Discover redwoods country
Where can you get redwood forests, grapevines, timber workers and winemakers? has the answer. At Dry Creek Vineyard, there’s not a redwood or a lumberjack in sight – just rows of grapevines speckled by lateafternoon yellowing light.
It’s noon in Guerneville and pick-up trucks are parked at the local hall on the edge of the iconic Russian River. Veterans, dressed in checked shirts and low-slung jeans, salute the American flag flapping in the breeze, before sauntering back to their trucks at a pace so slow you can hear every leaf crunch. A few blocks away, the main street is lined with chic cafes serving organic flat whites and dishes featuring produce sourced from the surrounding valley.
The vets possibly once worked in the local timber mills that made the town famous and earned Guerneville its first name, Stumptown, which is still its nickname today.
A few centuries ago, the area was filled with so many redwood trees that local Indians called it ‘‘Ceola’’ or shady place, when the area had the greatest biomass density on the planet.
I’ve jogged on some stunning tracks in New Zealand and elsewhere, but I will never forget my one-hour run in the Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve beneath 300ft-tall ancient redwoods, some of which are more than 1000 years old. When I head in, the fog that smothered Guerneville when we woke has finally lifted. I run beneath the oldest in the grove, the 1400-year-old Colonel Armstrong Tree, named after a log worker who chose to preserve this part of the park in the 1880s. I trot past a few visitors standing beneath the Parsons Jones tree – the tallest there, at 310ft.
As I dodge tree roots, I think of George Guerne, the Swiss immigrant who arrived and set up the town’s first logmill in the 1880s. The striking trees were felled, leaving just this state park, and the town was named after him.
Given this is Guerneville’s main attraction, I’m surprised the tracks are so empty. I have a terrible sense of direction at the best of times, and I can’t spot any landmarks apart from redwoods, which all look the same. I feel like Hansel and Gretel looking for a glinting pebble signalling where I should turn, until I bump into a park ranger, who happily points me towards the exit.
‘‘A couple of hundred feet down there,’’ he drawls, shuffling his feet.
The redwood forest is on the other side of town from our digs for the night. In a grove of replanted redwoods just up from the river, a high wooden gate opens slowly to reveal rows of airstream caravans gleaming in the bright sunlight. Our airstream is decked out in mid-century-inspired furnishings, with a few logs we can pop into our own campfire along with a bag of jumbo marshmallows.
The last time I properly camped was five years ago in Hawke’s Bay, when my tent was soaked through after a week of solid rain. No such drama at Autocamp where, along with 30 airstreams, the campsite is dotted with luxury tents, each with a queen-sized bed with soft mattress.
Autocamp is another welcome surprise, just like Guerneville itself. Until now, I hadn’t thought there was much to this region beyond San Francisco. When we decided to explore the city’s surrounds, my partner suggested we could venture 100 kilometres north of the Golden Gate bridge to diversify our trip.
We knew we had arrived in Guerneville when we drove past a sign at the town’s entrance that declared the town ‘‘a hate-free community’’, reflecting the tensions that flared up a decade ago between two extreme communities in the town of 4000 residents – the lumberjacks and the liberal hipsters who began travelling here from San Francisco in the 1970s, especially the gay community who fell in love with the place.
One of the latter is the hotelier, Crista Luedtke, who left San Francisco more than a decade ago during the gay wave.
It’s thanks to Luedtke that tourists can now eat food that rivals that served in San Francisco, and stay in stylish digs without the big price tag. Her 14-room Boon Hotel is close to the Redwood State Parks area. On a balmy summer evening, we dine at her restaurant, Boon Eat+Drink, devouring dishes sourced locally from nearby farms, and sipping Russian River wines.
It’s thanks to her and other business owners that the ‘‘hate-free’’ sign is at the town’s entrance, along with ‘‘hatefree’’ stickers they first placed on shop windows a decade ago when locals lashed out at gay holiday-makers.
Guerneville is over the hill from the Sonoma valley, a region criss-crossed with grapevines, which rivals nearby Napa Valley an hour west and is home to more than 60,000 acres of vineyards and 425 wineries.
Russian settlers are believed to have planted the first grapes here in the 1830s. They came to the coast to hunt seals in the early 1800s, leaving their mark on the region and giving rise to the name Russian River Valley.
I’ve seen the Hawke’s Bay wineries from a bike seat so I’m keen to do the same in California. We drive 30km south from Guerneville to Santa Rosa, where Randy Johnson meets us at his bike shop, Getaway Adventures. Our guide has this idea that we should go ‘‘off the beaten track’’ to ‘‘secret spots’’. Minutes later, we’re pedalling along a bike lane beside a highway. The keen cyclist has told us to head for Forestville, which he describes as the next Guerneville waiting to be discovered.
We cycle on a former railway track where trains ran until 1984, when the railroad was disbanded and the land was eventually bought by the state and turned into a cycle trail.
Vineyards have taken over Sonoma County, rivalling nearby Napa Valley as an important wine-making district.
Travelling along the narrow lanes of Dry Creek Valley, you might think you’re in France or the back roads of Central Otago or even Hawke’s Bay.