Guide to the Russian River Valley
For more than 130 years, travelers have come to the Russian River area in Sonoma County to swim, paddle, hike, wine, dine, or simply relax and enjoy all the delights of this lovely waterway. As the Russian River winds its way through the lush Wine Country in Northern California, it creates a special corridor of gently moving water, riverside greenery, and the unique towns large and small that line its banks.
No matter what the time of year or the level of water in the river, there's always plenty to do and see along the Russian River.
This guide follows the lazily meandering river from Cloverdale in northeast Sonoma County, heading southwest through the Alexander, Dry Creek, and Russian River valleys, to where the Russian River empties into the Pacific Ocean on the coast. The best way to get to the Russian River area is by car (approx. one hour north of San Francisco) or by flying into the STS - Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport, located in Santa Rosa.
Start off in Cloverdale
We'll start just off Highway 101 in north-central Sonoma County, in Cloverdale (pop. 8,695), which was recently named one of "America's Coolest Small Towns." Cloverdale offers a family-friendly atmosphere and a growing arts community. Follow the Cloverdale Sculpture Trail to see 12 pieces of public art selected in an annual juried selection; the display changes each year.
West of the freeway is a compact downtown area filled with rambling Victorians. Explore the cobblestoned town plaza and stroll along Main Street, lined with shops, galleries, restaurants, and tasting rooms.
East of the freeway, enjoy the Russian River at the rustic Cloverdale River Park, featuring a picnic area with tables, a launch area for kayaks or canoes, and a 1.3-mile accessible and paved multi-use trail (hiking, biking and horseback) that ends near the downtown area.
Lodging in Cloverdale ranges from national motel chains to the vintage luxury of bed and breakfast inns in restored Victorians. There are also several local motels and vacation rentals scattered throughout the area, and two local campgrounds.
Detour to Geyserville
After exploring Cloverdale, hop on Highway 101 South and take the CA-128 East exit to the tiny, rustic town of Geyserville (pop. 862), in the beautiful Alexander Valley. If you follow the Geyserville Sculpture Trail hosted by the Geyserville Community Foundation, you'll discover more than 25 pieces of public art, including "Victory," a 25-foot-tall sculpture of a galloping horse. The foundation posts a gallery of the sculptures, in order from south to north, and a downloadable sculpture trail map.
Geyserville was settled in the mid-1800s, when geothermal springs were discovered in the Mayacamas Mountains to the east. Today the town charms visitors with wooden boardwalks and Wild West storefronts that are home to many tasting rooms, as well as a few small shops and restaurants.
Just outside of town, the River Rock Casino offers a great view from its patio, about 1,300 slot machines, 20 gaming tables, and a penny slot lounge. Nearby lodging choices include inns, vacation rentals, and campgrounds.
Head South to Healdsburg
From Geyserville, you can stay on frontage roads until you reach Healdsburg Avenue, or you can hop on Highway 101 and take the Westside Road exit to Healdsburg Avenue.
The town of Healdsburg (pop. 11,541) centers around its historic central plaza, which Travel + Leisure Magazine named as one of America's Most Beautiful Town Squares. Healdsburg is a delightful mix of rural and luxurious lifestyles, down-home and gourmet restaurants, amazing views, big-city amenities, and small-town charm. It can easily take more than a day to leisurely explore its shops, galleries, restaurants, bars, and tasting rooms.
And, of course, there's the river. Healdsburg Veterans Memorial Beach offers shady picnic facilities and a wide, sandy beach just downstream from the historic Memorial Bridge. The beach is open for summertime swimming in high-flow years, and wading in the cool water when river levels are low.
With nearly 100 restaurants in the area, dining in Healdsburg literally offers something for just about anyone. Lodging varies from luxury hotels, resorts, and bed and breakfast inns, to vacation rentals, rustic cabins, and campgrounds.
From Healdsburg, one option is to head west on Westside Road. This is a great route for wine lovers, as there are both stunningly lush views and a multitude of tasting rooms along this charmingly winding, two-lane road. (There are also a number of sharp turns and places where the road narrows, so it's best to have a designated driver when wine tasting.)
