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Rancho Cordova Independent

Curiosities of the Russian River

Jun 13, 2024 10:35AM ● By Dannah Nielsen, MPG Travel Correspondent, photos by Dannah Nielsen
The Cazadero General Store is a rustic treat.

DIXON, CA (MPG) - The vibes of the Russian River stretch over 115 miles- from inland Mendocino County to out flowing through Sonoma County into the Pacific Ocean, but for the purpose of this travel research, we opted to hone our adventure to the Sonoma coastal region.

ocean view

 A peaceful and cool ocean is in view.

Sonoma sitting area

 There is an artistic sitting area in Sonoma.

It’s here along the slow and meandering Highway 116 that it seems residents came for that summer timeshare of the 1980’s and never left, staking claim over the soul of the Russian River. The eclectic small towns that line the veins of these waterways work in unison, sharing happy hours and social clubs, festivals and special events. So much so, that at times it felt we were consistently late to the party- one that started decades ago with your parents, their best friends and their scattering of floatation devices. Everywhere we arrived was bustling with people who likely already knew all of the details.

Russian River road trip majestic views

 Majestic views found on the Russian River Road Trip. Photo by Dannah Nielsen with iPhone and no other equipment.

This could definitely be a choose-your-own adventure. Are you here for the hiking trails? Are you here for the wine? Are you here for the arts? Are you here to float your cares away? For this particular trip, we’ll highlight retail therapy and the abundance of bakeries, but by all means we encourage every kind of exploration. Starting from Jenner and working inland, here are a few highlights of our stay:

Cafe Aquatica, Jenner. Come for the made-in-house pastries but stay for the live music and ocean breeze. This is where the mouth of the Russian meets the Pacific.

Cafe Aquatica live music

 Cafe Aquatica in Jenner offers live music.

The Shops at Duncans Mills Village, Duncans Mills. Seemingly popping up out of nowhere, this small cluster of businesses boasts a little something for everyone. Across the highway is also Gold Coast Coffee & Bakery, another well worth stop to enjoy a snack and eavesdrop on more hints and travel tips from other patrons.

Raymond’s Bakery, Cazadero. So, at this point you might be thinking this is a carb-loading marathon weekend, not retail therapy but hold on just a minute: we were in the area for three days, so scouts honor we paced ourselves with all this fooding around. Because we were staying in Cazadero (more on this shortly) we were treated to a Friday Pizza night shindig at Raymond’s, and it was the chef’s kiss to our entire weekend. Pro-tip: you MUST order ahead to avoid a long wait.

Monte Rio Theatre, Monte Rio. This is just a quick stop for a fun photo op, but it’s a must if you’re in the mood for some pink charm--the theatre is currently decked out in Barbie paraphernalia and is the small town’s crown jewel. Across from the theatre entrance is one of the few public entrances to the river itself.

Also on Main Street, Monte Rio is the Lightwave Coffee and Kitchen- a surprisingly tasty hidden gem with a park, trail & community garden to stroll. Lightwave, and its staff, have created the feeling of being at your best friend’s home, and wanting to overstay your welcome.  

Main Street, Occidental. There definitely are glimpses of a revival in progress with Occidental, although one could argue a revival has never been needed- the tree lined road has been carefully manicured and maintained with small shop curiosities for decades. But the trees alone set the vibe that any season is the perfect season to visit, and we picked up souvenirs from Boho Bungalow and Cypress gallery.

And P.S., stop and check out the brightly painted yellow shack on the side of the road outside of town for some adorable decorative ceramics by Cindy Searles!

Lastly, Main Street, Guerneville is just shy of 5,000 residents and serves as the main artery of the Russian River lifestyle here. A gateway to Armstrong Redwoods, Austin Creek Recreation Area and a popular launching point to set yourself adrift in the water, Guerneville has the liveliest downtown to meet the needs of average weekend warriors. On this particular Friday, we stumbled upon three different live music restaurants, two different impromptu street fairs with craft vendors, and a hula hooping flash mob. We were told by one local that this was a quiet weekend turnout.

What truly sealed this trip with our stamp of approval, however, was our two-night stay at The Crow’s Nest in Cazadero. This was an Airbnb experience unlike anything we’ve ever had before due to its prime location, gorgeous design and hospitality that was unmatched.

Crows Nest Cazadero

 There is a clean, rustic, and relaxing Crow's Nest in Cazadero.

After a short and winding drive up a private mountain, you are greeted by a true “cabin in the woods” but with a clearing so that you have entirely unobstructed views of the weather- which is the best part. If you’ve never watched rolling fog crawl over mountain peaks, you can do it from this perch with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, or both. Interestingly, both sunsets we enjoyed with this view were just what was needed to turn down the volume of a wild couple of days soaking in this river life.

The Crow’s Nest also has all the luxuries you might not expect from a such a secluded location- hot water AND great water pressure, Wi-Fi, satellite TV, working gate codes, precisely detailed out manuals, etc. but had the Airbnb even lacked a single amenity, the bay window views alone can easily make you forget any of your troubles and remind you of what we all need to hear: life is beautiful.