Austin Creek State Recreation Area,
California State Parks,
Sonoma County

In brief:
4.1 mile loop through lonely grassland and woods north of Guerneville feels longer; lots of extended steep sections.

Distance, category, and difficulty
:
This 4.1 mile loop hike is moderate, with long steady elevation change in both legs of the loop. Total elevation change is about 1000 feet.

Exposure:
First and last section exposed, middle mostly shaded.

Trail traffic:
Light.

Trail surfaces:
Dirt trails and fire roads.

Hiking time:
2 1/2 hours.

Season:
Hot in summer. Spring is probably the best time.

Getting there:
From US 101 in Sonoma County north of Santa Rosa, exit River Road. Drive west 15.5 miles into Guerneville, then turn right onto Armstrong Redwoods Road. Drive north 2.3 miles to the Armstrong Redwoods entrance kiosk, then follow the signs for Bullfrog Pond, continuing north, initially through the flat redwood canyon for 0.6 mile, then veering left and steeply uphill. Climb on the narrow paved road with several tight switchbacks (no vehicles longer than 20 feet are permitted) 2.3 miles to the campground entrance. Park in the lot to the left of the campground self-registration station.

GPS coordinates* for trailhead:
Latitude 3833'50.77"N
Longitude
123 0'44.52"W
(* based on Google Earth data, shown as degrees, minutes, seconds)

Gas, food, and lodging:
Gas, stores, and restaurants in Guerneville. Austin Creek's Bullfrog Pond Campground has 24 non-reservable tent camping sites, with flush toilets, drinking water, and a pay phone. Sites 1-20 are tucked among redwoods, while 21-24 are more open, at the edge of woods near Bullfrog Pond. Sites 10-12 are close together, perfect for three families or groups of friends camping together. Three Austin Creek backcountry campsites require a permit; call the park for more info.

Trailhead details:
$8.00 entrance fee (self-register if Armstrong Redwoods entrance kiosk is unstaffed). Parking in a gravel lot adjacent to the campground entrance. Drinking water, flush toilets, and pay phone are available in the campground. Ask for a map at the Armstrong Redwoods entrance kiosk or visitor center -- there are no maps at the trailhead.

Rules:
Fire roads are multi-use, while trails are closed to cyclists. No dogs on trails -- dogs are permitted, on leash at all times, in the campground.

The Official Story:
CSP's Austin Creek page
Armstrong Redwoods/Austin Creek ranger station 707-869-2015

Map Choices:
• Use AAA's San Francisco Bay Region map to get there.
Park map
• Pick up the park's official map at the Armstrong Redwoods entrance kiosk.
The Hiker's hip Pocket Guide to Sonoma County, by Bob Lorentzen (order this book from Amazon.com) has a map and hike descriptions.




Go to Bay Area Hiker Home page




Austin Creek is a wild, rugged park hidden behind Armstrong Redwood's more refined facade. Day use parking lotThe final stretch of the journey to Austin Creek includes an uphill drive on a sinuous, narrow, dead-end road which departs from Armstrong Redwood's dark canyon floor and climbs into a whole new world, of oak-dotted grassland where steeply-sloped hillsides lead downhill to rushing creek and backpack camps. Bullfrog Pond campground provides an excellent basecamp for dayhikes -- hike all day or just for a few hours, then relax at sites near the pond or in redwood groves. The 3 backcounty camps, just 3-5 miles from the trailhead, are good for folks just starting out backpacking, although the climb back to the trailhead is rather sharp.
     Since the parks are connected, many people start at Armstrong Redwoods and make a loop to Bullfrog Pond and back as a dayhike. Although the redwood canyon is cool even in summer, steep trails traversing the more exposed hillsides at Austin Creek are sweltering in summer -- Austin Creek is best suited to late winter, early spring, or autumn. Be prepared, in the wettest months, for some mud near the creeks, and numerous creek crossings,one of which may be impassable after periods of heavy rainfall. Austin Creek Trail While on a camping weekend, my husband, our friend Mark, and I chose to explore Austin Creek on one of the park's shortest loops, a 4.1 mile trek on Austin Creek and Gilliam Creek trails. If you're on a daytrip, start from the parking lot across from the campground's self-registration station (if you're camping, walk uphill on the road to the trailhead, or from the pond sites, walk uphill on a path departing from site 21, then at a T-junction, turn right and descend to Austin Creek Trail). Walk downhill along the road a short distance, to the gated fire road on the right. Austin Creek Trail, a fire road, sweeps downhill across grassy hillsides. The views here are the best of the hike, and stretch north to the ridges surrounding Lake Sonoma. Pig damage (dug-up grassland) is evident immediately along the sides of the trail, and you may see or hear turkeys warbling to each other. Buttercups are common in late winter and early spring, when the deciduous oaks along the trail begin to leaf out. As you descend on the steady, moderately steep grade, tree cover becomes thicker and the sound of rushing water becomes louder. Austin Creek Trail levels out a bit, and meanders upslope from Gilliam Creek, on the right, through California bay, black oak, and big-leaf maple. At 1.5 miles you'll drop to the creekside, at reach a signed junction and bridge. Gilliam Creek TrailAustin Creek Trail continues to the right, heading toward Tom King Trail Camp. If you hiking in late winter or early spring, be sure to check the stream for mating newts -- we saw nearly a dozen. This is the perfect place to refuel for the return ascent. When ready, continue straight/left, on a narrow connector trail.
      The path winds slightly uphill, then at 1.6 miles, reaches a creek crossing. If the water is very high, you'll need to wade across (be careful not to squish any newts), but usually a rock hop brings you to the far side and a junction with Gilliam Creek Trail. Turn left.
     At a very easy pace, Gilliam Creek Trail begins an ascent through a dense woodland of California bay, some black oak, and maple. Gilliam Creek murmurs prettily on the left; several small creeks feed in from the right, necessitating short jumps or a few splashy steps across the waterways. Look for hound's tongue, milkmaids, and shooting stars in March. Gilliam Creek Trail bends left and begins to climb with more purpose. Before long the woods are left behind, and at an increasingly steep pace, the trail climbs through grassland where buttercups, iris, and blue-eyed grass bloom in early spring. Butterflies including mylitta crescent and California buckeye are common. Bullfrog PondAfter one very steep stretch over exposed rock, the trail passes a serpentine swale, on the left, where linanthus, goldenfields, and gilias bloom in spring. The relentless uphill continues, and on a warm day every patch of shade and breeze are welcome. We heard pigs snuffling off the trail but out of sight, which encouraged us to press on. The trailhead is visible uphill to the left, but here the trail sweeps right, and descends through pockets of woods. Finally Gilliam Creek Trail ascends a bit and ends, at 3.5 miles, at a small paved parking lot. Turn left, and walk a few feet to the paved park road. Once again, turn left. After a short uphill stretch along the side of the road, you'll reach a junction with East Ridge Trail. If you want to stay off the road, this is your route, but it'll add 0.7 mile to your hike. We found it quicker to walk along the road the last 0.6 mile to the parking lot and campground.

Total distance: 4.1 miles
Last hiked: Saturday, March 20, 2004