We spent last Memorial Day weekend in Monte Rio with a good friend and his little dog.
The weekend was just hot enough that the slightly chilly river water felt good—a nice little shock to the system after a long winter out of the water. We took our friend to many of our favorite outdoor spots, including, of course, Monte Rio Beach. We loved watching his dog run around as she enjoyed the beach and greeting other dogs there.
This is a favorite moment that we happened to capture that weekend. It was late afternoon after a nice long day of relaxing at the beach. We had packed up our towels and chairs, heading to the car, and looked back at the beach as we walked away.
Weekend and vacation days always seem to go so fast, and although we didn’t want to see the day end, this was also a wonderful moment of looking ahead. This particular day might be coming to a close, but there was a feeling of potential, knowing that the whole wonderful, warm summer was yet to come.
Part of the WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge—Evanescent
One of us grew up in the south San Francisco Bay Area, and as is so often the case, it’s the places closer to home that you don’t really think about—until it comes time to show around out-of-town friends or family, or maybe a day trip reveals a different side that was just never on the radar before. And then, it’s fun to discover a new side of your home turf.
As to what made the Russian River … “Russian”? Never thought about it for so many years—beyond the fact that it’s not the pun some folks think it is (at least in our neck of the woods, this river could rarely be classified as “rushing”).
So “Russian” just happened to be the name of a river in the area.
We didn’t know why it had that name until we visited Fort Ross on a day trip from Ananda, making the trek up the coast last summer with a beloved aunt who loves history and photography. On that trip, we listened to docents at Fort Ross describe life at this historic coastal fort, where the Russian fur trade aimed to establish a foothold in the early 19th century. A community of Russian fur traders and Native Americans used to exist all around the fort.
The beautiful but stark seaside location and the restored fort buildings offered a sense of what life must’ve been like at this remote outpost. So we were excited to come back and learn more at the Fort Ross Harvest Festival held a couple months later, in mid-October. The 2016 edition of the festival takes place Oct. 15.
Along the Bay Area’s coastal areas, fall brings the best, sunniest, most gorgeous weather you’ll get all year, no question. So revisiting Fort Ross in October was a no-brainer.
Once we arrived at the festival, we saw that it had rained earlier in the morning and little wisps of fog hovered a foot or so above the fort grounds. The weather, at least in the morning, was a little gloomier than we had expected, but the festival still offered plenty to enjoy—a taste of what life might have been like for some of those who lived at the fort in its heyday.
A big, colorful mound of apples stood ready for visitors to try pressing them into cider using an old-fashioned press. In front of a building that re-creates the fort’s living quarters, volunteers in Russian period dress tended a cooking fire and labored over preparations for a meal, using traditional methods (the original “slow food”).
Various booths around the perimeter of the fort offered displays of contraptions like Victorian apple peelers, more hands-on old-timey activities like twisting lengths of hemp into rope (not so easy, actually!) as well as vendors selling handicrafts like felted wool trinkets.
Heritage apple trees at the fort
Apples ready for the cider press
Old-school apple peeler and slicer
Beneath the fort’s beautifully gnarled old apple trees, we watched a reenactment of a Russian wedding ceremony from the time. Even though we didn’t understand the words—the demonstration was in Russian—it was still clear how playful the pre-ceremony antics were. Plenty of trickery ensued, including several pranks meant to conceal the true identity of the bride from her groom.
After the ceremony, the wedding party and other volunteers in Russian dress took part in a folk dance, and invited visitors to join in. We learned later that we missed a performance of Native American dancing in the afternoon—a good reason to revisit the festival.
By this time, the weather had cleared, in a big way, and we checked out the food and drink vendors set up on an oceanside bluff outside the fort. The live music from local bands, the fresh-pressed juice, the borscht from Russian House all made for a relaxing meal in the warm October sunshine.
After our satisfying lunch, we took a walk to Sandy Cove beach below the fort and hiked to the fort’s cemetery on a nearby hill, which offered beautiful views looking back at Fort Ross—and more fascinating history to explore.
Looking back on Fort Ross from the fort’s cemetery.
The short hike to the fort cemetery.
Sandy Cove beach.
The ruins of a (much newer than early 19th-century) barn stand near the fort.
The unofficial end of summer may be upon us, but we still have a few weeks until it’s officially fall—and about a month before rentals at Russian River beaches close for the season. We’re going to make the most of that time whenever we get a chance.
But when we can’t get to the river, we’re going to reminisce about a trip earlier this summer to Monte Rio Beach with friends that found us lazing around the beach, swimming and tubing in the Russian River.
We brought a picnic (splitting a couple big sandwiches from Big Bottom Market) and made a day of it, swimming, lounging in our beach chairs and taking turns going for a float in the large, colorful inner tube we bought last summer at the Guerneville 5 & 10.
