Albion Monitor /Features

The Private/Public Russian River

by Simone Wilson

Few know that the sandy beaches all along the Russian River belong to the public

You've never read about a hike along the Lower Russian River? There's a reason for that. The Russian River, one of the North Coast's popular tourist destinations, has practically no public access, let along a trail that ambles along its banks.

A number of private campgrounds offer camping and sometimes day use. But along the 30-mile stretch from the town of the Healdsburg to the sea, there are only three spots where the public controls access to the river: at Healdsburg Memorial Beach, Monte Rio Beach, and the Jenner Boathouse near the mouth of the river.

The state's Wildlife Conservation Board is working on a fourth public access -- a campground at Forestville's Steelhead Beach, an idyllic expanse of white sand shielded from the highway by bay trees and willows. (For folks who know the area, this is the beach across the road from the now-defunct Rusty Nail bar.) Most private campground owners oppose the idea; both sides will it hash out before the Sonoma County Planning Commission January 18.

Few people know that the sandy beaches all along the Russian River belong to the public. By a formula that's easy to state but tricky to calculate, the public is entitled to use the beach up to the mean high water mark. Just where that lies is difficult to figure out but it's a sure bet any sand or gravel beach is below the line.

Getting to the river is another matter, because nearly all the land along the river is privately owned

Not all river beaches are public property, but the beaches of the lower Russian River are, because the Russian is officially a navigable river. In the 1860's loggers floated newly-felled trees to mills. (Guerneville was once called Stumptown). Sternwheelers and small ferries with names like the Quickstep and the River Queen took passengers up and down short stretches until1960's. From the1940's to the late 60's, for instance, Captain M.B. "Bid" Greene offered a leisurely cruise on the Russian River between Guerneville and Rio Nido. Bid always kept an old record player on the launch, so passengers would have music to enhance the redwood scenery. It's only two miles from Guerneville to Rio Nido, so the trip was over before passengers got fed up with his one record, which was called, appropriately, "Cruising on the River."

It's this history of commercial use that makes the lower Russian a navigable river open to the public. Getting to the river is another matter, because nearly all the land along the river is privately owned. Out-of-towners generally don't mind paying to camp, but locals, who regard the river as their backyard, have a long-standing habit of trespassing across fields, woods and vineyards for a picnic and a swim. Aside from creative trespass, just about the only way to reach most of the Russian River is to pay to get to the beach, or take to the river itself.

From here on we kick off our hiking boots and strap on a pair of beach sandals before we launch our canoes and paddle our way through the rest of the column.

Starting just below Healdsburg Memorial Beach, in the shadow of the Healdsburg Bridge, the river snakes through countless curves, tracing a course between banks thick with willow. On the other side of those willows is some very expensive real estate planted in vineyards. The current can be swift here, even in summer, but starts to slow down as we approach Wohler Bridge. Here the right bank is thick with redwoods and the left is a sandy beach once popular with nude sunbathers. Until a few years ago this beach belonged to the late actor Fred MacMurray, who owned a ranch nearby on Westside Road, but no one remembers seeing him sunbathe here. At the west end of Wohler Bridge is a parking lot and shore access built specifically for anglers. Funded by Fish and Game and the Wildlife Conservation Board, it's open October 1 to May 1 but locked up tight in summer when canoeists and swimmers want to get to the river. Anglers can buy a seasonal permit for $25, with a $15 deposit for a key to get past the imposing chain link fence.

A short while after floating under Wohler Bridge, you'll probably have to haul your craft out of the water and carry it a few yards past a summer dam. Then cruise on down through Forestville past its handful of private campgrounds: Mirabel Campground, Burke's, River Bend Campground and Schoolhouse Canyon Beach. Burke's also rents indestructible metal canoes beginners can take down river to Guerneville, a pleasant half-day trip; they provide a return shuttle. (Trowbridge rents similar canoes in Healdsburg and Guerneville.)

Between Forestville and Monte Rio, much of the riverbank is lined with homes ranging from funky river shacks to snazzy homes tucked into the redwoods. Lots of little sandy beaches sport No Trespassing signs. Most owners, like most boaters, are unaware the beach is technically public land. (If you go up the bank into the trees, however, you'll be trespassing.) By now we'll have spotted kingfishers, egrets, osprey, great blue herons and their smaller cousins, the green-back herons; these are all birds that fish. Startled turtles jump from sunny logs into the water and shy river otters dive as we go by.

In the mile or two before we reach the Guerneville Bridge, a strange form of treehouse-like construction takes over. In the flood of '86, the river rose and rose until it ran through the living rooms of unhappy Guernevillagers. But river residents are fiercely attached to their homes among the redwoods. Instead of heading for the hills they jacked up their houses with the aid of flood insurance and waited for the next big flood (which arrived in January and March of '95). Just past the Guerneville Bridge is Johnson's Beach, a gravel beach that's jammed in the summer; free to the public but privately-owned, the beach is closed from October 1 to May 1. Nevertheless, there are always a few anglers in winter, casting from the bank or wading into the stream in their rubber hipboots.

More houses are perched on the river banks in the towns of Guernewood Park, Monte Rio, Villa Grande. Just under the green steel of the Monte Rio Bridge is one of the few year-round accesses to the River. Developed by Fish and Game and the Wildlife Conservation Board and maintained by Monte Rio Park and Rec, the Monte Rio Angling Access has a boat ramp and a road down to the wide beach. In summer beachgoers line up at a refreshment stand for sno-cones and fries. (From the road, the entrance is just across the street from the Rio Theatre, a quonset hut with advertisements and faux movie posters painted on the corrugated metal sides.

Monte Rio's claim to fame was a seven-story hotel built in such a way that every floor was a ground floor

From the 1870's to the 1930's, railroads brought summer tourists who filled resorts along the river. Some were mom-and-pop guesthouses with two or three rooms; others were 100-room hotels with their own shuttles to and from the railroad station. Monte Rio's claim to fame was a seven-story hotel built against the side of Starrett Hill in such a way that every floor was a ground floor.

Downstream from Monte Rio, two private campgrounds, Rien's Sandy Beach and Casini's, flank the river. Just beyond is the Duncans Mills Bridge, and a mile further on is Willow Creek Campground, a state environmental campground (you park at the entrance and walk in). It generally closes in winter because the dirt road skirts the river and can be in danger of washing out.

Here we leave the redwoods behind. The Russian River Valley widens out, bordered by grassy hills flecked with sheep, and the river makes one last great curve before flowing past the town of Jenner to the sea. In summer the river mouth gets blocked by sand, and the water backs up, turning the estuary into a big, placid lake. The tide is at work here, and when the incoming tide is stronger than the current the river flows uphill. Ocean birds are common here: cormorants, pelicans and gulls, and, in winter, loons and Western grebes. Harbor seals, who hang out at the river mouth from January to July, swim upstream a mile or two to gawk at the boats, poking their heads above water out for a moment before placidly sinking back down.

Half a mile from the river's mouth is a wooden boathouse used a visitor's center on weekends. (If you're driving this is across the highway from the Jenner gas station.) Next to the boathouse is a public ramp for canoes, kayaks and other small boats. From here it's a five or ten-minute paddle to Penney Island, a farm once owned by Pomo Indians and now part of Goat Rock Park. It's a quiet place to picnic. There are remnants of a farmhouse, now choked with blackberry vines; sometimes a few cows or some deer swim the river to browse on island grasses. Since this is an island, it requires a boat to get here. The sad and strange part is that most of the Russian River is just as hard to reach.

Albion Monitor January 12, 1996 (

All Rights Reserved.

Contact for permission to reproduce.

Front Page