"All good things are wild and free." --Henry David Thoreau

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Redwoods, abandoned fairgrounds, and the Russian River

This summer we went camping with a whole posse of children and parents at a funky campground in Guerneville, two hours north of San Francisco, on the banks of the Russian River. I had said to my friends, "Come on, let's check out this campsite I've never been to!"

Have I mentioned how hard it is to find a campground that takes a large group? Throw in the criteria of no motorhomes, and it's really hard.

"I need to warn you," the campground proprietor said over the phone, "this can be a party place on the weekend."

"Our little kids can make a racket too," I assured the gentleman.

Let the good times roll.

The campsite was full of cool shade and green trees, and there was even a creek, but it was almost a deal breaker when I nearly pitched my tent on a human turd, or maybe it was a dog turd. My sweet husband scooped the offal into a blackberry bush.

We pitched our tents at a campground that had two enormous dogs--one of them a mastiff with a drippy eye and two big swinging balls--who seemed highly attracted to our campsite. Small children with peanut butter breath and messy faces did not help. Imagine mothers snatching up their young, standing their ground, all hotdogs and children held high.

This not-to-be-named campground wasn't all that bad; after all, they did accommodate our large group of rocking toddlers. We used an 8-person tent as a play room and a chill room. Though the campground was noisy with revelers on Saturday night, all kids slept well and it was quiet as could be on Sunday.

Of interesting note, the bathroom was situated in an adjoining abandoned fairground, something both cool and creepy. As I stepped out of the sad shower in a dilapidated room with a broken lock, and smelled the ripe mushroom scent of mold, it reminded me of a squat except that I was paying to stay there.
Credit: wikipedia

If I could party all night without a kid, this would be the campground to go to. The shirtless proprietor, a friendly guy who whistled his dogs away from us numerous times, even surprised us with a great show one evening, visiting our group to breathe fire. You should've seen the toddlers' mouths drop open.

Russian River
Johnson's Beach in its less crowded days
Russian River was a short walk from the campground, and every kid loved splashing in that cool water, and didn't care one fig about having to tread through major algal scum along the shore. I'm talking about Johnson's Beach.

Cheap ice cream and beer were for sale, as were hamburgers and pretzels and boxed candy. People dominated the beach--there were more big pasty-white bodies rolling around on the rocky beach than you could shake a stick at. Skinny guys smoked weed across the river, and tunes from a boombox floated downstream. Canoes and kayaks were available for hire, but it looked like a traffic jam on the water. My word, it was as American summer scene.

My recommendation is to not swim where the hullabaloo is, meaning the main beach close to downtown Guerneville (a dichotomous place that is both quaint and seedy). Instead, stake out a quieter spot upriver and bring food and water.

Just upriver of downtown

Armstrong Redwoods Park 
Armstrong Park
Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve is a short drive from downtown Guerneville, and filled with all kinds of trails on its 805 acres. I must note the lovely that a lumberman preserved this place in the late 1800s.

Sequoia semperivens
There are numerous habitats in the park, and in a few hours we went from redwoods, with banana slugs slipping through the fernyundergrowth, to mixed evergreens and Doug firs, where wood peckers rat-a-tatted the trees, to oak woodlands and native grasslands on the sunniest ridges.

Kids love hugging trees, and shrieking over banana slugs. (I remember being urged to lick a banana slug when I was a youngster, and I will not be passing on that uselessness.)

Of final note, the park's visitor store had some fantastic museum displays, and was a great place to bring a child. If you're a sucker like me, you'll leave with books about redwoods, stickers, and maybe even a T-shirt or a patch.
Credit: lawhaha.com

Useful Links
Guerneville's Visitor Site
Armstrong State Park--official site

Armstrong Park, East Ridge Trail
When a hanky doubles as a hat
Guerneville to Armstrong State Park