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New owners ready to welcome locals, out-of-towners to Johnson’s Beach in Guerneville

Johnson’s Beach in Guerneville is prepping for a summer opening under new ownership.|

Johnson’s Beach in Guerneville is gearing up for the summer, a season that promises more liberal public access to the Russian River beach than locals have enjoyed for the past several years.

In an interview introducing themselves as the site’s new proprietors, sibling partners Ethan, Alison and Andrew Joseph said they wanted to lower barriers to Guerneville residents and others who, until recently, were able to use the beach for free for generations.

There will still be a fee for parking at the lower river beach. It was a new addition when the previous proprietors acquired the beach and resort in 2015.

But the Josephs are toying with free parking for those with Guerneville ZIP codes and other discounts for those from the immediate neighborhood, Ethan Joseph said.

They also plan to do away with requirements that all visitors reserve and pay for the privilege of spending time on the beach, a COVID-era invention that provided umbrella-shaded, socially distanced spots for all visitors.

“We want to make sure that we’re operating and providing the opportunity for locals and people from around the bay and further away to enjoy this special property that Johnson’s Beach is,” Ethan Joseph said. “We love it there, and we think it’s absolutely beautiful, and the community is really vibrant and fun, and we’re excited to be a part of that.”

The 11-acre site is an iconic destination on the lower Russian River, and for more than a century has offered escape and summertime refreshment — along with a healthy dose of nostalgia — to tourists and locals alike.

Located across from a tree-filled hillside, the site benefits from one of three seasonal dams installed each summer at sites along the river to raise the water level for recreational purposes — especially important during drought years. (The other dams are traditionally installed up in Healdsburg and downstream at Vacation Beach.)

Many of its visitors remember splashing in the river as children and come back later with friends or kids of their own to revisit the landmark beach just a block off the main drag in central Guerneville.

The Josephs, East Coast natives, became acquainted with the area as adults. Alison and Ethan Joseph, both in their 30s, live in San Francisco and said they have made the trek north to the river often. Andrew Joseph, the youngest, is planning to move west from New York.

The siblings also are partners in a hotel in Whitefish, Montana, a riverside town west of Glacier National Park. The community ironically shares the logging-era nickname by which Guerneville is often known: Stumptown.

The property there, known as the Stumptown Inn, is soon to be rebranded Après Whitefish and the company that owns both properties will be called Après Hotels.

The Josephs and their business partners acquired the Whitefish property in 2019. They have been sprucing it up since then, all the while keeping their eyes and ears open for another opportunity that appealed to what Ethan Joseph called their “outdoor adventure and travel spirit.”

When they learned the Russian River beach was listed last fall, “it just worked out where the Whitefish property was in a good place so Ethan (the operations principal) could turn his attention to another place,” his sister said. “So it was pretty serendipitous.”

“I think everybody whose been up there knows Johnson’s Beach,” Alison Joseph said, “and we love the spot and feel really lucky and excited to be operating this property.”

“Basically,” said Ethan Joseph, “we’re looking for properties that provide niche access to the outdoors and vibrant kinds of community-first locations. And basically, both properties now are accessible to a wide range of people looking to get outside and kind of enjoy nature. They’re unique and affordable.”

It’s the second time the Guerneville beach and accommodations — 10 cabins, a four-bedroom lodge and a 38-site campground above the water — have changed hands in less than a decade.

The last time marked a major transition, when Clare Harris sold the beach to Dan Poirier and Nick Moore after operating it with his family for 48 years.

Harris, now 101, loved playing old-timey music from the snack shack and serving up beers, burgers and ice cream priced for decades past, giving the visitors a sense they were stepping back in time when they walked onto the boardwalk across the gravel beach.

But some locals chafed when the new owners started charging for parking. For decades the beach and parking had been free to all, and visitors paid only for food, drink, umbrellas, tubes, boat rentals and the like. There was additional discontent when the pandemic hit, and Moore and Poirier adopted a reservation system and assigned beach real estate to stay in operation.

The beach has remained a busy destination, despite the pandemic and what’s now three years of drought.

When Moore and Poirier put it on the market last fall, the County of Sonoma was among those who made a play for it, even giving a listing price of $3.7 million. Well-known entrepreneur Crista Luedtke, who owns boon hotel + spa and several restaurants in town, also put in a bid.

The beach was sold last October, but the identity of the buyers remained largely a mystery, until now.

Luedtke, who is often credited with revitalizing Guerneville and bringing new cachet to the area, said she met Ethan Joseph earlier this week and was impressed by his readiness to “take on a new challenge.”

“I’m really excited because, quite honestly, like I’ve said, a rising tide lifts all boats. New blood in town. Someone who’s excited to do the right thing.”

But she also defended Moore and Poirier for an “innovative and clever … COVID pivot” that allowed them to survive, even if it limited public access. “I also think there’s no reason why someone wouldn’t want to charge for parking, when every other public access county park beach charges for parking,” she said.

Ethan Joseph said the family plans to ease into operations, “getting our feet under us” before bringing back major events like triathlons and music festivals hosted by Johnson’s Beach in the past.

They also plan to get the snack bar and boathouse up and running for rentals for the first time in two years, though a county permit is pending.

Reservations already are open for accommodations, which open for the season April 15. The beach will open, weekends only, beginning May 21 and daily June 11.

Returning guests already have booked many weekends and holidays, Ethan Joseph said.

“We were talking to some of the staff, and they are just excited to get back to the way it was before COVID,” he said.

Beyond that, the family envisions “long-term kind of ownership and stewardship,” Ethan Joseph said. The siblings already have enjoyed getting to know both Whitefish and Guerneville and hope to know it better.

“I think the first thing we see as an opportunity here is to reopen the beach to the public without requiring paid reservations,” he said. “We really want to make that available access to the public and the community.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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