Linger Among the Redwoods in the Queerest Town in California Wine Country

Deep in the redwood forest portion of wine country hides a town for inclusive insiders.

Photo courtesy of Sonoma County Tourism
Photo courtesy of Sonoma County Tourism

Sonoma County is a region of California most known for its castle-sized wineries and posh towns like Healdsburg, but deep in the redwood forest portion of wine country hides a town for inclusive insiders—where the wine flows like beer and gay bears flock like the salmon of Capistrano. Welcome to Guerneville, the queerest town in California wine country and a wooded retreat along the Russian River that’s become basically the Provincetown of the Bay Area. Initially a logging community in the late-19th century, lumberjacks have been replaced by a new kind of burly denizen—the kind who make their annual migration for Lazy Bear Week, transforming the tiny town of less than 5,000 into a kind of hairy, queer Coachella. Such has been the cultural evolution since the mid-1900s when queer San Franciscans began traveling an hour and a half north for fresh air, outdoorsy activities, and fun in the Sonoma sun. Over time, LGBTQIA+ folks started opening their own businesses, gradually evolving the community into an oasis of queer culture and evergreen Pride.  

Unlike the rest of Sonoma County, Guerneville is a town unabashed in its bohemian spirit and loud-and-proud queerness. Sure, you can still find great wine here, but it’s served at the “world’s first cause wine portfolio,” and it’s paired with restaurants owned by LGBTQIA+ chefs and entrepreneurs who have transformed the town into an idyllic weekend escape for queer couples. Funky vintage shops, skyscraping forests, and riverside beaches provide recreational wine country alternatives, while adult-only boutique resorts offer a chic adult summer camp vibe. A unique middle ground for oenophiles, tree-huggers, and gay bears, Guerneville is the queer wine country town that needs to be experienced to be believed. 

Photo courtesy of Sonoma County Tourism

Channel adult summer camp vibes

Up the road from Guerneville’s quaint Main Street, nestled in the woods like a glamping retreat, boon hotel + spa is an LGBTQIA-owned haven that feels like a hip summer camp for wine-sipping couples. Romantic and cozy, the boutique property hails from Crista Luedtke, a restaurateur and entrepreneur so prolific that she might as well be the mayor of Guerneville. Previously a gay resort, she purchased the property and opened it anew in 2008, bestowing the burgeoning town with the queer sanctuary it deserved. The result is a contemporary adults-only resort outfitted with chic rooms (many of which feature the cutest fireplaces), a 24-hour poolside “honor bar” where guests are welcome to mix their own drinks and write down what they’ve used for later payment, a smattering of glamping tents, fancy breakfast trays delivered to your door each morning, a spa, and a huge hot tub frequently populated with aquatic queers. 

Photo courtesy of Sonoma County Tourism

Let the queen of Guerneville guide your dining

Speaking of Luedtke, she’s a chef at heart, and her influence on the town can be seen—and tasted—all along Main Street. Aside from those aforementioned breakfast-in-bed trays, which are a dining destination in and of themselves, she also runs boon eat + drink, a restaurant offshoot that she opened in 2009. The tiny dining room, which has the feel of an intimate, minimalist gallery, frequently bustles with couples clinking stemware and sharing plates of seasonal Californian cuisine, like burrata with spring peas and fava bean-mint pesto or Moroccan-glazed carrots with smoked yogurt and dukkah. Keep in mind, the most popular restaurant in town doesn’t accept reservations, so brace for a worthwhile line out the front door. Down the block, Luedtke also owns BROT, a modern German spot slinging schnitzel and spaetzle in cozy Bavarian-style confines.

While Luedtke currently concentrates her efforts on the boon brand and BROT, as well as her newly acquired Highlands resort, her influence is felt all over town. This includes Big Bottom Market, a sophisticated sandwich shop she opened with current owner Michael Volpatt, whose biscuits have captured the adoration of Oprah. She also founded El Barrio, a hip and artsy bourbon and mezcal bar that still serves some of the best cocktails in Sonoma County under new ownership.

Photo courtesy of Sonoma County Tourism

Drink wine for a cause at Equality Vines

This being Sonoma County, wine is part of the cultural DNA. But of course, for a proudly bohemian town like Guerneville, said wine comes in rainbow-clad bottles. Such is the splendor of Equality Vines, a tasting room co-owned by Matt Grove and Jim Obergefell, the latter a civil rights icon who helped legalize same-sex marriage nationwide as the lead plaintiff in the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges case. Here, amidst a collection of queer-centric art and alongside a gay-owned art gallery on Main Street, inclusive oenophiles can sip wine for a good cause. As the self-described “world’s first cause wine portfolio,” Equality Vines works with Sonoma winemakers to produce labels like “Love Wins” sparkling wine, “Rosé the Riveter,” and “Stonewall Zinfandel,” with proceeds from each pour going to different local non-profits supporting LGBTQIA+ organizations and others supporting women and immigrants.

Raise a flute at Korbel Winery

Down the road, nestled in a 19th-century estate resembling a boozy fairy tale castle, Korbel Champagne reigns as the town’s main winery. Although this redwood community lacks the surfeit of wineries found throughout the rest of Sonoma County, this famed winery is like Disneyland for sparkling oenophiles and a bucket list winery that deserves top billing against all the Sonoma heavyweights. The ornate estate, perched amidst rolling hills on the outskirts of town, is open for guided tastings, cellar tours, and mimosa magic. There’s also a market, wine shop, and deli, with outdoor tables for DIY picnics overlooking the vines.

