Over the Russian River and Through Armstrong Woods

Friday July 11, 2003

Guerneville, the Russian River, and Armstrong Woods State Reserve in Sonoma County are perfect for a quick redwood forest fix, and less crowded than Muir Woods. 

Once known as “Stumptown,” Guerneville (pronounced “Gurnvil”) and the whole Russian River area west of Highway 101 have passed through several transitions, currently landing in an interesting, slightly cleaned-up state. In fact, a switch from septic to sewer systems was just approved three weeks ago, and one can still actually buy a “no flood” house here for under $400,000.  

Named “Guernewood Park” by George E. Guerne, an early entrepreneur and saw mill owner from Switzerland, Guerneville is the town center for the “Lower Russian River” community. The mill Guerne built with men named Heald (Healdsburg), Bagley, and Willits was where Fife’s Resort and Safeway now are located.  

As is true in much of California, the first recorded residents here were Pomo Indians. Russians settled at Fort Ross in 1812, and the Ridenhour and Korbel families arrived in the 1850s, the latter fleeing Hungary with a price on their heads. Korbel first cut trees in the valley where their vineyards grow today to plant tobacco, using the milled trees to make tobacco and cigar boxes.  

Cinnabar, used to make mercury, was discovered here in the 1870s. Redwood and other logging enlivened the economy, with lumber ferried along the deep Russian River from Guerneville to Duncans Mills on John King’s steamboats, which then carried the lumber down the Pacific Coast to build San Francisco’s Victorian homes. Later two railroads were built from San Rafael through Petaluma to Guerneville to transport the volume of wood. 

Floods and fires have decimated Guerneville over the last 150 years, but getaway railroad excursions from San Francisco and the Bay Area attracted visitors even during the Great Depression.  

After World War II, Guerneville and surrounding resort communities were so popular that the Big Bands such as Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman played on weekends, precursors to the Jazz and Blues Festivals of today. We just missed the Blues Festival, but the upcoming Jazz on the River (September 6-7) festival will feature Al Jareau and La Vay Smith and Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers. (800-253-8800). 

In the 60s the Russian River suffered one of its downturns in popularity and income, both of which seem to ebb and flow like the river’s waters in winter. In the 80s a new generation of Berkeley and San Francisco residents restored the old family cabins and the resorts began to boom again.  

Tiny downtown Guerneville epitomizes its old and new generations, with a genuine red-and-gold-signed 5 and 10 with everything from needles, snaps and thread to kids’ floating mattresses, glue, sparkles, coloring books, crayons, and that old plastic pyrolace we used to braid into bracelets and skate key necklaces. 

Next door to each other are two restaurants whose décor, staff, and cuisines offer the old and the new — take your pick. Pat’s great greasy coffee shop with sloping vinyl booths, counter, wood paneling covered with old lumbering tools, and a real bar next door with local regulars hanging over their third screwdrivers by 11:00 a.m. Check out the old map of Russian River Fishing Holes from Jenner to Mirabel for some local lore.  

Right next door to Pat’s is Sparks with excellent all-organic vegan fare, co-owned by CIA-trained Chef Alex Bury. Originally located at Cotati’s Inn of the Beginning, Sparks’ name derives from Sonoma People for Animal Rights, one of Alex’s favorite organizations. Rainbow Cattle Co. bar doesn’t sell cattle, but is a great meeting place in the robust gay river scene. Fife’s Guest Ranch and Roadhouse Restaurant welcomes gays and straights for some of the best food on the river. Coffee Bazaar and Twice Told Books adjoin on Armstrong Woods Road, and have the best coffee, veggie chili, and Caesar salads in town. 

A favorite retreat 2.5 miles up Armstrong Woods Road from Guerneville is Armstrong Woods State Reserve, founded by Colonel James Boydston Armstrong, journalist, surveyor, lumberman, banker, and developer. In 1978 Armstrong gave 440 acres to his daughter Kate for “one dollar, love and affection,” to be preserved as an old growth redwood grove. Failing to get the state legislature to help his effort, even with Luther Burbank’s help, and intervening family property divisions and partial sale to Harrison M. LeBaron, Armstrong sold the property for $80,000 to the County of Sonoma in 1917, with the LeBaron and Armstrong families kicking in $5,000 each. In 1934 the State of California bought the grove as part of Sonoma Coast State Park to preserve the reserve’s ecological significance.  

There are nine walks, hikes, and rolls of all difficulties from under one mile to 10 miles on pavement to dirt trails. Maps are available in the visitor center. Enjoy 805 acres in Armstrong Reserve and another 5,683 acres in Austin Creek State Recreation Area north and above the Reserve, with camping at Bullfrog Pond ($12 per night) and a children’s treasure hunt. Admission to Armstrong is $4 per car, $3 for seniors, and an annual pass costs $67. 

Nearby Russian River beaches include Johnson’s Beach in Guerneville, complete with a snack shack selling $1.50 burgers, beer, and pink popcorn, to the quieter non-beer Monte Rio. Inner tube, canoe, kayak, and umbrella rentals range from $4 to $20. 

Kathleen Hill writes a series of six Hill Guides to the West Coast with her husband Gerald Hill, including Sonoma Valley—The Secret Wine Country from Globe-Pequot Press.