Photo: Jeanne Cooper / Special To SFGate
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Even when the Russian River is flowing low, summer is high season for Guerneville, the funky, free-spirited town amid towering redwoods, 75 miles north of San Francisco.
Like the river, its fortunes tend to rise and fall, and rise again. A vacation destination for the Bay Area since the 1870s, the former logging town lost luster in the 1960s as air travel took off and winter floodwaters swept through. The arrival of gay and lesbian visitors and residents in the late ’70s and early ’80s sparked a renaissance of renovated resorts and new boutiques and restaurants, but not all survived the effects of the later AIDS epidemic.
The late ’90s brought more floods, at a time when acceptance—if not downright wooing—of LGBT travelers was becoming more common. The economic downturns and dotcom busts of the last decade also took a toll on Guerneville, according to Beth Snow, a resident for the last 12 years and Sonoma County Tourism marketing manager. Her husband has lived in town since 1987.
“For a while it went through a period as an LGBT destination, when there weren’t all these activities for gay people around the state, and its proximity to San Francisco was great,” Snow said. “Then as acceptance grew and people started traveling more to other places, that appeal subsided to a certain extent, and then during the economic downturn, a lot of the little boutiques had to pull out. There were a lot of empty windows, and it was a little depressing for more than a year.”
But for the last few years, “Stumptown,” as Guerneville was originally called, has been sprouting new shoots in and around Main Street, a/k/a River Road.
“A lot of art galleries have popped up in town. It’s become kind a little artsy community, very eclectic,” Snow noted. “And a lot of people are putting their attention into restaurants. There’s so much focus on good food.”
Newer arts and entertainment events such as the biweekly Rockin’ the River and the monthly First Friday Art Walk add to the energy generated by staples such as the Russian River Jazz & Blues Festival and Lazy Bear Weekend, now in their 38th and 18th years, respectively. Classic attractions such as Armstrong Woods, Johnson’s Beach and Pee Wee Golf also continue to attract a diverse crowd, which may be another part of Guerneville’s enduring appeal.
“When you see people coming to town, there are a lot of LGBT people, but also families and young, hip people from the San Francisco Bay Area,” Snow said. “They want to find somewhere that’s just a little bit on the edgy side, and Guerneville still has a little bit of that edginess.”
See the photogallery above for details on what’s notable and/or new in Guerneville, and share your travel tips in the comments below.