Wading into the river, inner tube in tow, and unceremoniously plopping down into the middle of the inner tube, the brisk river water immediately cooling but not chilly … it was the perfect summer day’s combination of silliness and relaxation.
What we all enjoyed perhaps as much as the actual floating was the big, clumsy production when one of us tried to get out of the tube. There doesn’t seem to be a graceful way to get out of a floating inner tube, and that can be pretty entertaining for friends to watch. There’s a lot of splashing, maybe a little bit of struggling … maybe once there was even a flipped-over inner tube … but always a lot of laughter.
It’s those somewhat less-than-expert moments that are sometimes the very best at the river. It’s why the river is so special, because everyone can participate—and be a little silly.
That same day at the beach, we saw a canoe with three elementary school-aged girls seated in the middle and two beleaguered—but amused—dads repeatedly trying to launch the canoe. Every time the fathers tried to push the canoe off from the shore, as the craft would hit the water, it would list a little, threatening, just ever so slightly, to tip, and the girls would giggle and joyfully shriek like mad. They’d shriek so much, in fact, that the dads would bring the canoe back to shore, wait a couple minutes and try again. Same result.
We don’t know how far they did eventually get from shore—or if they did ever launch that canoe—but it was obvious that the whole party was having fun trying.
Another day, while we were out kayaking, we paddled past a couple on an inflatable raft laughing loudly as they paddled in a circle and jovially bickered about what side they should paddle on in order to make their raft go to the left.
There are plenty of those expertly piloting their watercraft—that’s not really us, though we do love it—but something we especially appreciate about Monte Rio Beach and other Russian River beaches like it is that, in these areas, the river is wide and gentle enough to accommodate both the knowledgeable and the first timers.
We know that both our artless tubing and our semi-decent kayaking skills fit right in. Even if we look a little silly—and sometimes get a little soaked—doing it.
Because whether they are giggling and splashing and not getting very far, or gliding through the water on a peaceful kayak journey, everyone we see is having a good time. They are making memories at the beach and out on the water—as we are, too—and it’s fun to be part of that.
One of our favorite things about Monte Rio Beach that makes it unique is that it’s spanned by a historic bridge. The Russian River runs through the middle of Monte Rio and this truss bridge, built in 1934, connects the two sides of town. It also connects Highway 116 and the Bohemian Highway, two of the main roads in Western Sonoma County.
The bridge, along with other historic architecture nearby, gives the town a sort of vintage vibe and a timeless quality all at the same time, so a black & white filter for these pictures seemed like a fun way to play up the bridge’s historic character.
Right now, the river is still running fairly high, but in the summer, when the shot below was taken, the river recedes, exposing the wide flat banks that make up Monte Rio Beach. Hanging out under the bridge can offer a little bit of a shady respite on a really hot day.
It must all be a matter of ocean currents shaping the landscape: some of the beaches on the Sonoma Coast are covered in soft, fine sand, while other beaches are made up of rocks, big and small. And some, like Sandy Cove—despite its name—have a mix of gravel and sand. At the rockier beaches, most of the stones and pebbles are in shades of grey, white or brown.
But this smooth, red pebble stood out among them for its brighter color. On the day we visited Sandy Cove, we saw about a dozen or so of these red rocks scattered among the other stones around the beach. When we picked one of them up, it was much lighter than expected, and slightly porous in texture—and it had faint traces of a man-made pattern on it.
We realized that these “rocks” were pieces of bricks. In the same way that the ocean, over time, shapes sharp pieces of broken glass into smooth, translucent stones, it had transformed what had been a rough chunk of red clay into a small, colorful pebble that’s now just another a beautiful part of the beach.
Everything about Fort Ross seems a little solitary. This redwood fort was built on a rugged spot along the Sonoma Coast in 1812 by Russian fur-traders.
It’s only 16 miles (about a 45-minute drive) from Monte Rio, and is easily accessed by Highway 1, but still seems a remote spot, like we’ve really arrived at a faraway place—maybe far-off in time more so than distance.
The fort regularly comes alive with events: docent talks and tours, and seasonal festivals. And there’s a visitor center a short walk away that has steady attendance at its gift shop and exhibits about the Russians and Native Americans who used to make their lives here.
Imagining what life must have been like at this outpost in its heyday, it has always seemed like it must have been full of challenges—and certainly isolated. But maybe that’s just how it strikes us now. A village used to adjoin the fort, but today Fort Ross stands alone, perched atop a windswept hill, facing the ocean. The fort overlooks Sandy Cove beach, where we went for a walk after visiting the Fall Harvest Festival and took this shot looking back up at the solitary fort.
