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, which has a smattering of gay resorts and bars but is completely unpretentious. Moving east toward tony Healdsburg, you'll find some of California's top wineries. All through the area, there's spectacular scenery and outdoorsy fun.
The Russian River draws weekenders from San Francisco and the Bay Area year-round, but it's especially popular - and has more of a national following - 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, to 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 highway 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)
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 Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Portland, 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.
Major Russian River Events and Festivals:
Jan.: Winter Wineland (a weekend of tastings, tours, and wine-related activities).
Early Mar.: Annual Barrel Tasting.
Early Mar.: Russian River Valley Winegrowers Crab & Fennel Fest.
Mid-May: Russian River Women's Weekend.
Mid-June: Russian River Rodeo.
Mid-June: Sonoma County Gay Pride Festival.
Mid-June: Russian River Blues Festival.
Early Aug.: Lazy Bear Weekend.
Late Aug.: LGBT Families on the River.
Early Sept.: Russian River Jazz on the River Festival.
Mid-Oct.: Fabulosa Fest (Women's Festival of music and art).
Mid-Oct.: Russian River Leather Weekend.
Things to Do:
Winetasting 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
Resources on the Russian River and Guerneville:
There's no shortage of well-researched, gay-specific travel information on the Russian River, beginning with the excellent website, GayRussianRiver.com.
Finding Great Wineries:
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 Healdsburg, consult the Russian River Wine Road, Russian River Valley Winegrowers, Alexander Valley Winegrowers, Winegrowers of Dry Creek Valley, or Healdsburg Wineries.
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 many ways look to be frozen in time, comprise the Russian River gay and lesbian resort destination. 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. The Russian River has never gained the national or even international gay presence of Palm Springs. These are small towns. Guerneville is much larger than Monte Rio; it's diverse, including a few remnants of Guerneville's older, pre-homo guard - many of them bikers or hippies or both - and a smattering of Mexican immigrants.
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 and left-leaning thinkers make up a significant chunk of both the visiting and permanent population - vintage VW buses are commonplace.
Most of the businesses in the Russian River are in Guerneville, which includes a number of gay-owned (sometimes gay-exclusive) accommodations, plus a nice mix of quirky boutiques and cafes in its compact downtown. The winemaking prestige of the nearby Russian River Valley, between Guerneville and Healdsburg, has given the area a bit more of a sophisticated vibe in recent years. But fear not - this remains an unstuffy and welcoming part of the world.
Indeed, the Russian River is not a place to sashay about in your trendiest threads or talk about who you know and where your career is headed. It's truly a place to get away from big-city living and appreciate some of the most spectacular outdoor scenery on the West Coast. People dress down, hike or canoe, and mellow out. Bars are attitude-free and even a little rowdy. Snootiness is not tolerated. As with Key West and Provincetown, many Russian Riverites have dropped out of a busier-paced world to chill in the woods. An long-gone restaurant in town, the Hiding Place, used to print the following on its menu: "If you're not served in 10 minutes...relax! You'll be served in 15 or maybe 30 minutes."