Synonymous with old-fashioned summer fun, the stretch of Sonoma County’s Russian River from the towns of Rio Nido to Jenner offers prime recreation opportunities. Once overrun by the logging industry, this string of towns has worked tirelessly to be rebranded as tourist destinations, and those efforts are noticed around every bend of the winding waterway. What activities you embark on first depends on the direction of your approach. Coming from Santa Rosa, take River Road west and stop at Burke’s Canoe Trips, which offers rentals and a 10-mile self-guided paddle to explore the river on water. If Healdsburg is your starting point, hop on Westside Road to roll along lush hillsides terraced with vineyards—maybe stopping at one or two—before joining River Road to embark on your dreamy river retreat.
Until recently the least developed of the river towns, Rio Nido is experiencing a resurgence with the opening of the Farmhand, a gourmet deli and artisanal market serving items such as Portobello mushroom panini. Dine on the deck overlooking the river or take lunch to go in one of their gourmet picnic boxes. Lively Stumptown Brewery and Grill next door hides a secret—a spacious deck overlooking the river and a private beach where diners feast on slow-smoked brisket and pulled pork straight off the outdoor grill.
The majority of overnight visitors base their stay in LGBTQ-friendly Guerneville, the biggest town on the river, where options include retro-chic motels, Airstream resort Autocamp, and Dawn Ranch, an expansive summer camp–style property with luxe cottages and chalets around a central lodge. Spend the day soaking up the sun at Johnson’s Beach, a classic river spot—rent kayaks, pedal boats, and even beach chairs and umbrellas. To satisfy your culinary tooth, book a table at Boon Eat + Drink, which put Guerneville on the foodie map with farm-to-table fare such as arugula and shaved fennel salad and Moroccan chicken, plus plenty of vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free options. Chef Crista Luedtke, who also owns the chic boutique Boon Hotel & Spa, opened BROT down the street in 2019, serving bratwurst and other German beer hall fare.
The dense forests of redwood and oak extending north from the Russia River were held sacred by the native Pomo tribe, who originally inhabited the region before the logging trade drew timber barons north to the area. While much of the area was destroyed, Colonel James Boydston Armstrong, and later his descendants, protected a spectacular grove of massive redwoods just north of Guerneville—a rival for popular Muir Woods without the reservations. Walk the 1-mile round-trip Pioneer Nature Trail to see the 310-foot-tall Parson Jones tree and the 1,400-year-old Armstrong tree, then continue on a short distance to a shady picnic area.
West from Guerneville, River Road becomes Highway 116, though locals continue to call it River Road until it joins the sea at Jenner. Set up for a day on the river at Monte Rio Community Beach, one of the largest and most visited in the area, featuring a concession stand and kayak rentals. Or take a break from the water at Northwood Golf Club, a popular stop for fans of the sport, as well as for the diners who flock to recently reimagined Northwood Bistro with its expansive patio under the redwoods, hearty portions of steak and prime rib, and live music on weekends.
If this cluster of 18th-century buildings looks straight out of the Old West, that's because it is. Originally the company town for the timber business of the same name, the clapboard buildings now house galleries and boutiques, a collection of restored rail cars, and Cape Fear restaurant, popular for its New Orleans-inspired weekend brunch, clam chowder, and chef’s dinner specials such as a hearty beef bourguignon. Across Highway 116, Gold Coast Coffee and Bakery serves up rich bear claws, croissants, and cinnamon rolls with occasional live music on the sunny back patio.
Ocean vistas, kayaking in the river mouth, and Goat Rock Beach with its sea lion nursery are the prime attractions in Jenner. Before heading out, visit Café Aquatica for homemade pastries and organic coffee, served on a waterfront deck with one of the best views on the river and live music on weekends. To refuel after a day of outdoor fun, head to River’s End Restaurant to cap off time well spent on the river with cocktails and fine dining backlit by stunning sunset views. —Melanie Haiken