Group floating at Steelhead Beach

Tubing the Russian River: How to Plan a Float Trip

By Matt Hyles & Janelle Wetzstein
August 1, 2018

Floating down the Russian River is one of Sonoma County's most popular summer activities - for both visitors and locals. But a tubing adventure can go flat in no time if you don't plan ahead. Here are our do's and don'ts for a successful float trip  

Do travel the best route

The only Russian River tubing route we really recommend is the 2-mile stretch from Steelhead Beach to Sunset Beach in Forestville. Other float routes pose issues, which we’ll address later in this post, so for a smooth run,  Steelhead to Sunset is your best bet.

Steelhead Beach group float trip

Do bring two cars 

You don't want to finish a nice, long float and have to walk back to your car along the narrow shoulder of River Road, with traffic speeding past. Park one car at Sunset Beach then drive the other car to Steelhead to start your trip. If you plan to call a rideshare, know that cell service on the river is spotty. (Verizon customers have the best chance of service.) Having two cars will save you stress, money, and time.  

Do start early

It takes about five minutes to drive from Steelhead Beach to Sunset Beach but four and a half hours to float that distance. Plan to be at Steelhead by 10 a.m. and on the water by 11 a.m. at the latest. Plan to arrive even earlier if it's a holiday, weekend, or the temperature will be over 90 degrees. Parking lots fill quickly on those mornings.

We cannot stress enough just how slow the Russian River flows in the summer. On average, it moves at about a half-mile per hour, which means you can travel faster walking on shore then you can floating on water. When winds pick up in the early evening, the current can push you upstream. So get an early start.

Steelhead Beach Float Trip 3

Do plan for prep time 

Once you get to Steelhead, you'll need to inflate your floats, prep your coolers, apply sunscreen, use the restroom (there are no restrooms until you reach Sunset Beach), double-check that you have your car keys, take the pre-float group selfie, etc. Anticipate at least an hour to get things in order.

Steelhead Beach Float Trip 6

Do bring supplies

In addition to your floats, you'll need ropes if your group wants to tie together. You'll need a car-powered air pump (there are no outlets at the beaches), coolers with food and drinks, sunscreen, hats, sunglasses, water shoes, lifejackets, car keys, driver’s licenses, cell phones, a garbage bag, and other necessities. 

Do stay hydrated 

Drink water. Once you are on the water and relaxing and hanging out with friends, it can slip your mind that you’re essentially baking in the hot sun. Even a few hours in midday sun can lead to dehydration and heatstroke. Bring plenty of water, and drink often.

Steelhead Beach Float Trip 5

Don't forget your manners

Respect the areas you pass. Pack up your trash and recyclables. If you carried in a full water bottle, there is no reason you shouldn’t carry out an empty one. Don't trespass. Keep noise to a reasonable level. Residents and other visitors will appreciate your efforts. 

Don’t stay out too long

Any trip over five hours is just way too long to be on the river. Trust us. After five hours, you will want a break from your tube. Hunger, thirst, sunburn, and the call of nature will have you ready to exit the river after five hours. 

Don't expect solitude

Tubing on the Russian River is becoming really popular, and the river can get quite crowded with float groups. In fact, charter buses from around the Bay Area frequently drop off loads of visitors, so don't expect a quiet experience on summer weekends.

Steelhead beach float trip 2

Don't pick a challenging route 

While other float routes may seem desirable, like Steelhead Beach to Mom’s Beach (formally known as Forestville River Access), they pose complications. For example, the small parking lot at Mom’s Beach fills almost immediately on summer weekends. Plus, alcohol is not allowed at Mom's, so if a float group with alcohol ends here, they could be cited.

Don't attempt to start a float at Healdsburg Veterans Memorial Beach because there is nowhere to pull out until you reach Riverfront Regional Park, which will take you six and a half hours. 

Similar issues arise along other routes, including having to walk parts of the journey or hitting areas where the flow is so slow you'll have to paddle with your hands.  

Do have a good time

Steelhead Beach Float Trip 7Tubing on the Russian River can and should be a great experience if you plan ahead. Stick to the information provided above, and you are well on your way to a great float experience in Sonoma County.  

Note: Parking at Steelhead and Sunset beaches is $7 per vehicle or free for Regional Parks members. Parking for vehicles with 10 or more passengers is $1 per person. 

Matt Hyles is a ranger with Sonoma County Regional Parks. Janelle Wetzstein is a marketing specialist with Sonoma County Regional Parks.

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