My family and I discussed a number of possible summer vacation destinations ranging from an Oceanic Society family research trip in Costa Rica to snorkling in Hawaii, and from an extended family visit to the Dolly Sods Wilderness in West Virginia to kayaking in the San Juan Islands. We finally settled on a backpacking trip to the Ansel Adams and John Muir wildernesses (my son’s eventual top choice), but with late snows and reports of voracious mosquitoes, the Sierra quickly lost its appeal. We were wracking our brains for other destinations for backpacking that would be less buggy when I suggested a radical idea — go even more local than our recent Point Reyes bicycle trip with a bus and backpacking expedition to Austin Creek State Recreation Area, some 15 miles away by road. I had gone backpacking out the door a couple of time when I lived in Palo Alto and my wife and I even started our honeymoon with a local trip from our front door in the Santa Cruz Mountains, but we haven’t considered anything similar since moving to Sonoma County nine years ago. To my surprise, my wife and son were enthusiastic, so we prepared for the trip as usual, but instead of stuffing everything in the trunk of our Corolla, we strode downtown to the Sonoma County Transit stop with our packs.

Austin Creek SRA backcountry from Pool Ridge

Austin Creek SRA backcountry from Pool Ridge

Austin Creek is a 6,000 acre wilderness adjacent to and accessible through the better-known Armstrong Redwoods State Reserve, located just north of Guerneville, Calif. The rugged wilderness ranges in elevation from 150 to 1350 feet and has about 20 miles of trails and services roads. I hiked and camped at the three backcountry camps (now reduced to two) during high school and college, though I’ve visited it only a few times since then. August is not usually a great time to go since temperatures usually high and fire danger often closes both the backcountry camps and the developed campground at Bullfrog Lake, but the late rains and below-average temperatures made it possible this year.

Waiting for the bus in Sebastopol

Waiting for the bus in Sebastopol

We left home early on a Sunday morning to catch the Sonoma County Transit #20 westbound bus at the downtown bus stop. More people were riding the bus than we expected, but there was plenty of room for our us and our gear.  30 minutes later, after a scenic ride past the vineyards, orchards and Russian River landscape of west Sonoma County viewed through tour-bus sized windows, we jumped off the bus at Rio Nido and shouldered our packs.

We had the choice of starting our walk in Guerneville or Rio Nido, but chose the latter because the map showed that route as forested —  most of Armstrong Woods Road is decidedly not. Quiet and narrow Rio Nido Road wound through the canyon through the redwoods, past former vacation homes now used year-round, the pee-wee golf course and the community garden on the bank of Rio Nido Creek. A steep, but short ascent took us over the low ridge separating Rio Nido from Guerneville and we ascended to Armstrong Woods Road for a short stretch of less pleasant road walking before we arrived at the park entrance.

Arrival at Armstrong Woods

Arrival at Armstrong Woods

Cars already filled the parking area outside the gate. We stopped briefly to make sure no fire restrictions had been declared since I last checked and to tank up on water for the climb ahead. Everyone voted for enjoying the cool morning a bit longer by walking through the grove rather than immediately climb the East Ridge Trail from the entrance trail head. Though we enjoyed Muir Woods on a recent hike on Mount Tamalpais, Armstrong Redwoods has many impressive trees, including the 310-foot Parson Jones Tree, and much smaller crowds.

After our Grove saunter, we faced the shock of the climb from the picnic are at the end of the canyon to East Ridge Trail. Even with relatively cool temperatures, we were soon hot and tired. I’ve often wished I could redesign the trails in the two parks because they are, frankly, miserable, climbing at a steep grade uncomfortable even with just a daypack, let alone a heavy backpack. Plans for a new master plan were underway when the latest budget crunch hit; any changes now seem unlikely at best.

Bullfrog Pond

Bullfrog Pond

Despite the steep trail and a fair amount of grumbling from my son, we reached the ridge by noon and soon arrived at Bullfrog Pond campground, where we chose a nice campsite with shade  near the pond. The campground had been clear full for Saturday night, but much quieter for Sunday. We arranged for another family to meet us for Sunday night and though in the end, they weren’t able to stay over, they joined us for an afternoon playing at the pond and dinner cookout at the campsite.  They were kind enough to bring wood for the fire and take home our tent — which I abandoned in a moment of rashness  since there seemed to be very few mosquitoes.

From Bullfrog Pond, the only usual option into the backcountry is via the East Austin Creek Trail (a fire road) that leads to East Austin Creek. Once long ago, I had gone cross-country to Tom King Camp on Thompson Creek and had fond memories of the oak woodlands below Bullfrog, so we somewhat rashly descended the slope below our campsite. The countryside was as beautiful as I remembered, with magnificent oaks, bays and madrones, studded with a few great redwoods and Douglas firs along Gilliam Creek, and very little understory to contend with. Our journey continued smoothly until we were about two-thirds of the way down and the canyon narrowed significantly. I didn’t recall that part and guessed I must have crossed over the next ridge when I hike it long ago.  After stopping for a snack and to stare at the map, my son and I scouted our options, which we determined to be thrashing through brush on the southern side of the canyon, going back toward Bullfrog, or making our way down the creek.  Since we had our sandals and water shoes, we opted for the creek, with the hope that we would have another terrace to follow soon and that the official trail was only a short ways away.

