Gay Russian River in a nutshell:
Apart from Palm Springs, there's really no vacation community on the West Coast with a stronger gay and lesbian following than the Russian River, a densely verdant, redwood-tree-shaded valley in western Sonoma County. That being said, this laid-back, welcoming, and decidedly funky area marches very much to its own drummer, and defies stereotypes.
The area's main community is Guerneville (population 4,500), which has a smattering of gay resorts and bars. Although it's an unpretentious town that's still something of a hippie haven, Guerneville has seen an influx of hipper restaurants and inns in recent years, in part because it's an increasingly important hub in Somoma's thriving Wine Country. Moving east toward tony Healdsburg, you'll find some of California's top wineries, especially along curving and verdant West Side Road. All through the area, there's spectacular scenery and plenty of outdoorsy diversions.
The Russian River draws weekenders from San Francisco and the Bay Area year-round, but it's especially popular - and draws more LGBT visitors from beyond Northern California - on weekends from late spring through early fall. A setback for winter visits is the often intensely rainy weather - Guerneville averages 8 inches of rain in Jan. and Feb., and 5+ inches Nov., Dec., and Mar., but is quite dry in summer.
Average highs and lows in Jan. are 57 and 36 deg F; in July, the highs average 84 deg F, with lows a cool and crisp 49 deg F. If it's sunny hiking and kaying weather you seek, come in the summer - it's mild year-round, however.
The Russian River valley extends along a tortuous river bed from inland Healdsburg to the coast, where the river itself empties into the Pacific beside the small but scenic town of Jenner. It's in the western half of Sonoma County. And as tucked away as it is from Northern California's more populated regions, it's still a pretty easy drive from San Francisco, Sacramento, Napa, and so on.
From U.S. 101 or Hwy. 1, both of which lead north from San Francisco (U.S. 101 is a major freeway that's by far the fastest of the two roads), you can reach the Russian River via Hwy. 116, which connects the two roads along the area's main towns, Guerneville and Monte Rio.
Driving distances to Guerneville from major cities and points of interest are:
- Bodega Bay: 25 miles (35 min)
- Healdsburg: 20 miles (35 min)
- Lake Tahoe: 220 miles (4 hours)
- Los Angeles: 440 miles (7 to 8 hours)
- Mendocino: 100 miles (2.5 hours)
- Napa: 60 miles (1.5 hours)
- Oakland: 75 miles (1.5 hours)
- Portland, OR: 660 miles (10 to 12 hours)
- Sacramento: 120 miles (2 to 2.5 hours)
- San Francisco: 70 miles (1.5 hours)
- Santa Rosa: 20 miles (35 min)
- Sebastopol: 15 miles (25 min)
Getting to the Russian River:
There aren't many transportation options to the Russian River - your best bet is simply to drive, as most do from San Francisco (see the Gay Guide to San Francisco for info on airports in the Bay Area).
Just 20 miles east of Guerneville, however, there is commercial air service into Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport on Horizon Airlines, part of Alaska Air. Direct, nonstop flights into Santa Rosa come from Los Angeles, Portland, San Diego, and Seattle, meaning it's pretty easy to fly into Santa Rosa with just one connection from much of North America and even many international cities.
Russian River and Guerneville Yearly Event Calendar
- Mid-May: Russian River Women's Weekend.
- Late May: Russian River Valley Pinot Classic.
- Mid- to late June: Russian River Rodeo.
- Mid to late June: Out in the Vineyard Gay Wine Weekend in Sonoma.
- Early Aug.: Russian River Lazy Bear Weekend.
- Mid-Aug.: Korbel Champagne Cellars Rockin’ and Rollin’ on the River (Guerneville).
- Mid-Sept.: Armstrong Woods Reserve Old Grove Festival.
- Mid-Sept.: Chautauqua Revue at Occidental Arts & Ecology Center.
- Late Sept.: Russian River Jazz & Blues Festival.
- Mid- to late Oct.: ArtTrails Sonoma and Russian River Open Studios Weekends.
Things to Do in the Russian River:
Wine-tasting is probably the biggest draw in the Russian River - there are more than 100 wineries in these parts, including some of the most prestigious ones in the country. And most are open for tastings - check out the Russian River Valley Winegrowers for a list of wineries.
The other major pastime here is simply enjoying nature, whether on a canoe or kayaking trip, or on a hike through the massive (some over 300 feet tall) redwood groves of Armstrong Redwoods State Reserve. The Russian River is also a popular area for both tent and RV camping
Russian River and Guerneville Resources:
There's no shortage of well-researched, gay-specific travel information on the Russian River, beginning with the excellent website, GayRussianRiver.com.
Wine-Touring in the Russian River:
With numerous alliances and winegrowers in Sonoma County, it's easy to find tour maps and brochures highlighting area vineyards and tasting rooms, both online and on paper. If you're based around Guerneville, consult the following sites Russian River Wine Road and Russian River Valley Winegrowers. Also within easy proximity are the many superb wineries of the Alexander Valley and Dry Creek Valley.
More broadly throughout the county, it's worth checking out websites of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission, Sonoma County Vintners, and the wineries page of the Sonoma County Tourism Bureau. Armed with these resources, it's not hard to score fine wine.
Getting to Know the Russian River's Gay Scene:
The quirky communities of Guerneville and Monte Rio, which in certain ways still look much as they did three decades ago, comprise the Russian River GLBT resort region. Since the late '70s, when a couple of gay men opened bed-and-breakfasts here, the region's popularity has soared. Bay Area queers have always been the prime visitors, many of them renting or buying summer homes here. These are small towns, with Guerneville much larger than Monte Rio and being home to the majority of the Russian River's eclectic, and increasingly hip, shops, cafes, bars, and inns.
Except for a handful of wineries, there aren't many cultural attractions here. There is plenty to do, however. People come chiefly to escape urban pressures and to take advantage of the region's myriad outdoor offerings - from swimming to canoeing to hiking. There are beaches along the river and sundecks at most resorts, but this isn't a major spot for sun bunnies. Aging hippies still make up a significant chunk of both the visiting and permanent population - they're joined by younger queers, Bay Area hipsters, foodies, artists, and other creative and left-leaning spirits.
Most of Guerneville's businesses are gay-owned, including several inns and small resorts. The compact downtown is easily walked in an hour or so and contains some cool little boutiques, vintage shops, cafes, and farm-to-table restaurants. From here, it's an easy 10- to 20-minute drive east to begin exploring the Russian River's leading wineries.