In the northern hemisphere, few would think a late February day would have anything in common with “beach weather,” and on the day we visited Russian Gulch Beach, the inhospitable ocean certainly bore that out. High waves pounded the rocks and shore, warning visitors away from approaching the surf. In fact, the rip current at this beach makes it unsafe for swimming year-round.
But sunshine, few clouds in the sky, temperatures in the low 70s and a light breeze made for a wonderful walk on the beach. We enjoyed a perfect warm winter day at the ocean.
Not to be confused with a larger state park by the same name farther north in Mendocino, this Russian Gulch lies about 2 miles north of the town of Jenner along Highway 1. This hidden-away spot offers a short, peaceful stroll to the beach and stark, dramatic scenery at the beach itself. It’s a perfect place for “beach exploring,” as it’s described here.
Russian Gulch is easy to find, and it’s not a long drive from the house—just about 12 miles (a roughly 20-minute drive) from Monte Rio.
As we drove north on Highway 1, away from Jenner, we easily spotted the access point for the beach—it’s located near the bottom of hill, at a wide, sweeping turn in the road. Parking areas, right off both shoulders of Highway 1, clearly delineate the area.
The main parking lot is a spacious dirt and gravel turnout that will probably accommodate about ten cars; it’s just adjacent to the trailhead. A smaller, narrow dirt patch across the highway will probably hold an additional four or five more cars. Parking on this sunny, late February day didn’t prove difficult to find, though it seems likely to be scarcer during the summer months.
From trailhead to beach, an easy, flat trail meanders about a quarter of a mile through a patch of mossy, gnarled trees that grow at extreme angles, slowly bent over the years to accommodate the wind.
Since it’s still the rainy season and an El Niño year, we encountered not only a few muddy spots on the trail, but also marshy areas with ferns, and even a small bog off to one side of the path—something we haven’t seen in the past couple years of drought.
The trail follows Russian Gulch Creek at least part of the way. We could glimpse the creek from some spots along the trail.
The trail leads to a rocky spit of land cut off from the main beach by the wide, slow-moving Russian Gulch Creek.
In order to reach the main beach, we had to wade across the creek. It’s a bit too far across and potentially too deep in the middle, so we decided that the best way to ford the creek was make two crossings at narrower points, wading first from the bank where the trail lets out, to a large rock-covered sandbar in the middle of the creek, then another crossing from there over to the beach proper.
This is where what had been a peaceful afternoon walk gave way to some shrieking and slightly frantic scrambling across the creek. We took off our shoes and socks and waded into creek water that shocked with a deep chill. The rocky creekbed proved somewhat slippery, prolonging the walk through the icy water as we tried to keep our balance.
Rather than sand, this beach is made up of smooth stones of all sizes, and there are were a couple small patches littered with sharp shards of broken mussel shells best avoided by bare feet. We found ourselves wishing for the Tevas, which, the day before, it had seemed too optimistic to pack. Water shoes aren’t strictly necessary here—we saw no litter or broken glass—but having something on our feet would have made the walk around the beach more comfortable.
Arriving at the main part of the beach, we could hear the waves, but couldn’t see them, due to a large, gently sloping hill in the center of the main part of the beach, almost like a fortification between the ocean and the land. This rise in the middle of the beach obscured all but the tallest waves until we neared the crest of the hill.
We crossed the top of the hill, where the ocean had washed away the larger rocks and pebbles and smoothed the beach into an expanse of coarse sand.
The scenery quickly distracted us from the brief chilly creek walk and the pebbly surface of the beach. Waves pounded the rocky edges of the cove, kicking up so much spray that they often left a lingering mist in their wake. Little waterfalls appeared, running off the rocks after each wave broke.
The largest waves crashed on the shore but then kept spreading across the beach, reaching long fingers up the hill in the middle, and then back down the other side. As most of the water seeped into the gravel, the leading edge of the wave left behind its outline, traced by long lines of sea foam stranded many feet from where most of the waves were breaking.
We walked to one end of the beach, where Russian Gulch Creek flows into the sea. And we saw that the bigger waves were up to their usual tricks, taking off into places across the beach where waves don’t usually go—in this case, wrapping around a large rock near the shore.
We had considered bringing a picnic to the beach, but thought it might be too windy or cold. But we’d pack a picnic for a return visit some time, because Russian Gulch looks like a great place for it—especially suited for a beach picnic because there’s no fine sand to blow into the food. Camp chairs or a blanket would offer a more comfortable spot to sit.
Walking back to the car, we noticed many wildflowers growing along the trail, along with moss and ferns, and even a mossy log festooned with mushrooms. It made this day trip feel like we were seeing the best of both worlds: a visit to the ocean and with two quick side trips through peaceful woodlands.
Whether for beach exploring or a picnic—maybe both?—we’re looking forward to our next trip to Russian Gulch.