Despite being shaped by the dramatic natural wonders of a volcano and mineral hot springs, Lake County exudes a lot of pastoral bliss. Spend a few days in this inland stretch of the North Coast region, north of the Napa Valley and east of Mendocino County, and you’ll encounter great wines, starry skies, and plenty of fresh-air fun.
Anchored by towns including Clearlake Oaks, Kelseyville, Middletown, and Lakeport, Lake County regularly ranks on lists for the best air quality in America, and its hot springs have attracted health-conscious vacationers since the 19th century. Today the county has the largest geothermal field complex in the world—see it when touring The Geysers—as well as charming museums detailing the area’s long history. Check out the Historic Courthouse Museum, which delves into the area’s Native American heritage, and houses one of the world’s largest collections of Eastern Pomo basketry, and the Ely Stage Stop & Country Museum, with its stagecoach and other relics. For fun nostalgia fix, browse the retro treasures at Clarke’s Collectibles and Lunch Box Museum.
Speaking of lunch, farm-to-table dining thrives in Lake County, given its abundant farmland, and pears often make their way onto the menu. Try the local produce–fueled comfort food at Saw Shop Public House, including a brisket braised in the stout from Kelsey Creek Brewing Company; the local-pear-and-gorgonzola pizzas at lakefront Park Place; and the barbecue at Lower Lake’s Danny’s Roadside Kitchen. For a sweet treat, stop in for a mocha and pastry made at Marcel’s Bakery, with locations in Clearlake Oaks and Lakeport. Or, come in September for the Kelseyville Pear Festival, with tastings, pear-packing contests, and mule-drawn wagon rides.
Set aside plenty of time to explore Lake County’s under-the-radar wine scene—more than 40 wineries strong—that takes full advantage of the Mediterranean-like climate and volcanic ash–rich soil. Wine lovers increasingly head here for the combination of excellent wines and a scene that’s both laid-back and affordable.
At Clearlake Oaks’ Cache Creek Vineyards, taste Chardonnay with hints of pear while watching wild turkeys and tule elk amble by. At Shannon Ridge, sip Sauvignon Blanc next to Anderson Marsh State Historic Park, with its Pomo-era archeological sites. In Kelseyville, Fore Family Vineyards creates an acclaimed Mourvedre while Laujor Estate Winery provides both excellent Petite Sirahs and big views of hollow volcano Mt. Konocti. And if you like Cabernet Sauvignon, don’t miss Six Sigma Ranch, where you will love their world-class Cabs and the Tempranillo, made with grapes grown at the winery’s Diamond Mine Vineyard, named after glittering bits of volcanic quartz in the soil. Explore the former ranch on an ATV tour, or enjoy a picnic under the century-old oak trees next to the ranch’s cabin-turned-tasting room.
This rich terrain offers plenty of ways to play, too. Thanks to spots such as Clear Lake—California’s largest freshwater lake—this is a prime region for fishing and water sports. Or head to the 27,000-acre Cache Creek Wilderness Area, with hiking trails and seasonal whitewater rafting on Cache Creek (and keep an eye out for bald eagles). Lake County’s clear skies make for great stargazing, too, whether you’re looking from Kelseyville’s Taylor Observatory, with its research-grade telescope and planetarium, or from a campsite at Clear Lake State Park.
Beyond the campground, you can stay in a range of brand-name or independent hotels—such as the historic Tallman Hotel in downtown Upper Lake, which originally served travelers along 19th-century stagecoach lines, and today offers geo-thermally heated soaking tubs. Or, stay in the vintage farmhouse that neighbors Chacewater Winery & Olive Mill, sleep in one of the nine antique railroad cabooses at Featherbed Railroad B&B, or book a cabin at Pine Grove—a forest retreat next to Kelsey Creek that has mineral springs-fed swimming pools.