Relive the Lazy Life Floating the Russian River with Kids, a Complete Guide

Remember those carefree days when you could spend a whole day lazily floating on the water with your friends, drinking beer, and debating the topics of the day. It seems like ages ago that our kids came along and ended that kind of carefee tranquility. But finally, at ages 5 and 7, we have regained some of that spirit (but in much shorter doses)! The Russian River near Guerneville is a perfect place to rekindle those relaxing tube floats on the river. Here is how to pull it off!

At 7 years old our daughter Raylah is a pretty good swimmer and has learned to be independent in the water when she has her life vest on. Our 5 year old son Dean is partially independent but still definitely prefers to ride or hang on to a floatie or tube. Both of them enjoyed our recent tubing adventures on the river.


Summer River Sections

The river flows about 1/2 mile per hour which is way slower than walking (even with a toddler). The recommended route for groups with older kids is from Steelhead Beach to Sunset Beach. This is about two miles along the river and will take at least 4 hours. For groups with younger kids this gets to be too long and the kids start to get antsy. Some shorter alternatives are Steelhead Beach to Mother’s Beach (1.5 miles/3 hours) or Mothers Beach to Sunset Beach (0.5 miles/1 hour). Mother’s beach has a tiny parking lot that fills up very early so plan on some extra efforts to land a spot. Between Rio Nido and Vacation Beach, the summer dams turn the Russian River into a lake. Floating here is great but requires paddling since the water is essentially still. Plan on 1/4 mile per hour for this stretch.


Spring and Fall River Sections

For families lucky enough to snag a reservation at Lucky Bend Lookout or one of the other vacation rentals along Riverside Drive in Guernewood Park or along Neeley Road there is a nice spring and fall option. When the summar dams come out, the river flow picks up to about 1 mile an hour, still about a third as fast as walking. Johnson’s Beach to Lucky Bend Lookout is about 1.5 miles and takes 1.5 hours to float and ends right at the dock. Its perfect for groups with kids. Parking is easy at Johnson’s, the river is nice and wide, and shallow so the trip gets a bit more interactive as walking small sections of riffles might be necessary. This section also passes Dubrava Beach, the only sandy beach on the Russian River. An alternative route for older kids from Lucky Bend Lookout to Vacation Beach is about the same length but has deeper water for more swimming options. This section also passes Pirate Rock which is good for jumping off on east side. Watch out for faster water at the Vacation Beach boat launch area at the end.

  1. Check the water levels:
  2. Check the water quality:
  3. Check the dam status:

Car Shuttles

It is definitely a good idea with kids to have two cars so no one has to wait at either end and so the kiddos can tank up on snacks at the end car. During the summer the parking lots fill up fast so be sure to plan on geting to the parking areas early to snag a spot. Bring some beach games to play while the grownups do the car shuttle or bring a car big enough to have seats for everyone.

If you only have one car you can hire a taxi to shuttle you from the ending park to the beginning park. The Monte Rio Taxi service will even rent floaties and tubes. Call them at 707-849-6802.

If you are ambitious and have good timing you can park at the end and take the Sonoma Country Transit Route 20 to any of the river access points. Be kind to the other passengers though and inflate your tubes after you arrive at the start.

By far the best way with kids though is to do the spring/fall route so you can end with the kids at your vacation rental and the kids can chill out while the grown ups head back for the car.


The Real Trick is Entertainment

Keeping the kids entertained for long enough is the real trick. Fortunately the Russian River has lots of options. Generally we can keep the kids engaged with some combination of the following:

  1. Searching for animals & birds (15 minutes): Turtles, fish, Great Blue Herons, Green Herons, King Fishers, Osprey, and various other birds can be easily found. River otters are more elusive but defintely around.
  2. Playing on the various beachs (30 minutes): any land up to the mean high water mark has a public easement (even if the landowners have posted no trespassing signs).
  3. Snacks & cold drinks (15 minutes): as long as there is a constant supply of snacks, kids will endure just about anything. Bring a floating cooler with snack that are still appetizing even if they get wet, like apples and string cheese plastic wrappers.
  4. Playing in the riffles (30 minutes): we usually ride the “rapids” a few times and if the crowd is getting hot, log floats down the bumpy water is always fun too.
  5. Swimming games (15 mintues): marco polo, races, etc.
  6. Squirt guns & ball toss between tubes (15 minutes): the kids love to have pirate battles. We pirate talk and blast each other with squirt guns and cannon balls. “Avast ye scurvy landlubbers, batten down the hatches and prepare to be boarded by scallywags and seadogs!” Also, pretty much any sentance where you can work in the “poop deck” will be a hit with the kids.

And before you know it you have spent two hours merrily floating down the river.

Bring the Right Gear

The basics: Just like any other beach trip, hats, sunglasses, and sunscreen are essential. The Russian River has a gravel bottom so water shoes are a good idea. If you are doing a deeper water section during the summer you could get by with flip-flops which also make great “paddles” when you put them on your hands.

Flat floatie or a mesh bottom tube: floaties with a bottom are way more comfortable for the kids, they will be busy playing around and on hollow tubes they will keep falling through. These are a couple of our favorite options:

Floating cooler: keep the snacks and drinks cold. Just be sure you don’t accidentally hand out a beer instead of a root beer (unless things get tense). Also collect your trash in there to prevent it from going into the river. This one links up with the connection ropes on the Inex tubes as well:

Tunes: I’ve had this solar powered waterproof bluetooth speaker for years and have never had to charge it. Seriously, it is amazing. Just make sure your phone is waterproof and both are physically attached to the floats because they don’t float!

Safety First

The Russian River is very safe as far as rivers go but when adventuring with kids its always a good idea to know what to lookout for before you get into a situation.

  1. Even kids that are strong swimmers will enjoy the freedom and extended swim time that a life vest offers. As a bonus, it also helps keep them warm and last longer in the cool water.
  2. Generally the recommendation for swimming rapids is face up and feet first so you can use your feet to push off of obstacles. Luckily these sections of the river only have riffles so you might need to use your feet to walk some of the faster moving shallow sections. Our kids have a great time pretending to be logs and floating the riffles and running back up river to do it again.
  3. Sweepers are one of the primary dangers along the river. A sweeper is a bush or log that hangs over the bank and forces the water to go underneith it. Most of the time the floats will bounce off obstacles and redirect into the main channel but better to keep kids away from the shore in areas where the water is flowing faster.
  4. The other primary danger is shallow areas and submerged hazards near jumping rocks and rope swings. The Russian River is not particularly deep so always check the landing zone thoroughly before jumping or swinging in.
  5. One more piece of Dad-to-Dad advice from personal experience, branches that easily hold a kid-sized rope swing don’t necesarily hold a man-sized rope swing. Timber!

The Ultimate Floating Map

We collected all the float segments with float times and paddle times, river access points, rope swings, and other landmarks into this handy interactive Google map for you. Load this up on your phone so you can track your progress on the river.

This local insight brought to you by your hosts at Lucky Bend Lookout; a modern yet family-friendly Russian River vacation home. Check our availability and book online or call/text Sarah at 415-516-6961 to reserve.