Rollin’ on the Russian River

Planning a budget Labor Day getaway for three families with busy kids is challenging. Doing it at the last minute is nearly impossible. Negotiating a surgical strike between football, soccer, work and school commitments, we decided to head for the Russian River area. Less than 90 minutes north of San Francisco, we envisioned people arriving, departing and returning on their own schedules.

The good part? The location worked. Everyone made it for at least part of the weekend, leaving as necessary for work or a game. The better part? Three nights of camping and a canoe trip only cost $250 for our entire family of four!


The best part? Canoeing the Russian River. A day paddling with Burke’s Canoe Trips in Forestville is a NorCal family tradition. But even after living here twenty-plus years, we had somehow never made the trip. In hindsight, this was a huge mistake: Canoeing and camping at Burke’s combined with a Guerneville day of beach/mini-golf/ice cream will take you right back to a summer weekend from your 1970s-80s childhood.

johnsons beach

The canoe journey was incredibly fun. It’s like “Truckin’ on the Truckee” much nearer to home. There’s something for little ones, tweens, teens and parents. Some kids drag fishing lines along. There are water balloon battles, squirt gun assaults, oar splashes, swimming spots. The scenery is gorgeous, the sun is warm – but not too hot, and the atmosphere is festive.

I expected the Russian River banks to be lined with unremarkable vegetation and vacation homes on stilts. Instead, almost the entire 10 miles of river we paddled was surrounded on both sides by redwoods, bays, oaks, shrubs and patches of water plants. Boulders topped with grasses look as though a landscape architect placed them. Gravel “sand” bars and beaches made for perfect stopping spots.

burkes river view

This is not a float: You must actually paddle to move down the river because this year – as in many late summer seasons – there is very little current. Burke’s says the trip involves about 3 ½ hours of actual paddling. We probably did it in 3 hours but some spots – especially the end – got a bit tiring – not difficult but tiring at times.

Burke’s is especially safety conscious. They are very serious about paddlers being able to swim on their own, keeping life jackets on, keeping alcohol out of the boats and keeping dogs out of the water during a recent blue algae bloom. Each boat needs two paddlers and Burke’s recommends a combo of an adult/child or two teens in each boat. Our group ended up with a canoe of two athletic 12-year-old girls who kept up and had fun but were a bit beat by the last part of the paddle.

When you reach the end of the trip, Burke’s picks up you and your canoes and buses you back to their parking lot. You can head home at this point or stay in nearby Forestville, Guerneville or a bit farther west in cozy Cazadero. We had reserved a large group campsite at Burke’s. Kicking back around a campfire amongst massive redwoods is the perfect end to a day on the river.

campsite night

The ROAM Report : Canoeing the Russian River

Travelers : The Thompson, Rembrandt and Jones families, including five kids aged 7-14

Date : Labor Day 2015

Itinerary : Three nights camping at Burke’s Campground in Forestville, California

Budget : Averaged about $100 per day per family for camping, food and canoe trip

The Good Stuff 

Burke’s Canoe Trips & Campground   Canoes are $65 per day for two adults and one (or two small) kids. The season runs mid-May to mid-October (call to confirm hours.) I recommend calling in advance to reserve your canoeing so that they can help you understand how many canoes you’ll need, which depends on how many people of what age are making the trip. There is tons of free parking right in front.

It’s no state or national park campground but for $12 per person, Burke’s will give you a big spot and a spotless bathroom with hot showers. There is no river access or swimming at the camp but there are public beaches on either side. Our “middle terrace” spot was good for our large group and last-minute booking.


Be aware the campground is right off the parking area on River Road so there is road noise all night – but most Russian River accommodation has the same problem. The campsites are either in the redwoods or in the sun nearer to the river; I’d recommend the redwoods sites if the weather is warm.

burkes campground Collage

Linda will help you out with reservations. When you arrive, Ted runs the entire Burke’s operation and you’ll want to be sure to follow his directions if you want to not be “doing it wrong.” He was super helpful though, getting us campers through the long line of canoe-ers on our paddle day. He’ll also sell you firewood and ice, which is convenient. Burke’s lends you a Weber BBQ grill and camp chairs if needed as well. Speer’s Market is super close for whatever other camping food supplies you’d need. (See “Good to Know” below for more tips on making the most of the canoe trip.)

