A quiet retreat near Wine Country
- Bay Area Workers’ rating: 5/10. For more experienced backpackers, the hike might be too short. The trail takes you down to a valley floor, rather than up to a beautiful vista. However, the solitude and peaceful quiet of this country makes it a very relaxing retreat from city life.
- Type of trip: Weekender (depart Saturday morning, return Sunday midday)
- Drive time to trailhead from San Francisco: *~1.5–2 hours *(directions to Austin Creek entrance). Here is the trail map. You’ll follow the road back toward Bullfrog Pond campground and park at the vista point.
- Difficulty and total mileage: ~8 miles out and back (easy). The hike in is a big downhill all the way to Tom King. So, the hike back is pretty much all uphill. Gets your heart pumping a bit.
- Crowds: Very light.
- Temperatures: At this time (late Spring), expect 70 degrees. Go here for a current forecast.
- Permits: There are three permit-required backcountry campsites you can reserve at the front entrance of the park. Tom King was the only one left when we arrived, but there is also Mannings Flat I and Mannings Flat II.
- Fire restrictions: Must use the existing campsite fire ring.
- Bears/threatening wildlife: No threatening wildlife other than insects. At this time of year, we found the bug situation to be pretty pesky. Lots of mosquitos in the campground, so bring the deet!
- Water situation: Most of the hike takes place next to the beautiful East Austin Creek and Thompson Creek runs right through the Tom King Campground. Plenty of water, but bring your filter.
Gear: Check out my temperate climate backpacking checklist for a recommended set of stuff to bring for this trip.
Food: We recommend bringing non-freeze-dried food. We brought burritos from El Farolito (San Francisco) for dinner that were-heated in the fire and made instant oatmeal in our coffee mugs for breakfast.
Campground accommodations: As above, backcountry permits are only available at the front entrance to the park and cannot be booked in advance. It may be worth calling ahead the day of your trip just to make sure that there are indeed spots remaining.
We departed San Francisco around 11:00am. After an hour and a half drive north through portions of lush wine country, we arrived in Guerneville, which is an quaint little town on the Russian River. It struck me as a completely different kind of civilization as the one we left behind in San Francisco: Rustic and bucolic. The kind of place you see cozy cabins interwoven with the forest and gaudy old signs from the 1950s on the old main drag.
After hanging a right on Armstrong Woods Road, we soon found ourselves at the entrance to Austin Creek State Park. The friendly ranger in the entrance station let us know that Tom King was the last remaining camp spot for the night, so we snagged it.
We made our way to the “Vista Point” near the Bullfrog Pond campground, where we parked the car, ate a sandwiches and began our descent down the fire road.
In approximately an hour (it’s a really short hike) we found ourselves at Tom King, where we pitched the tent and stowed excess gear inside. The campground itself is a large lot, with ample room for at least four or five parties of campers, yet we were the only residents. There’s a big, rusty cast-iron cylinder for a fire, lots of lizards and plenty of picnic benches, riddled with carvings from vandals of old.
Once we shed what we didn’t need, we continued along the fire road to Austin Creek proper. Here, we dropped our packs and clothes and went for a brief swim. We discovered a plethora of wildlife in the water: Orange-bellied newts and little fish that pecked at our feet if we stood still for a few minutes.
After lazing around by the creek for while, we headed back to the campground, made our burritos, drank some whiskey and conked out.
We rose with the light and sipped our instant coffee. It was cool in the morning; worthy of a fleece and a beanie.
After packing up, we set off up the sweat-inducing incline all the way back to our car. Though uphill, we made it back a bit before noon (after leaving camp at 10:45am).
We ended our time at Austin Creek clinking our beers together while taking in the view at Vista Point.