By Matt Hyles & Janelle Wetzstein
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 tips for a successful float trip.
COVID-19 UPDATE: This summer, recreation along the river looks different. While most river beaches are open, there are regulations in place to make it safe to visit during the COVID-19 health crisis. Find out more about which parks are open and what activities are allowed.
Travel the best route
The only Russian River tubing route we 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.
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 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 service.) Having two cars will save you stress, money, and time. Parking is $7 per vehicle or free for Regional Parks members. Due to the COVID-19 health emergency, charter bus access, including drop offs and pick ups, is not allowed.
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 weekend, holiday, or the temperature will be over 90 degrees. Parking lots fill quickly.
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.
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.
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, life jackets, car keys, driver’s licenses, cell phones, a garbage bag, and other necessities.
Stay hydrated and know the alcohol rules
Bring lots of water. Drink lots of water. Even a few hours in mid-day sun can lead to dehydration and heatstroke. Bring plenty of water, and drink often. Alcohol can be dehydrating, so drink even more water if alcohol is on the menu. To help alleviate the impacts of partying on river communities, alcohol consumption is not allowed at Steelhead and Sunset beaches and at Forestville River Access.
Mind your manners
Respect the areas you pass. Pack up your trash. If you carried in a full water bottle, carry out an empty one. Don't trespass. Keep the noise down. Residents and other visitors will appreciate your efforts.
Don't ditch your float
Please don't abandon your float on the beach when you're trip is over. All abandoned floats have to be thrown away at the end of the day. Please take your float with you or find it a new owner who will take it home.
Don’t stay out too long
Any trip over five hours is 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 a popular activity, and the river can get quite crowded with float groups. Don't expect a quiet experience on weekends.
Don't pick other routes
We don't recommend floating from Steelhead Beach to Forestville River Access (informally known as Mom's Beach) because the tiny parking lot at Forestville fills almost immediately on summer weekends.
And 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.
Have a good time
Tubing on the Russian River can be a fun, memorable experience if you plan ahead. Stick to this advice, and you are well on your way to a great float experience in Sonoma County.
Matt Hyles is a ranger with Sonoma County Regional Parks. Janelle Wetzstein is a former marketing specialist with Regional Parks.
Published/Updated: June 2020