I spent the weekend in this LGBTQ-celebratory town just north of San Francisco, and it felt like a queer spin on small-town America

·8 min read
Beach scene with colorful umbrellas set apart for Social Distancing at Johnson's Beach, Guerneville, California, on the Russian River.
Colorful umbrellas dot the sand at Johnson's Beach in Guerneville, California, on the Russian River.Gary Saxe/Shutterstock
  • I spent three days in Guerneville, California, an LGBTQ-friendly town just north of San Francisco.

  • The town is full of queer-owned businesses, including an Old West-themed saloon.

  • I was struck by how friendly and welcoming the locals were, and plan to visit again soon.

Just 90 minutes away from San Francisco's Castro district, the town of Guerneville is a unique, queer version of rural America.

Matt Charnock Guerneville California travel
Businesses in Guerneville, California.Matt Charnock for Insider

I've visited Guerneville over 10 times since moving to San Francisco in 2016, and each time I return, there's a new gem to uncover.

In early July, I was eager for a break from my small San Francisco apartment and decided to spend a few days visiting friends in Guerneville and getting reacquainted with the town. Here's what the trip was like and why I think the small town makes for the perfect place to support LGBTQ businesses year-round.

It was a scenic 1.5-hour drive to Guerneville from San Francisco, with dog Olive in tow.

Matt Charnock Guerneville California travel
It took about 90 minutes to drive to Guerneville from San Francisco.Matt Charnock for Insider

After making my way across the Golden Gate Bridge and passing by several state parks, I arrived in Guerneville and headed to my hotel.

I stayed at R3 Hotel, a celebrated queer resort made up of 23 guest rooms, two bars, and an onsite restaurant, Rio Bistro.

Matt Charnock Guerneville California travel
The entrance of R3 Hotel.Matt Charnock for Insider

R3 hotel is a self-proclaimed "LGBTQIA+ entertainment resort." Two on-site bars, known as the Main Bar and Pool Bar, serve modestly priced drinks to thirsty patrons, both guests and locals, bobbing to Top 40 hits.

The hotel has a pool and plentiful chairs to lounge in.

Matt Charnock Guerneville California travel
The pool and deck area at R3 Hotel.Matt Charnock for Insider

At the pool, I mingled with other hotel guests. One of them, Steven Harrison, was visiting with friends to enjoy the nearby Russian River, a popular swimming destination during the hot summer months.

"Guerneville is becoming to San Francisco what Palm Springs is to Los Angeles," Harrison told me. "We all realized we feel the exact same way about this charming town. It's really great here and so friendly."

R3 hotel is also dog-friendly, which made it perfect for my traveling companion Olive.

Matt Charnock Guerneville California travel
Olive enjoying a rest after the drive.Matt Charnock for Insider

Three-year-old Olive, a German short-haired pointer I was pet-sitting at the time and brought with me from San Francisco, took no time at all to jump on the bed and make herself at home.

During my weekend visit, a brunch drag show took place at the hotel's poolside patio.

Matt Charnock Guerneville California travel
Drag queen Jubilee performing at R3 Hotel.Matt Charnock for Insider

The show attracted onlookers who told me they'd come to Guerneville from all over the Bay Area and even as far as Los Angeles. Jubilee, a San Francisco-based drag queen, was among the three performers that weekend.

The amount of queer establishments nested in the 10-square-mile town is refreshing, particularly Rainbow Cattle Company, the oldest gay bar in town.

Matt Charnock Guerneville California travel
Rainbow Cattle Company, a western-themed gay bar.Matt Charnock for Insider

Rainbow Cattle Company first opened in 1979. It has a Western saloon and country dive bar aesthetic, and when I visited it was blasting a mix of techno and country music. Pride flags are strung across the ceiling above the well-worn pool tables and the neon rainbow sign outside lit up the downtown walkway at night. The bar hosts "Giveback Tuesday" events each week that help raise funds for local charities.

The inclusivity sign hanging outside Rainbow Cattle Company reminds visitors that the watering hole is a safe and welcoming space.

Matt Charnock Guerneville California travel
All visitors are welcome at the Rainbow Cattle Company saloon.Matt Charnock for Insider

I saw many similar banners throughout town.

Most of the people I saw at Rainbow Cattle Company were mature gay men who all seemed to be either local regulars or long-time patrons visiting from out of town.

The main street, River Road, is filled with quaint cafes, vintage clothing and antique shops, and a bookstore.

Matt Charnock Guerneville California travel
Coffee shops along Guerneville's River Road.Matt Charnock for Insider

Guerneville's two foremost coffee shops, Coffee Bazaar and Country Coffee Organic Espresso & Tea, serve decent homemade pastries and espresso drinks that are pleasantly affordable, especially when compared to similar offerings found in San Francisco.

