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Heat wave pro tips: 4 ways to float the Russian River like a tubing boss

And where to eat and drink afterwards.

Five people are floating on round inflatable tubes in a body of water, and one person is seen underwater using an inflatable dolphin. The water has some leaves and debris.
Sonoma County’s Russian River is a hotspot for canoeing and tubing. Here are our picks for how to do it right. | Source: Kent Porter/The Press Democrat/AP Photo

It’s looking like a very toasty Fourth of July this year, and the urge to jump into the water remains strong. As ocean temperatures are currently hovering around the 60-degree mark, we strongly suggest fresh water! 

The Standard has already shown you where to find a nice swimming hole, but sometimes you want a more structured afternoon, like the kind you can have floating on the Russian River through Sonoma County. Although it can become a thunderous waterway during rainy winters, in high summer, the “Rushin’” is as lazy as they come, sometimes averaging less than one mile per hour. Here are four picks for how to do it right, and where to eat once you dry off.

Float #1: Guerneville

While the Russian River starts north of Ukiah and meanders through the Wine Country mecca that is Healdsburg, the best places to float are in and around the Western Sonoma resort hamlet of Guerneville—and for more than 100 years, Johnson’s Beach has been the place for day-trippers and overnight guests alike. 

A proper, sandy spot at a wide bend in the river just downstream of Guerneville’s bridges, it’s open daily through Aug. 18 and weekends-only through Sept. 20. It’s ideally set up for summer fun, too: Visitors can rent tubing equipment between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., there’s a full snack bar with alcohol service and parking is only $7 per vehicle—but get there early. If you prefer to invest in your own tube, King’s Sport & Tackle is a 5-minute walk away. They might even blow it up for you if you ask nicely.

Johnson’s has one drawback, a boom just west of the beach extends over the river from shore to shore, often forcing tubers to get out of the water and walk their floating coolers back upstream. Wear comfy shoes when making the trek!

Guerneville’s small downtown has seen a lot of churn in its restaurant scene since the pandemic, but boon eat + drink has only prospered over the years. Open for dinner to walk-ins only Wednesday through Sunday, it’s the place for Cal-Italian cuisine—think little gem salad with green goddess dressing, burrata with melon and prosciutto or chili-braised Niman pork shoulder with polenta. 

Two women in bikinis relax on a large blue and white inflatable float in a shallow body of water. A purple raft and another person are visible in the background.
The flow of the Russian River is a mighty, flood-prone torrent during rainy winters, but by high summer it's about as lazy as it gets, sometimes averaging less than one mile per hour. | Source: Kent Porter/Santa Rosa Press Democrat/AP Photo

Float #2: Forestville

Run by Sonoma County, Steelhead Beach is another prime tubing spot a few miles east of Guerneville. Geared a bit more toward locals, its small parking lot tends to fill up quickly on summer weekends, so best to arrive early. But with river activities growing ever more popular, it’s now possible to rent what you need ahead of time—including ice chests, water shoes and even stand-up paddleboards.

From Steelhead Beach, people can float their way around the bend to Sunset Beach, roughly two miles downstream. Conveniently, Sonoma County also runs a $5 shuttle bus every half hour on weekends that allows tubing aficionados to get back to where they parked. The fare is valid all day if you have enough chillaxing in you to make a second run.

Barely a quarter mile from Sunset Beach is Forestville’s Diners, Drive-ins and Dives alum Russian River Pub, a cabana-covered institution serving tri-tip and pesto chicken sandwiches alongside a sizable selection of local wines and beers. If your forearms aren’t too sunburnt, there’s plenty of cornhole and horseshoes to wile away the rest of the afternoon.

Float #3: Downstream from Healdsburg

Floating is fun, no doubt about it, but it doesn’t exactly strengthen the core. For those looking for a bit more exertion, Russian River Adventures offers self-paced, half- and full-day canoe trips from Healdsburg’s Memorial Beach to either Crow Bar or Wohler Bridge, which are four and nine miles downstream, respectively.

Low river levels during the summer make for a leisurely pace, so budget between three-and-a-half and six hours for the full-day odyssey, and keep in mind that the 9:30 a.m. check-in time is on the early side. All-day canoe rentals run $80 for adults, $40 for kids 12-and-under and yes, Mr. Woofers is welcome to join the fun for only $15.

There’s not much to eat in that immediate vicinity, so you’re better off heading to Stumptown Brewery on River Road outside of Guerneville. This dog-friendly brewpub just east of town is unrelated to the Portland coffee roastery of the same name. referring to the Russian River’s bygone logging era. An independent brewery and local staple for nearly 30 years, Stumptown’s kitchen cranks out pulled pork sandos, sliders and chili cheese fries from 11 a.m. until 10 p.m. daily. It’s a fine place to watch the last rays of light hitting the trees, too.

People of all ages enjoy a sunny day wading and swimming in a lake. Some float on colorful inflatable rafts, including a unicorn, while others splash and play in the water.
Healdsburg may be an upscale Wine Country town, but it's also got strong options for how to enjoy the Russian River—whether heading upstream or downstream. | Source: Scott Strazzante/SF Chronicle/AP Photo

Float #4: Upstream from Healdsburg

Solitude can be in short supply along the Russian River during the peak season, unless you’re in the know. Three shuttles a day leave from Memorial Beach in the opposite direction, ferrying kayakers and canoers upstream to paddle five miles back down river into Healdsburg—a genuine hack, if there ever was one.

This “Rio Trip,” run by Rivers Edge Kayak and Canoe ($80-$160, depending on the type of boat), is a three- to six-hour self-guided adventure where the only obstacle may be the occasional sandbar when the water level is low. 

And while Healdsburg is typically a far fancier place than West Sonoma’s more rustic locales, there’s always the huge variety of beef patties at Healdsburger—and the hot dogs, fries and other staples of a summer afternoon. This is the place to cap off a day on the river with a genuine chocolate malt. 

Astrid Kane can be reached at