The Russian River is such a great summertime destination but friends often ask us—is it worth visiting during Fall and Winter? Doesn’t it flood every winter? The fall season is my favorite time of year on the Russian River because the crowds are gone but the Indian Summer gives us another month or two of fun. Here are some of our favorite things to do in the off-season.
This is part 1 of our 4 part “Off-Season Russian River” series.
- Part 1: Six Great Fall Family Adventures on the Russian River
- Part 2: Six Best Winter Activities Along the Russian River with kids
- Part 3: Wine Events at the Heart of Russian River Winters
- Part 4: Winter Warm-up with Russian River Wine
It is November now as I write this post and just two weeks ago I was still swimming in the river. It was brisk for sure and the kids would only wade up to their knees but the sun was still beaming down us and the temperature was in the low 80’s. Whether you call it an Indian Summer or just SF’s weirdo seasons, the upshot is that the summer lasts an extra month or two past the start of school season which traditionally marks the end of high season on the river.
Fall Swimming, Beach Lounging, and Fishing
After the seasonal dams come out in mid-September, the water levels drop and expose new beaches that have been hidden all summer, many of which have deeper spots that are still swimmable.
Local Advice: The Sandy Russian River Beach
Dubrava Beach (Highway 116 @ Old Monte Rio Road, Parking lot on the south side of 116) is a good example, this is the only sandy beach on the river and the full reach of sand is only accessible during the fall. The water speeds are generally pretty mild but be sure the plan on drifting downstream. After the first major rain storm the water speed will pick up to unsafe levels but by then it is usually too cold for the beach anyway.
2019 update: the flood this last winter unfortunately washed away the last sandy beach. The bank is still sandy and sand play is a definite possibility for the littles. The part of the beach that meets the water is now gravel like most other Russian River beaches. Hopefully a few more seasons of erosion will bring the sandy beach back.
Bonus: Steelhead Trout at the Lucky Bend
Dubrava Beach also happens to be located on the Lucky Bend so named by anglers who cast from shore to the deep water along the opposite shore. See our interview with local fisherman and owner of King’s Sport and Tackle about fishing with kids in the Russian River area. Steelhead is in season October 1 through April 30. Check the Fish & Wildlife Low-Flow Hotline at 707-944-5533 before going fishing on the Russian River.
Paddling Monte Rio to Jenner
There are several nice stretches of river that make for a fun day of paddling but the best time to make a run down to the estuary is during the fall when the water is flowing and you only have to share the river with the green herons and otters. The distance is about 9 miles so depending on your paddling strength, water speed, and if the estuary is open to the ocean, your river time could be about a half day adventure. The river is wide at this point so the trip is suitable for older kids who can swim. There will be some riffles that you will probably need to drag the boats over. Be sure to go early because afternoon winds can make for slow going in the estuary.
Local Advice: Car Shuttle Logistics
The best put in location is at the Monte Rio Public Beach (20488 CA-116, Monte Rio). Your car should be safe at this location while you are paddling since it is popular and has good visibility in the parking lot. Similarly the Jenner Visitor’s Center (10451 CA-1) has a popular parking lot with good visibility.
Bonus: Après-paddle Vittles
Cafe Aquatica (10439 CA-1, Jenner) is right next to the Jenner Visitor’s Center and has a great deck where you can relax with a refreshment or a cup of hot chocolate depending on the weather. Frequently on the weekends you can chill out with live music as well.
Hiking Under a Redwood Umbrella
Redwood forests are amazing and they seem to come alive during a sprinkle. The dense canopy provides shelter from the rain for you and the critters. The water also saturates the color of the green boughs above your head and the red carpet beneath your feet.
Local Advice: Two Redwood Groves for Kids
Both Armstrong Woods State Natural Preserve (17000 Armstrong Woods Road, Guerneville) and Land Path’s Grove of Old Trees (17599 Fitzpatrick Road, Occidental) have nature trails that are perfect for toddlers and take about an hour to meander around. Both have plenty of picnicing options options as well.
