Depending on the friends or family who might be with us, how we spend our visits to the Russian River and North Bay can vary, from parent-friendly trips to the casino to kid-friendly strolls in the woods; dog-friendly visits to the beach to wine drinker-friendly stops by local vineyards.
Wine-loving friends, who spend a lot of time in the area themselves, brought us to Lynmar Estate for wine tasting. It’s a sustainable winery located about half an hour’s drive from the house.
The wine we tried was wonderful, but equally impressive was the winery’s beautiful garden, planted with both edible crops and colorful flowers. The garden, like the winery, uses sustainable practices. Certainly this butterfly, headed for a Mexican sunflower, seemed to enjoy the garden—which made us enjoy the garden that much more.
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.
One of our favorite breakfast spots/bakeries is a place we stumbled upon in a bid to avoid traffic on the main highway, in what turned out to be one of our best-ever detours. Wild Flour Bread is a bakery on the Bohemian Highway in the tiny town of Freestone.
We love their sturdy, rustic breads and big scones, both sweet and savory kinds, loaded with fruit or herbs. And some of these ingredients are grown in a huge, beautiful garden right next to the bakery.
It’s a working kitchen garden—with its own small orchard, even—but in good weather, it’s also a place to enjoy scones and coffee at picnic tables dotted throughout the garden and orchard. In the middle of the garden stands a big tunnel-like arbor. The first summer we visited, the arbor supported vines with gourds dangling down into the tunnel. Now, the arbor is covered by grapevines, but mingled in with these new vines last summer was a bright wall of nasturtiums.
There are many paths through the garden, but this leafy tunnel is always our favorite path. The garden changes so much season to season, year to year, that you never know what new flower or crop awaits on the far side.
Most mornings here do start out in a fog (and isn’t that sometimes true of mornings in general?), but when the mist burns off, the sun comes flooding through the trees.
Because there are redwood trees all around, the yard has a lot of shady spots—perfect for ferns, which don’t tend to thrive in direct sunlight. Because this fern grows under the stairs in the front yard, it especially doesn’t see much sun at all, but it really seemed to glow when the sunlight did catch its fronds.
So many of the mornings in Monte Rio start off as misty, maybe because we’re not that far from the ocean. Overnight, a light fog creeps in over the hills and in the morning lingers in the trees, leaving tiny dew drops on every leaf, frond and petal in the garden.
Usually, the fog of the morning gives way by noon to a bright, beautiful sunny day. We always welcome the sunshine, but there’s something peaceful—almost magical—about the morning mist.
Armstrong Redwoods in Guerneville has become one of our favorite places to bring friends and family. The park has plenty of hiking trails, including one that leads to a secluded pottery studio in the hills of the adjoining Austin Creek State Recreation Area.
It’s also a place that offers the chance to really take in the redwoods. An easy, mile-long nature trail loops around the forest floor, through a grove of redwoods, and past some of the park’s real highlights, including the Parson Jones tree, the tallest tree in the grove—taller than a football field is long—as well as the Colonel Armstrong tree, which at 1,400 years old, is the oldest tree in the park. And of course, the Colonel Armstrong tree is no shorty, either.
On numerous visits, we’ve tried to capture the scale of these beautiful giants—and this is one of the rare situations where the extra wide-angle shots taken by our phones actually helps rather than hinders—but, still, it’s hard to do them justice.
The Russian River flows through Mendocino and Sonoma counties, running through towns and countryside, connecting it all along a 110-mile path. But here, at the mouth, is where the Russian River makes its ultimate connection: flowing into the Pacific Ocean.
Low water sometimes breaks this key connection by causing a sandbar to build up and stop the river from reaching the sea, turning the Russian River Estuary into a lagoon. Even though the connection is temporarily lost, there’s a benefit. The lagoon attracts seals and sea lions, who raise their pups on the nearby beach, protected from the wide-open ocean.
Sometimes seals even swim up the river, in search of fish, and show up in the river a dozen miles or more from the ocean, near Monte Rio or Guerneville.
The overlook off Highway 1, near Jenner, where these shots were taken, is one of our favorite spots in the area to visit. It’s always fun to think about all the miles and all the places that this river has passed on its way to this spot.
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.
Maybe it’s the rain that’s falling here today, but what seems especially blissful right now is the memory of a walk we took on a summer day at Armstrong Redwoods in Guerneville last June—the wonderful warm day when this photo was taken. We were with our friends and their toddler daughter, who was just getting steady enough on her feet to occasionally speed ahead of us on the nature trail that winds through the redwoods. She toddled up and greeted a few families we met along the path—she’s outgoing and always makes friends—but she was especially taken with an older girl, about 8 or 9, and we all stopped and had a nice chat with the girl’s family.
This park always offers a nice, cool getaway in the warm months. All those big redwood trees provide a lot of shade, but there’s usually still plenty of sunlight filtering through the trees. And in a few places, even the tall redwoods can’t stop a sunbeam determined to reach the forest floor, as this one was.
The plants that grow in the shade of these huge trees often seem to have a lacy or delicate quality that somehow makes their massive companions seem even greater. Struck by that determined sunbeam, the leaves of this little tree cast a shadow we couldn’t resist.