The Russian River Valley was, for the indigenous population, a veritable Garden of Eden. Richly forested, it provided an abundance of game, fish, and wild fruits and berries in a climate that was as pleasant as any on earth. The almost-sheltered valley was accessible from the ocean, always feeling the marine influence, but also the inland warmth.
Attracted 140 years ago by the world's premier redwood groves, first loggers and then travelers came to see the ancient forests (then called Big Bottom). What began as loggers' cabins and vacation homes gradually turned into small communities of foresters, farmers and merchants.
Russian fur trappers, from whom the area gets its name, settled the area, following the paths of the Indians from the Pacific Ocean and coming inland far enough to settle Sebastopol. Russians could not hang on to their distant outposts, however, in the face of the mass migration of Americans in the middle 1800s. Railroads were run into the redwood forests for lumbering, which brought a large influx of European immigrants.
With prime land exposed, the new settlers knew what to do, and began planting. The cool climate was ideally suited to apples, which became the dominant crop - supplemented by fruits and vegetables that made the new world feel like the old. Naturally, wine grapes found their way into the ground - for family use, of course.
In the 1920s the lower Russian River area had available 15,000 guest beds, and while many of the attractive and unique cabins and historic cottages have become year-round homes, it is still a favorite getaway for retreats and vacations. Small eclectic hamlets and towns nestled amongst the ranches and farms add to the culture and diversity of the area. Each with its own history and stories to tell, they include:
GUERNEVILLE, once the hub of the redwood timber mills, then the largest of the lower Russian River resort communities, still offers great vacation opportunities in a town known for its social and cultural diversity
MONTE RIO, home to the summer encampment at famous Bohemian Grove, ninety years ago boasted picture shows, dance halls and water sports along with a 7-story hotel
FORESTVILLE, a small town which in 1836 was home to California's first power sawmill, and is now a peaceful haven bordered by orchards, farms and vineyards.
RIO NIDO, where hundreds flocked to the dance halls to be entertained by Ozzie Nelson, Benny Goodman, and Jimmy Dorsey Brothers
DUNCAN MILLS with its fine gift stores and restaurants, began as a lumber mill and now presents a restored and recreated rural village.
OCCIDENTAL, well known for its restaurants and scenic vistas
The Russian River area inspires a diverse lifestyle where one can savor the delights.
Only 69 miles North of San Francisco – about 1.5 hr by car
In Sonoma wine country between Santa Rosa and the Pacific Ocean with 100+ wineries nearby
Gay friendly for over 25 years.
Guerneville (pop. ~5000) has 2nd highest concentration of same-sex households of U.S. towns & cities (Gay Atlas); population of lower River area about 10,000
6 Gay and gay-friendly bars/nightclubs
Gorgeous dry weather Spring thru Fall with average highs 80-83F and 85-95% sunny days. Summer nights generally in 50-60's. Storms are virtually unknown in summer. (average rain ~40 in/year – mostly in December - February)
In the heart of giant redwoods – only 2 miles to Armstrong Woods State Reserve with some of the oldest, tallest redwoods in California
Only 15 miles to Pacific beaches (often >20 deg. cooler than Guerneville) and spectacular drives to historic Bodega Bay and Fort Ross on the rugged, rocky California coast.
Unsurpassed outdoor activities include canoeing, kayaking, hiking, bicycling and more.
Hot air ballooning (Sonoma, Napa, Lake counties) & wine train (Napa)
Live theater – Pegasus Theater in Monte Rio & Burbank/Wells Fargo Center in Santa Rosa.
(Adapted in part from an article by Glen Gertmenian)
Since the early 1900's, the lower Russian River has been a favorite vacation venue in the Bay area. Thousands of vacationers arrived on daily trains in the summer to enjoy the natural beauty surrounding Guerneville (also know as “Stumptown” because of the extensive redwood logging), Monte Rio, Rio Nido and other small towns along the River. In the 40's “big band” era, dance halls holding as many as 3000 were popular along the River.
By mid-70's, Wohler Bridge beach on actor Fred MacMurry’s ranch had become a popular gay spot. Charter buses brought sun worshippers from San Francisco to spend the day. Not far from Wohler, the first gay resort opened as Russian River Lodge (now the upscale Farmhouse Inn) on River Road.
A few miles west on the River, Guerneville had fallen on hard times in the 1960's. The glory days of family resorts were over. Bikers and hippies had overrun Guerneville. In 1977, Peter Pender from Philadelphia transformed the old 15-acre Murphy’s Ranch, which had been catering to families since 1905, into Fife’s Resort on the west edge of Guerneville, which for a time became “the” gay resort in the Bay area.
Soon after, several other resorts were purchased and transformed into gay venues (Hexagon House, The Willows, The Highlands, Paradise Cove, River Village, Russian River Resort, Village Inn.....), many of which have changed owners and clientele over the years. Currently there are over 30 gay and gay-friendly resorts and inns.
And several gay bars started up, including the Rusty Nail, the Mineshaft, Drums, Rainbow Cattle Company (still running), River Business (later becoming RR Eagle and Liquid Sky), and Ziggurat (later Fab). Currently, there are 6 Gay and gay-friendly bars and nightclubs.
In the late 80's, the AIDS epidemic and recession began to reduce the number of summer visitors. Periodic floods also caused some restaurants and clubs to close. But by the turn of the century, lower Russian River has experienced a resurgence in gay popularity with a new generation of gay business owners and visitors. Lazy Bear Week, Women’s Week, Sundance and other special events became popular, drawing thousands of vacationers. And many former gay vacationers have bought homes as vacation or permanent homes.
Come out to the River and see why so many people return year after year.