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Armstrong Redwoods State Reserve

Gilliam Creek, Austin Creek Trails

4 mile loop with 800-foot elevation gain or 8 mile loop with 1,000-foot gain;
longer options possible

Armstrong Redwoods State Reserve/Austin Creek State Recreation Area is one place on the map, but two distinct environments on the ground. Armstrong Redwoods is a 700-acre tall tree preserve, a cool and dark forest. Austin Creek, in contrast, offers open sun-drenched, grassy hillsides dotted with oaks. Both parks are a welcome respite from the Russian River resort traffic and all those wine country tourists in the flatlands below.

Both parks offer good hiking: a gentle saunter through Armstrong Redwoods, a moderate to vigorous hike through the Austin Creek foothills. Armstrong Redwoods is a place to cool off in the summer. Austin Creek’s exposed slopes are a bit too hot in summer; hiking here is far more pleasant in spring and fall.

Armstrong Redwoods was set aside as a preserve by mega-logger Colonel James Armstrong, surely one of the few 19th-century timber barons who recognized both the beauty and the board feet in California’s redwood groves. The park has some excellent picnic grounds and features the Redwood Forest Theater, a 1,200-seat outdoor amphitheater, a popular site for concerts and plays.

Best hike through the redwoods is the self-guided nature trail. As you wander among the virgin trees past interpretive displays, you’ll visit the 310 foot Parson Jones tree and the old (1,400-plus years) Colonel Armstrong tree. After you walk the short mile along Fife Creek to the picnic area, you can loop back to the trailhead via East Ridge Trail.

Austin Creek’s twenty miles of trail for the most part follow creeks—East Austin, as well as Gilliam, Schoolhouse and Fife—through an environment of alder, big leaf maple and Oregon ash. Paths also traverse slopes forested with Douglas fir, oak and madrone. Three backcountry camps—Tom King, Manning Flat and Gilliam Creek—suggest Austin Creek State Recreation would be an ideal location for a weekend getaway or a family backpacking trip.

This hike offers both short and long loops that head down Gilliam Creek and ascend back to the trailhead along Austin Creek. Whichever loop you choose, it’s downhill first, uphill last; save some energy for the return trip.

Directions to trailhead: From Highway 101, four miles north of Santa Rosa, exit on River Road and drive west some 16 miles to Guerneville. Turn north on Armstrong Woods Road and drive two miles to Armstrong Redwoods State Reserve. Continue up the steep park road to a fork; the main park road continues to Bullfrog Pond, but you veer left to parking for the signed Gilliam Creek Trail.

The hike: Descend north into mixed forest of oak, Douglas fir and redwood. A half mile out, you’ll climb a bit and see some coastward views of the multiple ridges rolling to the west. 

The trail turns west and descends through woods, then grassland, to Schoolhouse Creek, about a mile from the trailhead. You’ll cross a fork of the creek as well as Schoolhouse Creek itself as you descend another mile to a trail junction located near the meeting of waters of Gilliam and Schoolhouse creeks.

Those opting for the four mile hike will go right at this trail junction, cross Schoolhouse Creek, then follow the banks of Gilliam up-creek a short distance to meet Austin Creek Trail (a fire road). You’ll hike the fire road back toward the trailhead.

Those in the mood for a longer hike will continue following Gilliam Creek, crossing and re-crossing the creek a couple of times as the path leads past ferns, flowers (in spring), cascading water and quiet pools.

Three miles out you cross Gilliam Creek for the last time, then climb gently above the north bank of the creek, and descend again. A short side trail leads to Gilliam Creek Camp. Near the confluence of Gilliam and East Austin creeks, you’ll ford the latter and climb briefly, but steeply, to meet a fire road. Turn right on the fire road, which climbs gradually north through a forest of oak, madrone and fir.

Five miles out, you descend to cross East Austin Creek and meet East Austin Creek Trail (another fire road). To visit Manning Flat Trail Camp, head left to the shady camp perched on the west bank of the creek.)

Turn right on the road, which follows its namesake East Austin Creek and soon passes a great swimming hole. All too soon, you think (especially on a hot day), your path begins and earnest half mile ascent, passes the side trail leading to Tom King Trail Camp, and leaves Austin Creek behind.

Next comes a half mile descent and meeting with the short spur connecting to Gilliam Creek Trail. One way back to the trailhead is to take the spur, then retrace your steps on the Gilliam Creek Trail. It’s a stiff climb back.

An equally stiff climb (some choice, huh?) is to continue on East Austin Creek Trail. The killer climb toward Bullfrog Pond Campground is a long mile, with a thou-sand-foot elevation gain.

When you reach the paved park road (carefully, walk on the shoulder) 0.5 mile, then pick up a short footpath on your right that leads back to the trailhead.

© 2012 The Trailmaster, Inc.
From John McKinney’s
Day Hiker’s Guide to California’s State Parks
Trail descriptions and maps have been reproduced with the permission of the author.  To learn more about The Trailmaster and other related publications please visit their website at