Or, as you leave Healdsburg drive southeast on Healdsburg Avenue (Old Redwood Highway), then right onto Eastside Road, which skims along beside the river.
Exploring the River's Twists and Turns
Our first stop along Eastside Road is the 300-acre Riverfront Regional Park, which stretches a mile along the river. It also offers two former quarry mining pits that are now beautiful fishing and kayaking lakes (no swimming allowed), a 15-acre grove of redwoods with a half-mile trail through the trees, and a large picnic area with a volleyball court.
This riverfront park is just minutes west of downtown Windsor (pop. 26,801), a deliberately designed metropolis with a family- and pedestrian-friendly emphasis. The town hosts more than 30 free annual events, including summer movie nights, concerts, and a seasonal farmers market.
The Westside and Eastside river roads connect through Wohler Road and the historic Wohler Bridge; a small regional park at the foot of the bridge provides a launch area for small craft (a short portage is required) and fishing access.
From the bridge, head southwest on Wohler Road, and take a right onto River Road. At the intersection with Mirabel Road you'll find Burke’s Canoe Trips, which offers canoe and kayak rentals with shuttle service, and riverside campsites.
Heading into Forestville
A left turn on Mirabel Road takes you into the laid-back, family-oriented town of Forestville (pop. 3,293), where coffee shops roast their own beans, and dining options vary from yummy basics to gourmet. Just outside of town, the Michelin-starred Farmhouse Inn presents a seasonal farm-to-table gourmet menu.
When you've finished exploring Forestville, drive back up Mirabel Road and continue left on River Road. You can dip into the water at Steelhead Beach Regional Park, which offers a beach area; a picnic area with barbecues; and a small launch area (open October to May) providing river access for drift boats, kayaks, and canoes.
A short way downstream and just off River Road, you'll find the Forestville River Access, which the locals call Mom's Beach because it's such a great place to take the kids, or anyone who wants to splash or swim, or catch some rays on a sandy beach.
River Road crosses to the other side of the river and meets up with the end of Westside Road (for those who left Healdsburg via this winery-dotted route). Slightly downstream from here, Sunset Beach River Park offers seasonal fishing and river access, and is a great spot for picnics, and watching birds and other river wildlife.
A little west on River Road you'll find Korbel Champagne Cellars, established in 1882. In addition to wine tasting and tours, this beautiful winery also features extensive gardens (including 250 varieties of antique roses, and 1,000 other types of flowers) and a gourmet deli.
Around a bend, a tight little valley is home to Rio Nido (pop. 522), founded in 1908 by the Eagle Lodge of San Francisco. This tiny community includes the English Tudor-style Rio Nido Lodge at the Russian River, built in the 1920s; the family-friendly Rio Nido Roadhouse, which occupies a refurbished double-wide trailer; a public pool; a post office; a fire station; and numerous summer homes and cabins clinging to the canyon's hillsides.
The Town of Guerneville
Continuing along River Road brings you to the town of Guerneville (pop. 4,534), which for more than a century has been a popular escape for San Francisco Bay Area residents, with visitors arriving by train in the 1870s to the 1930s, and by car starting in the 1940s. In the 1970s it became a welcoming resort area for Bay Area gays and lesbians.
Today, the main street of this small tourist town offers a highly eclectic (and sometimes eccentric) mix of shops, restaurants, bars and other businesses. Both a historic and a new bridge span the river at this point, where River Road merges into Highway 116.
The Russian River is a definite presence in Guerneville, which hugs its banks. Within walking distance of the downtown restaurants and shops, Johnson's Beach (see photo) provides the main river access for splashing, swimming, and paddling in the water; canoes, kayaks, inner tubes, umbrellas, beach chairs and more are available for rent.
Dining options in Guerneville include food stands, hip cafes, and trendy restaurants; lodging can vary from cozy cabins to rustic resorts, campgrounds, vacation rentals, and more. For wine lovers, more than 50 wineries are within a 20-minute drive of Guerneville.