Photo courtesy of Sonoma County Tourism

Get high on a ziplining tour through the trees

Guerneville is also a great place to get high, and not just in the wine and weed sense. The neighboring town of Occidental is home to Sonoma Zipline Adventures, an epic way to experience the towering redwood forest. After a scenic, meandering drive along the Bohemian Highway from Guerneville, guests can suit up and join guided zipline tours hundreds of feet up along the tallest trees on Earth. Each outing features small groups led by a couple of fun, insightful, and perhaps most important, reassuring guides who take adrenaline-pumping tree-huggers on fast-speed hurls along the sky-high canopy. Some courses include zipline runs so long you can’t see the end of them through the mammoth trees, and it all ends by belaying straight down off a redwood tree back to solid ground. Brace accordingly and buckle up for the thrill of a lifetime.

Cool off at the beach

Guerneville is only about 20 minutes away from the Pacific shore, but when folks around here refer to the “beach,” they have another body of water in mind—one that’s not as craggy or perilously cold as the coast. The mighty Russian River winds its way right through town on its gentle migration from wine country to the ocean, and along the way, it’s lined with sandy beaches providing summertime fun and refreshment. Just a few blocks south of Main Street, Johnson’s Beach is the main draw in Guerneville and one of the foremost attractions that initially lured overheated queers up from San Francisco to bask in its cooling beauty. Nowadays, summer weekends at Johnson’s Beach see hordes of vacationers and locals swimming, paddling, sunning, and tubing. The beach is equipped with rentals for canoes, kayaks, pedal boats, beach chairs, and umbrellas, but be sure to arrive early to ensure a spot in the sand.

Melissa Kuhnell/robertharding/Collection Mix: Subjects/Getty Images

Go for a stroll through the woods

As patently queer as Guerneville is, an element of the community that’s just as integral as the gay businesses and rainbow flags are the redwoods. These gentle giants were the initial allure for the logging business, but after preservationist James Armstrong helped put a stop to the rampant deforestation of these natural wonders, the mighty redwoods are a star attraction for a new kind of arbor enthusiast—the kind who prefer to hug trees and hike amongst them, rather than chop them down. The trees offer plenty to marvel at all over town, but the best way to experience their all-consuming beauty is at Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve, an immersive park just a few miles up Armstrong Woods Road from downtown Guerneville. Here, visitors will find a network of hilly trails, including the go-to Pioneer Nature Trail, amidst the soaring trees, which can reach heights that dwarf the Statue of Liberty and live to be 2,000 years old. Simply traipsing through this old-growth forest is a humbling and mesmerizing experience, and the free-to-visit state park also features a visitor center and picnic facilities.

Discover vintage treasures galore

Indicative of Guerneville’s boldly bohemian atmosphere, the town teems with irreverent and eclectic vintage shops of all different vibes and styles, and all over the town center, thrifty shoppers will have lots of knickknacks and tchotchke treasures to sift through. For clothes and accessories, your first stop should be Rio Rio, a curated shop located on the second floor of a Main Street storefront, where the ever-changing racks display an expert eye for one-of-a-kind fashion, from fabulous ’70s-esque jumpsuits and vintage patched Levi’s to petal-shaped sunglasses and mesh shirts emblazoned with ostriches. Down the street, there’s River Queen, a funky clothing and collectibles boutique opened by Jilla Gauthier in 2015. Stirred by the artistic spirit of the community, the crafty shopkeep outfits her two nearby storefronts with all manner of singular necklaces, mugs, crystals, earrings, cutting boards, river-ready bathing suits, and everything in between. Yet another local fixture is Sonoma Nesting Company, a whimsical gift shop stocked with antiques, art, clothes, lamps, patio furnishings, and oodles more.

Photo courtesy of Sonoma County Tourism

Experience the burly glory of Lazy Bear Week

A far cry from most wine country festivals, Guerneville’s most popular time of year is Lazy Bear Week when beefy gays take over town for several days of pool parties, outdoor music, and playful shenanigans. Started in 1996, the summertime staple is organized by the nonprofit Lazy Bear Fund, which donates proceeds to local clinics, schools, and food banks—so you can feel downright altruistic about taking your shirt off at a DJ-driven pool party. Held in the height of the summer heat (this year is July 31-August 7), Lazy Bear Week includes a spree of hot-weather events and activities, from wholesome outings, like mini golf and guided hikes amidst the redwoods, to slightly less wholesome, like clothing-optional pool parties and the “Onesies In The Woods” campfire.

Party at the gayest dive bar of your dreams

A longtime pioneer of Guerneville’s queer community and one of the sole remaining businesses from its earliest gay heyday, Rainbow Cattle Co. is an enduring icon of a bar that’s been holding it down on Main Street since 1979. With the look and feel of an endearingly well-worn gay dive, this late-night cornerstone is like queer Cheers, where local regulars chat with friendly barkeeps slinging cheap beer, basic cocktails, and far better wine than you’d typically see in a decades-old gay bar. A beacon of this queer bastion, literally glowing rainbow from its colorful facade, this is the kind of inclusive and unifying watering hole where locals and regulars flock to play billiards, meet new friendly faces, and give back to the community. Similar to other altruistic local organizations, like Equality Vines and the Lazy Bear Fund, “the Rainbow” hosts a weekly Giveback Tuesday program, wherein proceeds benefit different charities in the area. Because at the end of the day, no matter if you’re bingeing on biscuits or polishing off a bottle of rainbow-clad blanc de blancs, Guerneville is the type of out-and-proud town where even the indulgences are a boon to the community.

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Matt Kirouac is a contributor for Thrillist.