More Lodging   Casini Ranch caters to camping families and comes well recommended but was booked for Labor Day weekend when we called. Cottages on River Road has cute vintage cabins with kitchenettes just east of Guerneville. It’s got a pool but so tucked into the redwoods that it is bathed in shade most of the day (which is a good or bad thing, depending on the weather.) Summer Home Park vacation rentals have the most crazy beach scene and lodge outside of Guerneville. Boon Hotel + Spa is perfect for parental escapes. Or head out to one of Elim Grove’s cottages. 

Johnson’s Beach   For a classic family day on the river, add a day at Johnson’s Beach in Guerneville. Seventies summer tunes blare from the loudspeaker in between announcements about snack bar specials and calls for boaters to keep their life jackets on. A strapping young lad will mallet your rental umbrella into a standing position on the gravel beach. The grill serves yummy garden burgers, soft serve and Big Daddy IPA. Wade, swim and splash in the river or rent kayaks and pedal boats at the snack bar. It’s just $5 to park for the day or stay overnight at the cabins or campground.

johnsons snack bar

Vintage Putt Putt   If you like a classic minigolf course, treat yourself to Pee Wee Golf and Arcade. The corner spot has two 18-hole mini courses and an arcade straight out of the 1980s. Hours vary so call to be sure it is open when you want to go.


Really Good Food   There are so many options for eating out nearby, it seems silly to bother cooking anything but marshmallows over the campfire. The foodies overran Guerneville years ago and now they’re about finished with Forestville (see this Chronicle writeup), offering nicer spots like Backyard and Canneti Roadhouse, plus smaller cafes like Tiny Town and Twist. La Rosa Taqueria for Mexican and Forestville Pizzeria for you-know-what. Boon Eat+Drink, Pat’s and Stumptown Brewery are yum. Ice cream at Flavors Unlimited is a must for the kids and the taco truck in the Guerneville Safeway parking lot is a worthy stop as well.

Rio Nido Roadhouse    Just five minutes from Burke’s, this River Road institution gives the adults a place to hear live music and the kids a place to swim in a pool. On some Sunday nights, these two worlds of fun collide – kids can night swim while parents relax in the bar. Check the web site calendar for the latest events.

Fishing    The guys at King’s in Guerneville know where to go and what you’ll catch. They’ll sell you whatever you need to make it happen.

Location Location Location    Activities abound in the surrounding area: Beyond SUPs and kayaks, bring along mountain bikes, surfboards, hiking boots or running shoes. And after driving up and down River Road past the champagne vineyards, you will likely be in the mood for some wine tasting or a picnic at one of the many outstanding local wineries.

The Not So Good 

Poor Reception    Even this close to the 101 freeway, cell reception is not reliable. Not necessarily a bad thing but good to be aware of before you leave.

Crazy Dust    You will be filthy and covered in dust after a summer day on the river and/or a night of camping. Don’t fight it.

Algae Bloom    Nothing like starting a Labor Day camping weekend on the Russian River with a headline like this one:



The news of the blue-green algae bloom definitely made us a bit nervous about being in the water. Blue-green algae is nothing to mess with. Sadly, a dog passed away after a float and the Health Department issued a warning. (The county keeping the river open for one of the biggest holiday weekends of the year felt more than a little bit like the mayor’s decision to keep the beaches open in Jaws.)  Fortunately, thousands of people enjoyed the river that weekend and since, and there have been no more media reports of sickness. And this type of problem is not a common occurrence. But as with all river experiences, it’s best to avoid drinking the water and to shower off afterwards.

