Tubing the Russian River: How to Plan a Float Trip
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 do's and don'ts for a successful float trip.
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.
Arrange transportation between parks
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. One option is to park one car at Sunset Beach, then drive the other to Steelhead Beach and park there to start your trip. Or you can park in Santa Rosa and ride the new Regional Parks River Shuttle, which runs out to Steelhead and Sunset beaches on summer weekends. Tickets are $5 round trip.
If you plan to park your own cars, know that lots at both river parks fill early during the summer and will close once all parking spots are taken. (Parking is $7 per vehicle or free for Regional Parks members.) If you plan to arrive after 10 a.m. on a weekend, the shuttle is your best option. Charter bus access, including drop offs and pick ups, is not allowed in the river parks.
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.
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 a hand- or car-powered air pump or you may be able to use a seasonal inflation pump installed at Steelhead Beach in 2021. You'll also want to bring a cooler with food and drinks, sunscreen, hats, sunglasses, water shoes, life jackets, car keys, driver’s licenses, cell phones, a dry bag, 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 midday sun can lead to dehydration and heatstroke. Alcohol is dehydrating, so drink even more water if alcohol is consumed. To help alleviate the impacts of partying on river communities, alcohol consumption is not allowed on Steelhead and Sunset beaches or on the beach at Forestville River Access.
Mind your manners
Respect the areas you pass. Don't trespass. Keep the noise down. Residents and other visitors will appreciate your efforts.
Take your float home
Please don't abandon your raft or tube on the beach when your trip is over. All abandoned floats have to be thrown away at the end of the day. Follow "Leave No Trace" guidelines and pack out all of your trash, including your raft or tube.
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.
Stick with this route
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, making a two-car shuttle difficult. Due to lot size, the river shuttle does not service Forestville River Access.
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 walk with your tube or 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.
Park in Santa Rosa and ride the Regional Parks River Shuttle, which runs out to Steelhead and Sunset beaches on summer weekends. Tickets are $5 round trip.
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. Charter buses are not allowed.
Matt Hyles is a ranger with Sonoma County Regional Parks. Janelle Wetzstein is a former marketing specialist with Sonoma County Regional Parks.
This post was originally published August 1, 2018, and updated June 2022.