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 which 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. The day I head in, the fog that smothered Guerneville when we woke had finally lifted. I run beneath 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, and the length of a football field – in one part of the park.
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’ve got a terrible sense of direction at the best of times, and I can’t spot any landmarks apart from yet another redwood, which all look the same. I feel like Hansel and Gretel looking for a glinting pebble signalling where I should turn, until I jog into a park ranger, who happily points me towards the exit. “A couple of hundred feet down there,” he drawls, shuffling his feet slowly.
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, along 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, and we scooped water out in buckets. No such drama at Autocamp, where along with 30 airstreams, the campsite is dotted with luxury tents, each with a queen bed and soft mattress.
Autocamp is another welcome surprise, just like Guerneville itself. Up till now, I had never 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 iconic Golden Gate bridge to diversify our trip.
Driving in, we knew we had arrived in Guerneville when a sign at the town’s entrance declared the town “a hate-free community”. That sign reflects the tensions that flared up a decade ago between two extreme communities living here – the lumberjacks I spotted on my first day in the town of 4000 residents, and the liberal hipsters who first began travelling here from San Francisco in the 1970s, especially the gay community who fell in love with the place.
One of those 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 price tag. Her 14-room Boon Hotel is close to the redwood state park. 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 “hate-free” stickers they first placed on shop windows a decade ago when locals lashed out at gay vacationers.
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 back in the 1830s. They came to the local coast to hunt for 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.
Hitting the traffic again, we arrive in Sebastopol, a sweet American town serving the nearby wine industry, where we head for a coffee to The Barlow – a 20 hectare outdoor market featuring local food, wine, beer, spirits and crafts made onsite by local artisans. We sip strong organic coffee at Taylor Maid Farms and nibble on local cheeses, lapping up the farm to gate philosophy celebrated here.
Pedalling for the small town of Graton, there’s nothing much to see so far, apart from gas-chugging American cars, until we see a red barn squatting amid paddocks. We’re apparently in the apple capital of California, although since the 1970s, much of the land has been replanted with vines.
The front yard of Hale’s Apple Farm is full of giant pumpkins glowing a fiery orange, and speckled gourds, squash and cucumbers. The third generation “farm” (they don’t use the term orchard) sells 40 different apple varieties by the pound, and one of the workers, Gabriella Mata, cuts me off a piece of a winesap apple to try. They’re just off the tree, and so fresh that the juice dribbles down my chin.
It’s thanks to a couple of winesap apples that we have enough energy to pedal into Forestville an hour or so later. The town doesn’t have Guerneville’s redwoods or hipster charm, and it’s hard to see whether Johnson’s prophecy will come true as we see a functioning main street filled with cars and a handful of locals wandering about. On the way back to Santa Rosa, we cycle up a hill to a winery off the beaten track, where we pay US$25 (NZ$34) for a tasting of five sample glasses.
A day later, after the best sleep we’ve had in ages in our vintage airstream, we decide to do a full afternoon of cycling and wine tasting. Of the 400-plus wineries in the county, some draw busloads, like Francis Ford Coppola’s winery in Geyserville. The bike shop owner in another town, Healdsburg, tells us about a couple of the quieter ones to visit, and so we cycle from Healdsburg’s tree-covered plaza out towards the vineyards running over the hills and plains in the Dry Creek valley.
We could be on the narrow lanes of France, or the back roads of Central Otago or Hawke’s Bay, our vista rows of emerald green vineyards running beneath bright blue skies. The difference between the wineries I’ve visited at home and the ones here are that the Californian ones are often huge empires, with vast, dark wine caves and impressive cellar doors. Buses are often parked out the front, and there’s no such thing as a free tasting.
That is with the exception of places like Dry Creek Vineyard in Dry Creek Valley, on the edge of Healdsburg, where we are given a guided tour. The Sonoma county is aiming to be the country’s first sustainable wine region by 2019, and wineries like Dry Creek Vineyard are well on the way. The family-owned vineyard is biodynamic, organic, and completely off the grid, powering the operation through solar panels and recycling its water.
A garden flowers with plants and vegetables to attract pests away from the vines. Near a row of grapevines, a pen of pigs and piglets squealing in a trough are the winery “tractors”. “We let these guys out. They use their noses like shovels and rip up the soil, and get oxygen into the ground, making it healthier,” says the winery’s co-owner. “Everything is composted and put back into the soil. We don’t add anything that nature doesn’t do.”
At Dry Creek Vineyard, there’s not a redwood or a lumberjack in sight – just rows of grapevines speckled by late afternoon yellowing light. And yet, that other world is just over the hill, proving that California is packed with so much diversity that all you need is a car – or a bike – to explore beyond the Golden Gate.
More information: sonomacounty.com
Getting there: Air New Zealand flies to San Francisco. See airnz.co.nz. From there, hire a car and drive north-west to Guerneville, 100 kilometres away.
Staying there: Boon Hotel, 14711 Armstrong Woods Rd, Guerneville, California; boonhotels.com. Rooms from NZ$305 a night.
Autocamp, Old Cazadero Road, Guerneville. autocamp.com. Rooms from NZ$243 a night.