DAY TRIPPING | Driving to the River

DAY TRIPPING | Driving to the River

By: Frank Robertson

Jan. 13, 2011

 It always feels good to see the tall trees looming up at Mirabel on a hot summer day when you’re driving west out River Road to the Russian River.

 At Mirabel Park the road starts to curve and becomes shaded and the day feels cooler. There’s a sign advertising canoes and kayaks for rent. People are camped out along the riverbank. It’s a different world.

 “This is where the River really begins,” a friend once noted as we drove west from Santa Rosa leaving behind freeway traffic and suburbia, passing oak woodland and vineyards and heading into the redwoods.

 The River, as locals call the Russian River resort area that exists more or less from Forestville to Monte Rio, is where forested hills drop suddenly to a meandering river flowing past century-old vacation homes and rustic hamlets named Summerhome Park, Rio Nido (Spanish for River Nest) and Vacation Beach.

 Old cabins and lodges hark back to early Northern California leisure days when men in suits and ties and women in dresses and hats escaped foggy, cold San Francisco summers to bask in the Redwood Empire’s “vacation wonderland.”

 The River really starts to bare its architectural soul at the Hacienda Bridge where a shipping and lumber tycoon named Henry Hess built a summer lodge overlooking the River in the 1920s.

 Looking downriver from the bridge you can see Sunset Beach, Sonoma County’s newest riverfront park that just opened last year. The bridge was built in 1877 for the Northwestern Pacific Railroad line that went to Guerneville to serve the logging industry. By the turn of the century—the 20th century— it was carrying San Francisco day trippers who crossed the Bay by ferry to Sausalito and caught a train to the River.

 Just before you cross the Hacienda Bridge, turn left on Forest Hills Road, drive a long block to Summerhome Park Road and turn right. You’ll enter the hillside village of Summerhome Park where narrow roads wind past dozens of old summer homes that are part of a resort community established in 1908.

 “Summerhome Park is like a step back in time,” says the Summerhome Park web site. “We have families that have summered there for five generations.”

 On the west side of the Hacienda Bridge, turn right onto Westside Road and go up McPeak Road where the riparian forest of Hobson Creek has engulfed a meadow that was once a manicured golf course designed by Alister MacKenzie, the acclaimed golf course visionary who also designed the Augusta National and Monterey’s Cypress Point.

 Years ago this was the Russian River Golf and Country Club and Hacienda Inn, later called Skippy’s, where old timers say Bing Crosby once worked and played golf. Skippy’s is now a boarded up hulk of a former steakhouse and cavernous cocktail lounge that a magazine writer once called the best bar in California.

 On your way to Guerneville, stop in at Korbel Champagne Cellars to visit the winery, tasting room and deli, and also the historic Korbel family house built in the 1880s. During the summer, free guided tours of the rose garden are available Tuesday through Sunday from 1 to 3 p.m.

 Continuing on, you’ll come to Rio Nido, where there used to be a sign along River Road that said “Memories That Linger.” The memories remain even without famous names like Benny Goodman, Glen Miller, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and the other big-band orchestras that in the 1930s and 40s drew huge crowds to Rio Nido and the Mirabel Dance Hall.

 You can still visit the Rio Nido Roadhouse, a restaurant, bar and swimming pool collectively called “the center” by regulars who go there for everything from neighborhood meetings to picnics outside on the lawn. On Saturday nights, local rockers such as the Thugz play on an outdoor stage.

 The Roadhouse is now the only business left in Rio Nido, although there is hope that the historic Rio Nido Lodge next door, fenced and vacant, will someday be resurrected by its new owner, Dennis Judd.

 Marvelous old summer places remain in Rio Nido, which has the potential to become a designated historic district. A Russian River Resort Area Historic Resources Survey and Inventory completed three years ago by Petaluma historian Diana Painter listed more than a dozen historically significant Rio Nido properties such as the stately place on Sequoia Road called the Chimes, built in 1906.

 For an interesting backroad into Guerneville, take Rio Nido Road over the hill down to Armstrong Woods Road. There you have the option of going right for a walk or a drive through Armstrong Redwoods State Reserve. If you’re in the mood for a shot of adrenaline, drive up the narrow winding road to Austin Creek State Recreation Area. The road passes Pond Farm where noted ceramicist Marguerite Wildenhain set up shop in the 1940s. Her studio is still there.

 Take Armstrong Woods Road back into Guerneville, where the possibilities for lunch are as diverse as the town’s rags-and-riches population.

 High-end would be the Applewood Inn, also the home of the Belden House, a banker’s former summer home that is now a bed-and-breakfast inn and a county historic landmark. On Wednesday through Sunday, they’ll make you a gourmet picnic basket lunch that you can take with you on the road, but you must order it two days in advance.

 On the other hand, the Guerneville Taco Truck in the Safeway parking lot serves some of the best food in town—the cheapest, too. Try the ceviche or the taco al pastor (and please get back to me if you’ve ever had a better one).

 Right next to the taco wagon, across the Fife Creek Bridge is Dawn Ranch Lodge, which gained national fame in the 1980s as Fife’s Resort, a gay destination that put Guerneville on the map as a gay mecca. Fife’s founder was the late Peter Pender, an international bridge player who bought the town’s historic Murphy’s Ranch resort and turned it into a 15-acre playground with cabins, landscaped meadows, pool, sundeck, restaurant and bar. It’s still intact under owner Michael Clark. The resort’s Roadhouse Restaurant serves lunch on Saturday and Sunday and you can sit outside by the pool.

