Man Among Giants

Enjoying the trees and other sights in Guerneville

When it pours it often floods. That’s part of the Guerneville story, but not all of it. Not by a long shot. The town along the Russian River that’s famous as a gay playground is much more, though long ago queers moved in and cozied up to the bars and restaurants on Main Street and in the surrounding resorts and breathed new life into a place that was down on its luck. If you’re not queer, don’t worry. The town with the frontier feel welcomes cowboys and cowgirls, geeks, freaks and members of the all-American family who can enjoy burgers, fries and pizza at Main Street Bistro and other eateries. But I prefer the trees.

Not long ago, when I lived in Occidental, I drove to Guerneville at least once a week to walk in Armstrong Redwoods State Reserve to commune with the ancient trees, an experience that ought to humble anyone with a computer chip on his or her shoulders.

In the old days, the theater on Main Street showed classic European films; the diner next door served the very best fried liver and onions platter this side of the Mississippi. These days, I still go to “Armstrong Woods,” as locals call it, and have my mind blown by trees that were alive long before Columbus arrived in the New World. The Colonel Armstrong tree is more than 1,400 years old. The Parson Jones is more than 310 feet tall. The woods provide a great setting for a picnic.

Most of the giant redwoods are long gone—hence Guerneville’s nickname, “Stumptown”—but Armstrong Woods provides a sense of what it was like in Sonoma County before the arrival of the pioneers with their saws and axes. It’s a trip back in time that restores one’s sanity and sense of balance in a world that often seems to have gone bonkers.

Korbel Champagne Cellars on River Road—five minutes by car from Main Street in Guerneville—uses the méthode champenoise to make very good sparkling wines that even French tourists appreciate. The 25-minute drive from Main Street to the coast on Highway 116 is breathtakingly beautiful. The wind-swept beaches are perfect for watching the waves and enjoying the majesty of the Pacific Ocean. On the way back, stop at Duncans Mills and wander about.

Stumptown Brewery on River Road has a deck that overlooks the Russian River, which is well worth a long look. It also provides a time out for meditation and self-reflection. Rat Bastard Pale Ale is a favorite with visitors, as is Dirty Rat IPA, for those who can’t live a day without an IPA. On Fridays and Saturdays, Stumptown Brewery is open until 2am. Hopefully, you’ve already booked a place to stay for the night. There are cottages on River Road and there’s also AutoCamp Russian River that describes itself as “a luxury boutique Airstream Hotel.” Bring a bottle or two of Korbel to celebrate. Each unit at the Airstream motel comes with a flat-screen TV, a refrigerator, a microwave, a sofa bed and a walk-in shower. With all those modern conveniences, you won’t feel that you’ve made a sacrifice by spending a day and a night, or even a weekend in the town along the Russian River that has survived floods and fires and droughts and that keeps on chugging.

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