Road Trip to a Russian Stronghold in Northern California - Atlas Obscura
Join us on an Atlas Obscura Trip in 2019 »

Road Trip to a Russian Stronghold in Northern California

After a weekend of non-stop rain and being stuck in the house with the cats and our glowing screens, the sun finally came out and Annetta and I were determined to capitalize on it. We loaded the car up with our boyfriends, cameras, note pads, and picnic necessities and headed for the coast with no particular plan in mind. Up Highway One’s epic switchbacks we drove until we realized we were nearing Fort Ross, and we set our destination.

As California girls, Annetta and I were both born and raised in towns started by missions. Annetta grew up near San Rafael, less than 20 miles from the Golden Gate Bridge, born of the Mission San Rafael Archangel, unique because it was the first sanitarium (hospital) in California and an outpost of San Francisco’s Mission Dolores. I grew up outside of Sonoma, where Mission San Francisco Solano was built - the only mission built under the watchful eyes of the Mexican government instead of the Spanish.

To us the history of California is deeply rooted in Spanish padres, adobe bricks, and gold. What few people know about the California mission system is that the Sonoma mission was built partially an an attempt to slow the spread of a powerful force that started in the north and was pushing its way south: the Russians!

Fort Ross- Atlas Obscura

Fort Ross State Historic Park was closing for the day when we arrived. With the sun low in the sky we snuck in under the gun and explored the massive Russian fort before the sun set.

Fort Ross was the southern settlement of the Russian fur trading business from 1812 when it was established by Ivan Kuskov - 11 years prior to the Mexican conceived mission in Sonoma - until 1941 when the Russians sold their land to John Sutter (remember what I said about gold) and left. The massive complex is walled in by towering walls made of redwood planks and whole tree trucks weathered by the salt air, preserved by the California State parks system, it is a time capsule of the Russian era.

Fort Ross was established as a food stockhouse and a fur trading center for the Russian settlements in the area. The Russians on the North coast coexisted and traded with the nearby Coast Miwoks, Kashaya Pomos, and Alaskan Natives in a way that is markedly different from the Spanish missions just miles south of them.

With little time to explore we ran from building to the next, marveling at the sturdy construction, cannons, and storerooms clearly built to withstand attack. Most of the buildings have been extensively remodeled or rebuilt entirely (at one point Highway One cut right through the property, and the original chapel collapsed in the 1906 earthquake), but the “Commandant’s House” is original to the 1830s.

Fort Ross passed out of Russian hands in 1841 when it was sold to John Sutter, best known for founding Sutter’s Fort in what would become Sacramento.

As the sun set and the park ranger came to lock the gates, we were escorted out by a cat that looked as though he has lived there since the Russians left.

Fort Ross cat