-known pizzaiolo/bakers Amy Hinson and Keith “Juicy” Guisto make their pies with dough from a sourdough starter born in 1993. Snacks, wings and salads round out the menu. // 155 Park St. (Lakeport), juicyspizza.com


Beer + Coffee

O Meara Bros. Brewing Company

The Elk Mountain IPA here is as near perfect as it gets for a West Coast IPA, so dialed in with the right balance of hop and citrus notes and a savory finish. Even if you don’t care for IPAs, O’Meara Bros. is a quintessential gastropub with live music on Saturdays and a globetrotting menu that ranges from Irish egg rolls to Baja fish tacos. // 901 Bevins St. (Lakeport), omearabros.com

Kelsey Creek Brewing

This Kelseyville brewery and pub is a de facto town gathering place: homey, welcoming, and with excellent brews across the board. Try the Irish Donkey red and the Jade Monkey West Coast IPA. // 3945 Main St. (Kelseyville), kelseycreekbrewing.com

Studebakers

This isn't your San Francisco third wave hipster hangout. Studebakers feels like a time capsule of a coffee shop, like a midcentury soda fountain that happens to focus on coffee. It’s a Kelseyville institution and a pleasant place for a cinnamon roll after wine tasting or sandwiches before a hike,. The coffee won’t win any awards, but the iced coffee is pretty satisfying on warm Lake County days. // 3990 Main St. (Kelseyville), studebakerscoffee.com

Where to Stay in Lake County

A sunny room at the Tallman.

(Courtesy of Tallman Hotel)

Tallman Hotel

When it comes to upscale boutique hotels in Lake County, there’s the Tallman and there’s…the Tallman. The Upper Lake hotel is all enchantment with a stately veranda, lovely gardens, an outdoor swimming pool, polished 18th century décor, and a breakfast parlor with a wildlife mural by artist Carol Thosath. Try to book one of the lower garden rooms which have private patios with traditional Japanese Ofuro soaking tubs. The Blue Wing Saloon serves tasty fare daily and also doubles as a live music venue. // 9550 Main St. (Upper Lake), tallmanhotel.com

Suites on Main

This decade-old favorite in a renovated downtown Kelseyville building has a prime walkable location and bright, contemporary "mini apartments" with kitchens and workspaces well suited for families, freelancers, and their dogs looking to hole up for a week. The rear courtyard is a delightful and quiet spot to enjoy your morning coffee or a sunset glass of wine. // 3965 Main St. (Kelseyville), suiteonmain.com

Looking for something a little different?

Many Bay Area travelers opt to stay at Airbnbs in the region, but there are also unique and cozy accommodations at many of the county's wineries and farms including Peace and Plenty Farm, Laujor Estate Winery, Reese Ranch Retreat, Bed & Barrel Stonehouse Cellars, The Ripe Choice Stay & Catering, Six Sigma, and Chacewater's farmhouse.

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