Coffee Bazaar also sells jars of honey, vinegar, cheese, and oils from local farmers. When I got to the register to pay for my coffee, the friendly employee also gave me a puppuccino for Olive.

Next door, queer-owned bookshop Books & Letters keeps a diverse collection of literature — there's a section specifically dedicated to literary works from both notable and rising queer talent. If you feel like typing a note on an old-fashioned typewriter, you can do so on the store's pristine unit available for customers to use.

Among the many queer-owned businesses is Equality Wines, which serves a small collection of hyperlocal wines, most of which were bottled in Sonoma County.

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Inside Equality Wines' store.Matt Charnock for Insider

Cofounders Matt Grove and Jim Obergefell call Equality Wines a "wine portfolio dedicated to equality for all people." A portion of the proceeds from all sales go toward initiatives that support reproductive rights, access to education, gay rights, and more. The wine shop is open for both indoor and outdoor tastings, as well as bottle service reservations and walk-ins.

One of my favorite shops was a mystical store selling crystals, knickknacks, and spiritual items.

Matt Charnock Guerneville California travel
The collection of stones and crystals at the Center For Sacred Studies Earth and Spirit Gift Store.Matt Charnock for Insider

The store, called the Center For Sacred Studies Earth and Spirit Gift Store, is brimming with spiritual decor, one-of-a-kind jewelry pieces, incense and aromatherapy items, and a massive variety of precious rocks and crystals.

In the local dime store, I browsed a huge collection of greeting cards, many of them made by local artists.

Matt Charnock Guerneville California travel
Postcards and greeting cards made by local artists inside Guerneville 5 & 10 dime store.Matt Charnock for Insider

The dime store, Guerneville 5 & 10, also sells sewing, painting, and craft supplies, as well water floats, towels, and swimwear for shoppers planning a day on the Russian River.

I also enjoyed browsing Sonoma Nesting Company and Fife Creek Antiques and Collectibles, two antique stores with interesting and reasonably priced collections.

After filling my canvas bag with historic postcards and quirky knickknacks, I stopped at the Guerneville Taco Truck, which has been owned and operated by the Vazquez brothers for over three decades, and ordered the Taco Plate. It came with two soft corn tortilla tacos with chicken, cilantro, onion, homemade salsa, and rice and beans on the side. At just $7, it was an amazing value and money well spent.

I also passed by Solarpunk Farms, a queer-founded learning center focused on environmentally-conscious agriculture.

Matt Charnock Guerneville California travel
The entrance of Solarpunk Farms' community space.Matt Charnock for Insider

Solarpunk Farms is currently working to build a regenerative farm in Guerneville, and plans on offering fresh, organic produce and dry-flow bouquets in the future.

The next day, I passed by a vegetable garden belonging to boon eat + drink, a farm-to-table bistro established in 2009.

Matt Charnock Guerneville California travel
The organic garden outside boon eat + drink bistro.Matt Charnock for Insider

The restaurant boon eat + drink has an organic garden and outdoor seating area open on the weekends, where I enjoyed a salmon dish served with a summer succotash of tomato, corn, and zucchini.

Later, I walked across the historic Guerneville Bridge located near downtown.

Matt Charnock Guerneville California travel
The view across the Guerneville Bridge.Matt Charnock for Insider

The bridge is over a hundred years old, and crosses over the Russian River. It was once a part of Old Route 116, and now serves as a pedestrian passageway to nearby hiking trailheads.

The small town is rich with public artwork and brimming with murals on the sides of buildings and fences.

Matt Charnock Guerneville California travel
Colorful paintings decorate a fence in town.Matt Charnock for Insider

I saw schools of painted koi fish on the sidewalks throughout town, signature works by SF-based painter Jeremy Novy who's been stenciling his orange and black koi around the Bay Area for over 15 years.

When Olive and I went out for our morning coffee walks, it was guaranteed that someone would ask to pet her.

Matt Charnock Guerneville California travel
All of the locals in Guerneville were very welcoming.Matt Charnock for Insider

Everywhere I went in Guerneville, I was struck by how friendly and welcoming the locals were. With fewer than 5,000 residents, the whole town felt like everyone knew each other and the friendliness was evident even to me as an out-of-towner. In every store I entered, owners and clerks smiled and struck up jovial small talk.

Sitting at the poolside bar at R3 and clanking margarita glasses with new queer friends, I also became friendly with the bartender who, without my asking, poured a big bowl of water to give to Olive.

I only stayed three days in Guerneville on this trip, but it was the perfect mini escape and I'm eager to return before summer ends.

Matt Charnock freelance writer
I plan to come back to Guerneville soon this summer.Matt Charnock

If you're looking for a quiet, queer-centric vacation in Northern California, Guerneville is the place to be. The town may be small and not offer the traditional attractions of larger metros like San Franciso, but its close-knit community, support of queer-owned businesses, and general slowed-down pace of living make it an enjoyable and relaxing place to get away.

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