Bonus: Beat the Heat in Fall
Austin Creek State Recreation Area (End of Armstrong Woods Road) is usually way too hot during the summer to have a pleasant hike. However, in the fall and winter this beautiful valley behind Armstrong woods is refreshing change of pace. Starting a Gilliam Creek Trailhead, follow Schoolhouse Creek to Gilliam Creek, and return by East Austin Creek Fire Road. This 4.4 mile loop is a bit steep on the return. Our 6 year old hiked the whole thing but our 4 year old needed a ride for the last mile and a half.
Art Trails Adventure
If you’ve been to Guerneville during the summer and thought the 1st Friday Art Walk was fun, you’ll be happy to know that this barely scratches the surface of Sonoma County’s extensive art community. The Sebastopol Center for the Arts (282 S. High Street, Sebastopol) has organized a great event for the last 30 years called the Sonoma County Art Trail in October that links open studios and art events with art lovers.
Local Advice: Make it Fun for Kids
Kids are natural artists but driving between open studios is not a great recipe for fun so we prefer to make it into a scavenger hunt and have the kids collect ideas and inspiration for their next masterpiece or for drawing during the drive to the next spot. This is great activity for a fall day with scattered showers.
Bonus: Hands-on Art
Make it into a full art themed adventure by taking your newfound inspiration to an art class as the grand finale to your art odessey:
- Sebastopol Center for the Arts offers adult drop in classes in ceramics, drawing, meditation, and movement.
- Charles M. Schulz Museum (2301 Hardies Ln, Santa Rosa) has frequent kids art & crafts activities.
- Children’s Museum of Sonoma County (1835 W. Steel Ln, Santa Rosa) hosts Art Spark every Saturday 10-11am where the kids can explore different kinds of art making
Fall Apple Harvest
UPDATE: Apple picking season is so great in Sonoma County that we recently expanded this adventure into a full post: Gravenstein Apple Picking Adventure for the Whole Family.
Sonoma County, especially West County, is all about agriculture and the fall is harvest time. You may have heard that Highway 116 is called the Gravenstein Highway; well it is named after the apple region that is bisects. Luther Burbank, a famous horticulturist from Sebastopol and Santa Rosa praised the apple,
“It has often been said that if the Gravenstein could be had throughout the year, no other apple need be grown.”Luther Burbank
Gravenstein apples are the first to ripen in August followed by grapes and other apples in September and October. Both grapes and apples are ripe in October and November and apple picking is a great family adventure.
Local Advice: A Family U-Pick Apple Odyssey
Forget Apple Hill, 7×7 recently did a great article on everything to do with apples in Sonoma. However, you can do our recommended condensed family-friendly version in a single day.
- Apple-A-Day Ratzlaff Ranch (13128 Occidental Rd., Sebastopol)
- Luther Burbank Experiment Farm (7777 Bodega Ave., Sebastopol)
- Horse and Plow (1272 Gravenstein Hwy. N., Sebastopol)
- Ace California Cider (2064 Gravenstein Hwy N., Sebastopol)
- Mom’s Apple Pie (4550 Gravenstein Hwy. N., Sebastopol)
Did we miss your favorite fall adventure in Sonoma County or the Russian River? Let us know in the comments. Cheers!
Bonus: Crab Feast
UPDATE: We recently expanded this adventure into a full post: Fresh Dungeness Crab in Bodega, A Holiday Meal to Remember
Crab season starts in November making this another great fall activity option. This year we turned our annual crab feast into a local food holiday get together. We headed up to Guerneville and invited the extended family to stay with us at the Lucky Bend Lookout vacation rental overlooking the Russian River. Between the Russian River Valley wineries, the western Sonoma bakeries, and Bodega commercial fishery we had fresh everything at our table. Read on for our guide on where to get every thing you need including our recipe for reliable steaming.