Sonoma County, California, is well-known for its spectacular wine tasting experiences, top-notch restaurants, and luxurious hotels. But, did you know you can paddle your way through the rolling hills and vineyards of Sonoma County? That’s right - the Russian River, which originates far to the north in Mendocino County, flows southward where it crosses into Sonoma County and eventually meets the Pacific Ocean. In total, the river stretches approximately 115 miles as it meanders past vineyards, protected parkland, private homes, and public parks.
The lower Russian River is a popular summer destination for day-trippers from the Bay Area, however, if you’re looking for a bit more solitude, consider paddling the river in the spring before temperatures spike and crowds appear. You can visit the river on a day trip, or stay overnight for the perfect weekend river getaway.
Read on for the ultimate guide to paddling the Russian River in Sonoma County, California.
When To Visit
Spring is the best time of year for a paddle down the Russian River. Water levels tend to be higher, thanks to winter rains, meaning you’ll be able to navigate sections of the river that may dry up later in the summer. In order to ensure there is sufficient water flow, plan your visit for April or early May. You can also get an idea of current water levels here.
Spring is also the perfect time to enjoy some solitude on the river as summer crowds are yet to arrive. Just be aware that water and air temperatures can still be cool in the spring with average maximum daytime temperatures around 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
How To Get There
If you’re planning to paddle the Russian River, chances are you’ll be bringing your own kayaks or paddleboards with you, along with the other gear you need for a day trip. Given that, I recommend traveling to the Russian River by car.
This itinerary starts at Healdsburg Veterans Memorial Beach. This park is located about 1 hour 20 minutes from San Francisco, 1 hour 15 minutes from Oakland, and 15 minutes from Santa Rosa.
Where To Stay
A paddle down the Russian River makes for a great day trip. If you’d like to spend the weekend in the area, consider the eco-chic h2hotel in downtown Healdsburg. The h2hotel was constructed with sustainability in mind and is LEED NC 2.2 Gold Certified. In addition, the downtown spot features a living roof, drought-tolerant native plant landscaping, locally-made furnishings, bicycles for guest use, and so much more.
If you’d like to stay closer to the lower Russian River, consider the boon hotel + spa, a woman-owned, eco-conscious spot in Guerneville featuring glamping tents and a saltwater pool.
The Ultimate Walking Guide to Paddling the Russian River
Start your adventure at Healdsburg Veterans Memorial Beach. The park is open from 7:00am until 30 minutes before sunset and parking costs $7.00 (free if you have a Regional Parks Pass!). You’ll leave your car at Veterans Memorial Beach and shuttle back to this park at the end of your paddle. Dogs are allowed on leash, so feel free to bring your pup with you.
Once you’ve unloaded, a small dirt road leads you beneath the dam where you can put your kayaks or paddleboards in the water. From Veterans Memorial Beach, you’ll follow the Russian River south until you reach Steelhead Beach Regional Park. I recommend starring your start and end points in Google Maps so you can easily track your progress along your route.
If you don’t want to deal with the hassle of setting up your own car shuttle ahead of time, plan to call an Uber or Lyft from Steelhead Beach and send one of your group members to retrieve the car from Veterans Memorial Beach. There is cell service at the bottom, so you shouldn’t have any trouble contacting a driver
Along the way, you’ll find a few small rapids as well as long, flat, calm sections. We traveled the river on paddleboards and our fins hit the bottom a couple of times in the shallow, upper stretch of the route. The river gets deeper and wider as you go along.
Be aware that there is one short portage required, so keep an eye out for a sign telling you to exit the river to the left. You can’t miss it!
In total, this route traverses approximately 11 miles and takes around 5 hours to complete, including a short stop for lunch.
Once you’ve arrived at Steelhead Beach Regional Park, I recommend carrying your gear up to the parking lot.
What To Pack
There are no facilities along this stretch of the Russian River, so plan to bring everything you’ll need for the day. I recommend wearing comfortable, quick-dry clothes, as well as a hat and sunglasses. You’ll also want to bring an extra layer or two as the spring weather can be a bit chilly. I recommend bringing a pair of water shoes or sandals for the portage even if you choose to paddleboard or kayak barefoot.
In addition to appropriate attire, you’ll also want to pack sunscreen, lunch, and plenty of water. We packed a picnic in our Yeti cooler which we strapped to the back of one paddleboard. We stopped for lunch halfway down the river and it was the perfect opportunity to stretch, soak up a bit of sun, and refuel before continuing on.
What To Expect
If you’ve ever visited the lower Russian River during peak summer, you’ve probably seen the hordes of tourists congregating on beaches, floating in inner tubes, and duking it out for the precious few parking spots. The stretch of river from Healdsburg to Mirabel Park offers a much quieter, nature-focused experience.
As you paddle, keep an eye out for wildlife. Rafts of mergansers paddled warily by as swifts darted and dipped above the water. Wood ducks and mallards meandered in the shallows by the banks as water bugs and fish disturbed the glassy surface. We even watched an osprey pass overhead, a fish gripped tightly in its talons. The sounds of rushing water and twittering birds are all you hear, making you feel as though you’re miles away from everything.
The narrow upper stretch features sweet little rapids and deep pools where fish hide. Eventually, the river gives way to wider, more slow-moving sections. You’ll pass between hillsides covered in dense thickets, occasionally glimpsing evidence of vineyards or a road. As you pass the shores of Riverfront Regional Park, you might see hikers standing on the shore, gazing across the peaceful water.
You’ll start to see more signs of development in the lower half: a dam (this is what you’ll portage around), a bridge, and a house. You might notice the return of the road noise and, soon, you’ll see signs for Burke’s Canoe Rentals. Just beyond, you’ll be greeted by swimmers and sunbathers relaxing at Steelhead Beach. This is your cue to exit the river and wrap up your adventure for the day.
Responsible Travel in Sonoma County, CA
Where To Stay:
If you want to turn your river trip into a full weekend getaway, consider staying in the nearby towns of Healdsburg, Guerneville, or Forestville. Sonoma County has struggled with a massive influx of vacation rental properties in recent years. Instead of renting a spot, book a room in a local hotel. The h2hotel in Healdsburg, boon hotel + spa in Guerneville, and the Farmhouse Inn in Forestville are wonderful socially and environmentally-conscious options.
Local History & Culture:
Long before Russians ever set foot on this land, the river was known among the Southern Pomo people as Ashokawna, “East water place” or “water to the East.” This section of Sonoma County represents the ancestral lands of the Southern Pomo and holds great cultural and historical significance. Indigenous peoples relied on the river for its bountiful resources, including Chinook Salmon, Coho Salmon, Steelhead Trout, as well as crucial basket-making materials.
Today, the river is named for the Russian American Company which established itself at Fort Ross in the early 1800s and trapped river otters and sea otters to sell into the fur trade. Before you visit, spend some time reading about this special place in order to better understand the local history and culture.
The Russian River is home to a diversity of invertebrates, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals, as well as a number of threatened and endangered species. Coho Salmon are listed as federally endangered while Steelhead Trout and Chinook Salmon are deemed a “species of concern.” Unique and threatened amphibians also make their home along the river, including the California tiger salamander (CA species of concern) and the foothill yellow-legged frogs (CA species of concern).
When you visit, take care to tread lightly and follow all Leave No Trace principles to ensure the plants and animals of the Russian River are not negatively impacted by our recreation. Take only memories and photographs to ensure the river can flourish for years to come.