Two miles north of downtown Guerneville you can walk among the ancient trees in the 805-acre Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve, a living reminder of the magnificent forest that once covered this entire area. This state reserve includes a visitor center, a large outdoor amphitheater, self-guided nature trails, and a variety of picnic facilities, all nestled at the feet of this grove of serene and majestic trees.
Driving through Armstrong Redwoods brings you to the 2.5-mile mountain road that serves as the entrance to Austin Creek State Recreation Area and Bullfrog Pond. The summit of this steep, narrow, winding roadway offers panoramic wilderness views. The recreation area includes open woodlands, rolling hills, and meadows, and its rugged typography creates a paradise for hiking or horseback riding.
Heading back into Guerneville, turn right on Highway 116 and drive through town to continue your journey toward the coast. This two-lane road follows the river's many twists and turns fairly closely.
Tucked into a particularly wide bend where the waterway makes a large "U" turn, you'll find the Northwood Golf Club, built in 1928 by famed golf architect Alister MacKenzie and ranked by Golf Magazine as the No. 3 nine-hole course in the United States.
Monte Rio: Vacation Wonderland
The golf course is on the eastern edge of the town of Monte Rio (pop. 1,152), where a 1950s-style neon sign proclaims "Welcome to Monte Rio Vacation Wonderland." This laid-back community stretches along both sides of the river, and includes a wonderful sandy beach, a historic bridge connecting the two sides of town, two hotels built in 1906, and a mural-decorated World War Ii-surplus Quonset hut that serves as the local movie theater.
There are a variety of restaurants around Monte Rio, and lodging ranges from quaint cottages to luxury bed and breakfast inns and historic small hotels.
As a potential side trip, consider exploring the 10-mile stretch of scenic two-lane roadway known as the Bohemian Highway, which heads south from Monte Rio to the small towns of Occidental and Freestone. Winding its way through towering redwoods, serene pastures and rocky ravines, the Bohemian highway is considered one the most scenic drives in California.
Returning to Monte Rio and Highway 116, head west toward the coast.
Beginning to Feel Sea Breezes
Because it's only four miles inland from the Sonoma County coast and enjoys a unique climate, tiny Duncans Mills (pop. 175) often enjoys blue skies while fog or rain clouds cover its surrounding hills. Located in a wide, flat area near the Russian River, this former lumber mill town is now home to more than a dozen unique specialty shops, several restaurants, a bakery, a wine tasting room, and a tiny regional museum. This small community is a great place to stroll and shop, then enjoy a bite to eat.
Continue west on Highway 116, then take a right to head north on Highway 1, to where the Russian River empties into the Pacific Ocean.
Each spring the ocean waves and the river's flow deposit a large sand spit, creating the Russian River Estuary, home to Pacific harbor seals, brown pelicans, ospreys, great blue herons, and much more. On the northern edge of the estuary, the Jenner Visitors Center gives visitors a chance to watch the prolific wildlife, and provides interpretative displays and a nature store.
An Ocean View Like No Other: Jenner
The highway climbs quickly here, to where the tiny coastal village of Jenner (pop. 136) perches on a high bluff. There are several restaurants in town and scattered along the coast, many with spectacular views. River's End Restaurant & Inn boasts a one-of-a-kind location on the bluff, offering stunning vistas and spectacular sunsets.
Or, head left at the junction of Highway 116 with Highway 1, and enjoy the easily assessable sandy beach, picnic area and ruggedly scenic shoreline at Goat Rock State Beach. It's good place to watch for migrating whales, and to observe (from at least 50 yards away) the seal colony that makes its home in the area each summer. Goat Rock is part of the Sonoma Coast State Park, a series of beaches stretching along 17 miles of the Sonoma coast.
Create Your Own Itinerary
This wraps up our east-to-west guide to the Russian River Resort area, but you can easily develop your own plan for exploring this lovely waterway and its resort towns.
To find places to dine and stay that are perfect for you, look through our list of Rivers & Redwoods Restaurants and Lodging.
No matter what the season, the Russian River area offers an almost endless supply of things to do and see.