Good to Know 

Canoe Trip Tips Here’s some tips based on our experience…

  • Start Early   We paddled away from the bank at 12:15 p.m. We pulled into the canoe return zone at 5:20 p.m. We made two long stops and about 3 short ones. We all agreed it would have been more fun to go earlier. Arriving at the canoe rental desk early – about 10:00 a.m. – would have been good. It takes quite a while to check in, hear the mandatory orientation, get geared up, walk down to the river and get a paddlin’. If you can get your kids to wear water sandals or shoes, do it. If not, flip flops are really fine.
  • Stop Early   The most fun, scenic and swimmable sections of the river are before the 2nd car bridge (the first 2/3 of the trip.) At the end, the water is much deeper, guckier and mossier. But there is an awesome rope swing – the best one of the trip – on the right side of the river about 15 minutes before the canoe drop off.
  • Last Paddling Is Hardest   This is one of those trips that you wish ended 30 minutes earlier. Right when you’re feeling the most sunburnt, tired and ready for a cold beverage, the river seems to stop flowing altogether and you have to paddle your hardest. If we’d have started earlier, we wouldn’t have felt as rushed to get the canoe back in time and would have taken more breaks here (aside from the awesome rope swing mentioned above). But I would say save your energy/rest breaks for the 60-75 minutes of paddle time from the 2nd car bridge to the end of the paddle.
  • Bring Seats    If you’re going to have a third (or fourth) person in the canoe – bring a small folding beach chair or stadium chair (or two) for seating. There are only two seats for paddlers. The smaller, non-paddlers must sit at the bottom of the canoe – which gets wetter as the day goes on even if you don’t get hit with a blast from a water gun (which you will). Some paddlers brought pads or towels to sit atop the metal benches to make the journey a bit more comfy as well.
  • Canoes Involve Water   You and your stuff are gonna get wet. Feet and oars dribble water into the boat over the course of the day. Young partiers strategically locate themselves in order to douse you with water guns as you pass. Your kids will splash you from their boats. So adopt a festive attitude, embrace the fun and bring stuff that won’t melt if hit by water. We had waterproof tote bags – a la those from Trader Joe’s or Costco – and they worked fine for towels, ziplocs of sandwiches and sunblock. Burke’s will keep your car keys as you paddle.
  • GoPro   Don’t forget yours like we did (hence, lack of photos to accompany this article.) Or your camera/iPhone in a dry bag. Lots of great photo ops.
  • Partiers Are Out   Though alcohol is not allowed in the rental canoes or on several of the local beaches, we passed a floating neon Tiki Bar, a kayak with two kegs, few canoes without coolers, and beaches packed with imbibing revelers. A contact high was absolutely in the realm of possibility as well. No one was rude or out of control but if you or your kids are not comfortable with encountering these substances, aim for a weekday or off-season float.
  • Do It Yourself    You can absolutely float the stretch from Forestville to Guerneville on a private kayak or even an inner tube. Many people were moving up river as well because the current was not strong. The entire stretch is very easy going with no rapids whatsoever. You could tie a float to a canoe but it would be a tougher paddle and quite possibly less fun.
  • Watch Water Quality   The Russian River is dammed in the summer, which guarantees a decent water level in the season for boating, drought or no. But the blue-green algae bloom – however rare – was more concerning. Burke’s was well informed of current conditions and again, very safety conscious, which was comforting. Because of the danger to pets, Burke’s would not allow dogs on the canoes or allow paddlers to leave them in cars for the day for their safety on the day we went.
  • Go West – If you’re looking for a less-crowded trip on the Russian River, check out this cool paddle from Duncan Mills (west of Guerneville) to Jenner.

Good Family Trip? 

A weekend on the Russian River is a must-do for Bay Area families. Enjoying splashy days on the water with good friends, good food and good kid-friendly activities will give your kids memories to be nostalgic for in the decades to come.

beach girls

by Maryann Jones Thompson, October 2015

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Keywords: family travel, family vacation, family holiday, russian river with kids, forestville with kids, guerneville with kids, russian river canoe trip


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