I’m sitting on a bench in an old graveyard, wooden crosses standing before me, the Pacific Ocean off to my left. In the near distance is the stockade surrounding Fort Ross, a reminder of the early 19th century Russian expansionism into California. This was a fortified trading post built in the early 1800s, and later sold to an American merchant in the late 1840s, to become a State Historic Landmark in 1903. Much of the fort has been rebuilt with historical accuracy. A calm-water cove below the fort allowed for ships to come in and load the furs that were the main source of profit for the company, as well as foodstuffs grown in the seaside fields.
I had just come north on State Route 1 from Jenner, at the mouth of the Russian River, the two-lane road warbling along the Jenner Cliffs hundreds of feet above the ocean. This particular stretch of coastal byway is probably my favorite, as relatively few tourists are on the road, the curves are delightful and the scenery beyond compare. A few miles up from Jenner, the Meyers Grade Road angles inland and upward, and the barrier on Route 1 is open. Just in case landslides close the coast road, Meyers Grade is the alternative. But no landslides today.
What am I doing here? Let me back up a couple of days. It’s a mild extension of a trip that I was asked to be part of. An outfit called Geiger helps promote tourism in towns and regions that like to have people come in and spend money. The company has a list of hundreds of travel journalists, calls a few and sets up a couple of days to sample the delights—for me, the roads—of the area.
This latest trip began a mere 270 miles north of my house, so no plane necessary and I rode my own Honda ST1100 over the Golden Gate Bridge and up the functional but boring U.S. Route 101 to Healdsburg. That town offers great riding, great food and great wine—though that last was only indulged in when the riding day was over. The one main road, U.S. 101, goes north/south, while hundreds of miles of delightful two-laners—sometimes one and a half lanes, or even just one—wind their way through the valleys and mountains both east and west.
The first day the schedule had some journalists going off on a bicycle ride, staying on the flat roads in the valleys. I chose to ride my motorized two-wheeler and went off on a hilly run up and around 3,400-foot Geyser Peak, a 25-mile ride going high up in the Mayacamas Mountains, on the east side of Alexander Valley. This area is said to contain the largest geothermal field in the world, with more than 20 powerplants in the mountains taking advantage of the natural energy. For hundreds, if not thousands, of years the locals have been enjoying naturally heated springs, and after the Civil War the newly arrived Americans built The Geysers Resort Hotel, which enjoyed times good and not so good for more than a century, until it was torn down in 1980. If anybody wants to know more about geothermal energy and how it works, the Calpine Corporation runs a visitor center in Middletown, on the east side of the mountains.
Geysers Road varies from open, curvy two-lanes, to narrow, seldom straight, often tree-shaded twisties, and unless one is familiar with the route, the recommendation is to take it easy. And stop to admire the views. There are several short gravel stretches, easily navigated, and many roads going off to the sides, most of them dirt and dead-ends. Anyone on an adventure bike could spend a week exploring the mountain, although one would have to return to the valley for fuel. The ghost town of Mercuryville, founded in 1874, at the time claimed to be the highest town in California at 2,700 feet and had many bars servicing the hundreds of mercury miners. Eighty years later it had a population of two—sometimes. Not much to be seen these days. A couple of miles farther on is the turn to the site of the old hotel. Geysers Resort Road goes off to the right, while Geysers Road descends gracefully down along Big Sulphur Creek to the town of Cloverdale, where the creek merges with the Russian River. Healdsburg is just 20 miles to the south.
The town, named after one Harmon Heald, began in 1851 when he built a store along the Russian River, providing provisions for travelers, mostly miners, going north from San Francisco to where they hoped to find gold. Since the land was immensely fertile, within a few years a number of American farmers settled nearby, and the place was incorporated in 1867. A railroad appeared in 1872, which was put in by the timber barons to send milled wood to the city, a profitable enterprise since the place was expanding at an enormous rate. Soon the railroad attracted tourists, as it was a lot more comfortable than riding
in a stagecoach.