Hiking Gilliam Creek

Hiking Gilliam Creek

This route is not recommended! Especially with full packs! We were quite a bit further upstream than we realized and spent the next couple of hours picking our way downstream. The stream was blessedly free of poison oak (for the most part) and not too much brush, but we had many rocks to navigate, some deep pools, and several large snags to climb over.  East Austin Creek Trail parallels Gilman creek for some distance before crossing, but because it runs about 30-40 feet above the south bank, we didn’t realize we could get out sooner than we did. Walking on a fire road never felt so good.

East Austin Creek Trail near Tom King Camp

East Austin Creek Trail near Tom King Camp

Pushing on in the late afternoon heat, we finally arrived at our reserved campsite, Manning Flat II, the northernmost camp. It was well after our usual dinnertime, starting to get dark, mosquitoes were buzzing around us (my family was grumbling about the cast off tent) and the area didn’t really look like I remembered it from 30 years ago. We realized there wasn’t any easy access to East Austin Creek — after one reconnaissance trip that cost us dearly with dozens of burrs in our socks, we picked up our packs and headed back to Manning Flat I, located right above a creek crossing. We had no more than settled in and started preparing dinner when we realized we were hearing voices approaching. We decided to wait until the new party arrived before moving back to Manning Flat II, but when the couple appeared at last, they just asked for directions to the other site. We breathed sighs of relief — they apparently had not registered (or paid their $25) — and continued our dinner prep. Later that night after we had already gone to bed (and after the mosquitoes went away), one or both of the other campers stumbled down the road past our camp to get water, apparently having had a similar experience to ours at their own camp.

California rough-skinned newt in East Austin Creek

California rough-skinned newt in East Austin Creek

Austin Creek is often full of algae by late summer. This year, due to the late rains, the algae was minimal and the water inviting, especially as the temperature climbed (the fog we’d experienced every morning and evening since mid-July back home in Sebastopol rarely penetrates the north Austin Creek watershed). I suggested that we explore Fox Mountain, above us to the west, or Panther Beds, above us to the east. My suggestion didn’t get much traction in the face of the heat and our creek scramble the previous day.   One of the best swimming holes in the park is just downstream from the campsite, so we spent nearly the entire day playing in the water; watching California rough-skinner newts, baby Western spadefoot toads and juvenile steelhead;  and hanging out.

We could have easily stayed in the backcountry another day. We had most of the park to ourselves (the other party left while we were at the swimming hole) and good, if warm, weather. Nonetheless, the time to head home came all too soon. We hiked out on the dirt road that follows East Austin Creek to the former Gilliam Creek Camp — a lovely spot that closed a few years back after a plugged culvert caused a large blowout/landslide on the dirt road. Everything is still there, but the outhouse is boarded up, the trash cans are hidden in some brush, and a big sign warns against camping.

Leopard lily in Gilliam Creek

Leopard lily in Gilliam Creek

Lower Gilliam Creek Trail from the old camp to the connecting trail at East Austin Creek Trail wanders up the creek through bay and oak woodland, with numerous creek crossings and — if you visit earlier in the summer, numerous clusters of leopard lily (Lilium pardilinum) — we actually found a couple still blooming, but it must have been spectacular in early July.

The climb out of the canyon toward Poole Ridge is a slog even in cool weather due to poor trail design and a lot of open areas, but especially so in August. We made most of the climb before having to stop for lunch under a terrific old oak with a view over the entire East Austin Creek watershed. While we ate, we saw our first people in a day and a half.

Lunch on upper Gilliam Creek Trail

Lunch on upper Gilliam Creek Trail

Gilliam Creek Trail took us to Poole Ridge and the long descent into Armstrong Grove. Most of the Poole Ridge Trail is mercifully shaded and we made one more stop at an old orchard roughly half way down. From there, the trail riders had churned up the trail tread, so we had a lot of dust and loose soil to contend with until we could relax in the grove itself.

We decided to hike to Guerneville and a beach on the Russian River in the time left before the next bus came. Hiking the length of Armstrong Grove Road was easily the least inspiring part of our whole experience, but the lure of another swim kept us going at a good clip. Once we arrived in downtown Guerneville, we crossed the pedestrian bridge to the Guerneville River Park and though finding good river access was harder than we expected, we all got in our dip. Refreshing as it was, the water quality and general ambiance had nothing on our East Austin Creek hole…

Catching the bus home in Guerneville

Catching the bus home in Guerneville

The bus arrived on schedule. We were on our final leg and soon we hopped off only couple of blocks from home. My wife remarked that she felt really different from how she felt upon arriving home after any Sierra trip we’d ever taken — relaxed. We’ll have to do another self-propelled trip before too long.

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