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Wandering the West

A college graduation brought my family back to Northern California for a week of celebration, hiking, exploring, wine tasting and gourmet dining last week. There’s so much to do in California wine country that I could write a year’s worth of columns, especially about Sonoma County and the wild Sonoma Coast.

This time we headed out of our base in the town of Sonoma to the Russian River Valley, then following the river to the sea at the coastal village of Jenner. The Russian River is the long time retreat for blue collar San Francisco. In recent years it has become a San Francisco gay hotspot. What the Russian River represents though, is a low-cost getaway just a few hours drive from the Bay Area, offering lots of great diversions and a Bohemian-hippie vibe.

Head north on the 101 to the Fulton exit or continue further to Healdsburg before jumping off on either the Eastside Road or the Westside Road (with the Russian River in-between them). The Russian River is a long time home to small family vineyards, and a few well-known big boys, like Kendall-Jackson, DeLoach and Korbel Champagne Cellars. While the big destination vineyards now charge for tastings, the smaller family vineyards still are offering samples free. The Russian is traditionally known for chardonnays and pinot noirs, but the varieties are expanding.

The valley is also all about "locavore" eating, with farm fresh veggies and meats at many restaurants. Fish the river or the ocean and many restaurants will prepare your catch.

One don’t-miss stop is the Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve. This 80-acre coastal redwood grove has two of the most extreme trees in North America.

The Parson Jones tree measures 310 feet tall, one of the tallest in the world. And steps away, the Colonel Armstrong tree clocks in at 1,400 years old, one of the coast’s oldest redwoods. A quiet stroll among these giants leaves impressions that will last a lifetime especially for kids used to Utah’s aspen and fir.

The river itself is a gem, a slow moving gentle float anyone can handle. You can rent kayaks or canoes. One good spot for food and boat rentals is the town of Guerneville the heart of the valley. You can paddle or float lazily to the sea, reaching the Pacific Ocean at the Jenner Estuary, where we spotted seals snoozing on the beaches and watched wild surf pound the large rocks poking from the water near the coastline.

At the coastline, try the River’s End Restaurant. My pulled pork sandwich was only so-so but every other dish servers paraded past looked fabulous. Its perch above the coastline is worth the stop alone, and it’s a great place to sip great, unknown wines from small Russian River vintners.

Once at the coast, it’s tempting to wind on the Coast Highway north to Fort Ross State Park, where you can learn why this is called Russian River Country. The Russians held Alaska and all of the west coast down to Fort Ross in the early 19th century. Fort Ross is about 12 winding miles north. Head south ten miles and you’re at Bodega Bay, famous as the location of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic "The Birds," and equally famous for its rugged beaches and barbecued oysters. Doran Beach Regional Park nearby is a bit more developed for beach use, but remember, this is not So Cal beach country. More often it will be cold and windy up here, with bone chilling water.

Consider canoeing, kayaking, hiking among redwoods or searching for mushrooms, biking along the river, or grazing on local cuisine while sipping obscure but fabulous wines. The locals call it the "World’s Greatest Wine River." Some Europeans might disagree, but they haven’t tried the wine river road.

Larry Warren has made the West his beat in three decades of news reporting for television and print. He is the general manager of KPCW-FM, Park City.

THE VITALS

San Francisco to Jenner: 77 miles.

Website: http://www.russianrivertravel.com .

Insider tip: Lots of quaint cabins, resorts and inns, but research and reserve ahead of time, especially on weekends.


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