The summer I moved to the Bay Area, I unwittingly joined a century-old tradition: I piled into a car with friends, inner tubes, and packs of beer and headed up to Guerneville for a lazy day of floating down the Russian River.
It’s a summer ritual for San Franciscans that dates back to the early 1900s, when the funky enclave started attracting wealthy urbanites and their families looking to get away from the city. Since the 1970s, Guerneville has thrived as a resort destination for the gay community, but somehow the town has managed to maintain its low-key, bohemian vibe while tourists more commonly head to tonier Wine Country spots like Healdsburg and Napa.
Dawn Ranch promises direct access to the Russian River.
(Gentl & Hyers)
But the tide is turning. The rustic town known for its art galleries and indie business has recently welcomed a crop of new restaurants and spruced-up lodgings. Among the most luxurious retreats to emerge is Dawn Ranch, a historic hideaway whose recently renovated early-1900s cabins and indoor-outdoor spa earned a shout-out on Travel + Leisure’s "50 Best Places to Travel in 2024".
As the West Coast sister property to Marram Montauk, today's Dawn Ranch sits on 22 acres with direct river access, redwood soaking baths, a destination restaurant, and experiences meant to induce rejuvenation and creativity—think forest bathing, flower arranging, and hand-sewing journals.
A Reimagined Retreat With a Storied Past
Driving down Guerneville's main drag, I almost miss the left turn into Dawn Ranch as I pass the town’s famous taco truck (in the Safeway parking lot). The gravel driveway, shaded by a towering canopy of redwoods, feels instantly far from town. The swish of falling leaves and trickling sound of water somewhere has been luring urban escapees since the turn of the last century.
The property dates to 1905 when a pioneering family opened Murphy’s Guest Ranch, which soon became the largest resort in the area. Dosia Murphy's son, Leland Stanford Murphy Sr., ran operations for many years, ultimately selling it in 1978 to Peter Pender, who manifested his own vision of the place as the valley's first gay resort. He renamed it Fife’s (it was sometimes called “Fire Island West") and created a haven for guests to relax in an elegant and open-minded setting.
Dawn Ranch's cabins date back to the early 1900s but have been updated for modern comfort.
(Gentl & Hyers)
A New Life for Dawn Ranch
Dawn Ranch is named for a pair of rare dawn redwoods here whose leaves turn bright hues in the fall; the magical setting is the hotel's primary draw with more than 100 redwoods, bamboo canes, and a century-old apple orchard onsite.
Renovations to the existing buildings were careful to showcase the natural surrounds and preserve historical elements while also, of course, providing plenty of luxurious touches. Antiques mingle with contemporary furnishings, while large pane windows and creamy white walls make outside greenery appear even more vibrant.
In total, the property offers 88 rooms across Dawn Ranch and the Grove, a newly acquired site across the road that offers slightly more spacious accommodations plus a heated saltwater pool that's open to all guests. Lodging styles include cabins, cottages, two-bedroom bungalows, and glamping tents in the summer months.
During my visit, I stayed in a meadow chalet—a cozy space where a double-sided fireplace separates the bedroom from a private seating area and the redwood trees outside practically touch the glass windows. All rooms at Dawn Ranch feature fluffy Parachute bedding, Le Labo toiletries, and a Smeg mini fridge. You'll have Wi-Fi, but no phone or TV.
The breakfast buffet.
(Gentl & Hyers)
Dinner at the Lodge at Dawn Ranch.
The Lodge at Dawn Ranch is no ho-hum hotel restaurant. It’s a destination in its own right thanks to the talent of Argentinian chefs Fernando Trocca and Juliana Thorpe, who both have impressive culinary pedigrees: Trocca is founder of the prestigious Buenos Aires restaurant Sucre, which has been named among Latin America's 50 Best, and Thorpe hails from Napa’s Michelin three-star Restaurant at Meadowood.
It was brisk on the night I dined at the Lodge, so I opted for a table inside near the fireplace rather than on the patio, lovely as it looked. An acoustic guitar serenaded me through a sophisticated yet leisurely meal, starting with locally sourced figs and homemade sourdough bread served with dill butter. The seasonal menu relies on what's fresh from area purveyors. Expect dishes rooted in Northern California ingredients and enhanced by Argentinian flavors; you might find Encino Farms pork loin, grilled halibut, and a spicier take on cacio e pepe.
At breakfast, caramelized brioche French toast, smoked ham and brie croissants, and more fresh pastries are served in the Lodge or on the patio.
The lounge at Dawn Ranch's homey spa.
(Gentl & Hyers)
A True Spa Retreat
Located in a former private residence where the walls are wood-paneled and the fireplace is red brick, the spa feels sophisticated and homey with earthy tones, vintage art, and fresh florals.
The indoor-outdoor setting naturally relies on local botanical ingredients for its signature offerings, such as a forest bathing body scrub, a lavender blossom body wrap, and wild lime scalp treatments. I went traditional with a signature (life-changing) massage, and then spent the next few hours taking advantage of everything the spa has to offer: a steam room, a glass-enclosed infrared sauna, a handcrafted cedar-wood soaking tub, and showers.
The outdoor Japanese ofuru-style bath experience ($55) is one of the spa’s most sought--after bookings. Start by choosing a grounding stone, then a scoop of soaking salts and the addition of herbs and florals.
Experiences That Spark Creativity
Dawn Ranch's Sonoma County location means you have the best of NorCal at your fingertips—Wine Country, Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve, the Russian River, and the coast. When you've already explored all that, there's plenty to do on the property.
In addition to forest bathing, meditation and yoga, Dawn Ranch offers a lineup of activities designed to teach you something new, like writing salons, a scent workshop with a local perfumer, and frequent wine tastings.
You can also book a whale watching excursion, or simply grab a bike and picnic blanket and make your own day of it.
A massage room at the spa.
(Gentl & Hyers)
A Japanese-style soaking experience.
// Rates start at $199 per night; Dawn Ranch, 16467 CA-116 (Guerneville), dawnranch.com