 A popular River eatery is the Garden Grill on Highway 116 in Guernewood Park where your dog is welcome and you can sit outside on the patio. The people on Yelp give it a consistent four stars.

 Continue west on Highway 116 toward Rio Nido and stop for a look at George’s Hideaway, an ancient River resort distinguished by its crooked walls and windows. This former railroad hotel, now a restaurant and bar, is worth a visit just to see the long wooden bar on which an artist named Virginia “Ding” Jory in 1961 hand-carved a history of the Russian River.  I’m not making this up. You can also have lunch at the bar—burgers and garlic fries—and on summer weekends they do a barbecue outside.

 Monte Rio is about two miles farther west, past the Northwood Golf Course also designed by Alister Mackenzie for the Bohemian Grove, which is located directly across the River.

 The local wine shop, Sophie’s Cellars, on Highway 116 as you come into Monte Rio’s quaint commercial area, can provide chilled wine, good bread, cheese, and Fra’Mani salumi for a picnic on the grassy meadow overlooking Monte Rio’s public beach.

 Take a left at the Rio Theater, a Quonset hut with a hot-dog cafe in back, and cross the Monte Rio Bridge to River Boulevard, a street of typical old riverfront vacation homes and lodges. The Highland Dell Resort, built in 1906, has been carefully renovated to retain its old River lodge charm. Just down the street, the Village Inn restaurant and resort, built in 1906 as a summer home, was in the 1942 film “Holiday Inn” with Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire and filmed on location in Monte Rio.

 The most amazing thing to contemplate in downtown Monte Rio now is how little of it is still there compared with pictures of the town 50 or 100 years ago. Most of the old downtown commercial buildings are gone and go unreplaced owing to the lack of a sewer system. The legendary Pink Elephant bar is still there but closed this year because its owner couldn’t afford the expense of bringing its septic system into code compliance. There is talk in town of trying to raise the money—$60,000—to get it reopened.

 Where the Monte Rio firehouse stands there used to be a seven-story hotel, built in 1901, that boasted the first elevator in Sonoma County.

 The rewards of visiting these old Russian River neighborhoods are nowhere more evident than in Villa Grande, west of Monte Rio on Moscow Road. A drive down Russian River Avenue on a summer day can make you feel like you’ve entered a rural American hamlet where Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer will appear any minute, walking barefoot and carrying fishing poles.

 Across the river from Villa Grande there’s a stately riverfront lodge believed to have been designed by Bernard Maybeck. If you want to continue west, stay on Moscow Road until you reach Duncans Mills. Then you can cross the bridge and loop back to Monte Rio via River Road/Highway 116.

The village of Camp Meeker, about four miles southwest of Monte Rio on Bohemian Highway, was once a stop on the Northwestern Pacific Railroad line that ran from Sausalito to Cazadero. For an architectural side attraction, take Bohemian Highway out of Monte Rio to Camp Meeker and turn right onto Tower Road. Go past Anderson Hall and follow the signs to St. Dorothy’s Rest, an Episcopal church retreat with historic arts-and-crafts style lodges such as the Lydia House, “a classic,” said my traveling companion, admiring its stone stairs and Episcopalian tidiness.

St. Dorothy’s is the oldest continually operating summer camp in California, according to church literature, a place where people still go to “rest, reflect and leave renewed.”

Just for having seen these historic places still intact, we left feeling renewed. That’s what a day at the River can do.

[River Resources] 

You can explore the Russian River’s architectural history intuitively by just walking around and taking a look, but there are some marvelous resources to show you the way.

Books such as Simone Wilson’s The Russian River, Penny Hutten’s “Forestville,” and the Healdsburg Historical Society’s Healdsburg are terrific photo essays in the Images of America books by Arcadia Publishing. They’re available in Guerneville at The River Reader book shop on Main Street.

The Russian River Historical Society’s website ( is worth a visit just to see their online photo collection of how Guerneville and Monte Rio looked in the old days. The website provides links to local resources including the Forestville Historical Society and the Healdsburg Historical Society and museum.

Get me to the River

Public access to the Russian River gets better every year

Not long ago, people complained about a lack of public access to the Russian River. Now there are many places to drive and park within easy walking distance to the water.

Riverfront Park southwest of Windsor is a county regional park, 300 acres of open space along the Russian River on Eastside Road.

Steelhead Beach is another county regional park, a sprawling stretch of sand and forest on River Road west of Mirabel Road in Forestville.

Sunset Beach is just down the road, west of the Hacienda Bridge on River Road. It opened last year as a River access park.

Mom’s Beach, now officially called Forestville River Access, is another county park on River Drive off River Road east of the Hacienda Bridge.

Johnson’s Beach in Guerneville has been the premier River beach destination for several generations of Russian River visitors. From Main Street go toward the River on Church Street to the Johnson’s Beach parking lot.

Riverkeeper Park is an environmental restoration project located east of Johnson’s Beach in Guerneville between the new Highway 116 bridge and the old Guerneville trestle bridge.

Guerneville River Park, across the River from Johnson’s, is a county park with rest rooms and picnic tables on a nine-acre site.

Monte Rio Beach is another favorite swimming and boating venue, with a snack bar, canoe and kayak rental, and a boat launch. Its entrance is across Bohemian Highway from the Rio Theater in Monte Rio.



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