About the time of World War I, Healdsburg also had a nascent winemaking industry, though that vanished when Prohibition was enacted in 1919. What might be a profitable alternative crop? The place became famous for its plum trees and dried plums, better known as prunes, and they were the primary source of income for many years. Then, post-Prohibition, the grapes returned…with a vengeance! Three valleys converge on Healdsburg: Alexander Valley to the north and east, Dry Creek Valley to the west and Russian River Valley to the south—with some 150 wineries within 20 miles of the town. No, we did not visit them all.
Geiger was putting me up for three nights, and I had my choice of places to lay my weary head, from $400 resorts to the lone old-fashioned motel in town, the L&M Motel. The L&M is a marvel of the vanished past; it was built in 1952 by a couple named Louis and Mary, and the fourth generation is now running the place. All appropriate updates have been made, but the motel keeps the classic charm. It has the typical courtyard approach popular in the 1950s, each room having a little verandah and outside chairs, with trees and picnic tables on the grass. Just what I want in a place to stay: check in at the desk and pull up right in front of my door—none of this schlepping bags into a lobby and climbing stairs. More recent additions include an indoor swimming pool, hot tub and sauna. My idea of a little bit of heaven on earth after a day’s ride.
When I first rode through Healdsburg back in 1980, it was definitely a cow town, with the plaza looking more appropriate for horses and Model As than the current Ducatis and Teslas. And the old saloons and swinging doors have given way to a host of good restaurants. As the number of wineries expanded, so did the tourists who were looking for places to stay…and to eat.
One reason the food is so good is that local produce is used, none of this three-day-old lettuce, but a head fresh off the farm that morning. We visited DaVero Farms & Winery, which also had chickens, sheep and pigs on the land, the animals free to roam as nature intended—within fenced confines. I had lunch at the Oakville Grocery right on the town plaza, said to be the oldest continually operating grocery store in California. Having seen happy chickens roaming around just an hour before, I cold-heartedly ordered a curried chicken salad sandwich—superb.
While the journalists were having a walk-around one morning, seeing the sights of the town, I opted for a ride-around through the vineyards, rolling along the little-trafficked backroads in Dry Creek Valley, with endless fields of picked grapes. Being fall, the colors of the leaves were a sight, not quite as worthy as trees in New England, but close. Poking my front wheel up many dead-end roads, I did come across the impressive Madrona Manor, a multi-gabled, three-story Victorian mansion built in the 1880s, now a B&B. And said to be haunted.
The third morning at the motel, my next-door neighbor journalist had to get up at 3 a.m. for the two-hour drive to the San Francisco airport. I happily slept in, had my morning juice, coffee and fresh-baked scones compliments of the motel, and asked if I could stay another night. Certainly. I was going to do the big loop, out to the coast, up to Stewarts Point and back over Miller Ridge and past Lake Sonoma. I went southwest out of town, along the Westside Road, meeting up with the full-flowing Russian River at Hacienda and continuing west along River Road (a.k.a. State Route 116) through Guerneville and Duncans Mills. This is a major tourist area, not recommended during the summer, delightful at other times of the year. The road is heavily shaded, then breaks out into the open with the river on the left, cattle grazing on the hills to the right.
Turn right at State Route 1, go north 10 miles, and that is where I began this story, at Fort Ross. If one wonders how the fort got the Scottish name of Ross, it really derives from Rus’, a medieval people who gave their name to the lands of Russia. Having been rather overfed the past couple of days my lunch, sitting in the old graveyard, consists of a banana and a bottle of water. Then it is on to Stewarts Point, an unincorporated community with a store built back in 1868, catering to the hundreds of lumberjacks working the forest. As the seagull flies I’m only 20 miles from Healdsburg; by the adventurous Stewarts Point/Skagg Springs Road it is 50 miles. Mile after glorious mile the pavement, occasionally a bit bumpy, goes over and around a half dozen ridges before coming down to Lake Sonoma, and then through Dry Creek Valley and back to Healdsburg. Great fun!
A small pizza for dinner, early to bed, early to rise and I’m headed home. It was a fine three days.