Russian River above Healdsburg


Stretch: Alexander Valley Road to Healdsburg
Difficulty: Class I with some II-
Distance: 14.6 miles, 1 or 2 days
Flows: canoes and kayaks 300 - 1500 cfs
Gauge: measured by the Healdsburg flow (HEA)
Gradient: 5.5 fpm average, but moves pretty well
Put-in: Alexander Valley Campground, 155'
Take-out: Healdsburg Avenue bridge southeast of town, 75'
Shuttle: 7 miles (10 minutes) one-way
Maps: Delorme N California, AAA Sonoma and Mendocino, Topo
Season: January to August, faster after recent rain
Agency: mostly private
Notes: © 1998 Bill Tuthill, CreeksYahoo

Between Alexander Valley road and Healdsburg, the Russian flows thru a lovely semi-wilderness area with many large trees and mountains nearly 1000' tall along the banks. Except for the presence of old tires in the river, you might sometimes think you are in the middle of nowhere. Although the river winds south, north, and finally west for almost 15 miles, as the crow flies it is only about 4 miles from beginning to end. The water channelizes well and pools are often quite deep, so this run can be accomplished at lower flows than the stretch just upstream. Although surrounding land is mostly private, there are many inviting campsites within the river channel (please pack out human waste).

For many Californians, the Russian River above Healdsburg constitutes their introduction to canoeing, and often their only river running experience. W.C. “Bob” Trowbridge, who was instrumental in establishing Californians' right to river access, started a canoe business on this stretch. Recently he sold his company to Rivers Edge Kayak and Canoe (click here for their website). They rent canoes and perform shuttles out of Healdsburg and Alexander Valley. On weekends you share the river with many canoeists, who are almost always nice and occasionally provide good entertainment.

Camping is possible at the Alexander Valley Campground, and at the KOA on River Road south of Cloverdale, but since Healdsburg is less than two hours from San Francisco, most people drive up just for the day. Upstream of this stretch is a good early season run, the Russian River below Asti.

Hazard: When boating and especially when swimming, stay away from trees and branches hanging down in the water. These strainers can be lethal: the water goes thru them, but you do not. The force of current can trap you underwater.

Put in downstream from the Alexander Valley road bridge. It is a short carry down a gated dirt road leading to a gravel bar by the river. You can park just before the gate, near where the shuttle bus drops off passengers.
Russian River above Healdsburg CA Put-in beach under morning overcast
A snag (probably temporary) requires sharp maneuvering.
Russian River above Healdsburg CA Russian River above Healdsburg CA
One canoe fails to ferry left Another canoe follows it and flips
Russian River above Healdsburg CA Russian River above Healdsburg CA
Two canoe pileup with swimmers Three canoe pileup with two boats flipped!
The river bends sharp right and a 75' cliff appears on the left.
On the right a 500' mountain comes near, around which the river makes a large horseshoe bend south and then north.
Russian River above Healdsburg CA Outfitters lose many canoes
End of Alexander Valley as the river makes a wide right turn. Excellent jumping rock below a creek on the left bank.
Russian River above Healdsburg CA Several jumpers on the jumping rock
The river turns right again, heading northwest, and widens around several small islands. Headwinds can to be problematic here.
The river turns sharp left, heading southwest. A road may be seen high on the right bank.
Russian River above Healdsburg CA Surfin' with two crows looking on
Gravel bar with stacked canoes on the left, where livery-service renters can take out to avoid paddling the remaining 4.4 miles. The land here is private, owned by the Rio Lindo Academy.
A sharp left turn around a narrow peninsula, as the river heads southeast. Headwinds are usually less of a problem.
Town of Del Rio Woods begins on the right bank. Alternate access for put-in or take-out. Del Rio Woods offers a private parking lot with about 12 spots, from noon to 7:00 PM, $5 fee per car (2012). Emergency access continuously available from here to the end of the run. Some houses have cement porches down to water level. If the summer dam has been graded into existence, water starts backing up here.
Summer dam may require portaging late in the season. Early in the season, a good channel is available on the left. This structure is famous in the boating community for being the cause of Bob Trowbridge's lawsuit, Bill Hitchings (POST leader) versus the Del Rio Woods Recreation and Park District, whose officers tried to prevent canoeists from portaging the dam in the early 1970s.
Healdsburg (HEA) gauging station on the left.
Take out on the left bank after the railroad bridge but before the road bridge. Carry up the large sandy beach to a small gated parking lot along Healdsburg Avenue.
Russian River above Healdsburg CA Tired paddlers with dam in background
Hazard! Class VI drop among rocks and rebar in the middle of a raised-in-summer dam. Do not float or swim close to the dam.
Downstream of this stretch is a good all-year run, the Russian River below Healdsburg.

Shuttle Directions

To reach take-out coming from the south, exit highway 101 on the first Healdburg Avenue exit. (From the north, exit at Westside Avenue.) Proceed north, bending west, to an old steel bridge across the river, downstream from a railroad bridge. You can park on the left at Healdsburg Veterans Memorial Beach Park, or cross the bridge and continue .1 mile to an outfitter's office on the right, where more secure parking is available. Because the shuttle is very short, you could lock a bicycle there and pay to park at put-in. You might find it more convenient to pay an outfitter for a lift to put-in.

To reach put-in from there, continue on Healdburg Avenue to the Westside Avenue freeway entrance. Drive north on highway 101 about 4 miles, and exit at Alexander Valley Road. Follow Alexander Valley Road east to the river (Lytton Station Road makes an excellent shortcut). Turn left into a private campground just before the bridge. The campground charges a $5 parking fee (1998) for each vehicle.

Trip Reports

For a trip report and pictures of the river below Healdsburg, see this blog by Dennis Guikema.

Trip report from Jon Weber concerning an early-season canoe trip:

We ran this portion of the Russian River this last weekend It has been five years since I have done this run and didn't even realize they moved their office: still on the same road, just closer to 101, just before the bridge.

We expected it to be fairly crowded as it was Memorial Day weekend. The 10 AM shuttle bus was full and there was probably as much weight in beer onboard as humans. People are always in a great mood when starting this run and it is infectious. Obviously some people need not apply!

CFS was running about 670 that weekend and I was told at the office that they only rent canoes when 700 or under, which was news to me. Good thing we didn't come up the weekend before! They guy told us that it would take us about 3 hours without any stops. He was pretty close, but I didn't look at the clock too hard as we took a couple fairly long sun and food breaks. The weather was partly sunny but not too hot.

We noticed quite a bit of garbage in some areas. Mainly higher up there were big piles of beer cans and bottles. Looks like people come down from the road and unfortunately leave junk there. Also, the retaining wall of cars seems more decrepit than I remember.

That all aside, on a better note, we did get plenty of privacy after about the first hour or two of floating. The last half of the trip we saw maybe a handful of others on the river, including other rental canoeists. Definitely less crowded than we expected. Wildlife action was good. We spotted many mated pairs of Mallards, one blue Heron, a fairly good sized turtle sunning himself on a log, and two bunny rabbits.


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