Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve

and Austin Creek State Recreation Area
California > Mendocino/Sonoma region

The woods near the Colonel Armstrong Tree

Armstrong Redwoods features a small but attractive old-growth redwood grove in a canyon just north of the Russian River and the town of Guerneville.

With its relatively small trees and dense understory of tanoak, Armstrong Redwoods more resembles southern groves like Muir Woods or Big Basin than the lusher, more open stands to the north. Yet it’s more impressive than other southern groves, with a higher density of good-sized trees and a moderately dense carpet of sorrel and ferns; the deep shade and the way sounds echo off the trunks create some of the otherworldly atmosphere of the North Coast redwoods.

The main drawback to Armstrong’s redwood grove is that it isn’t very big. In fact the short Discovery/Pioneer loop described here passes through most of the park’s old growth grove. Just south of the loop, on the way to the entrance kiosk, the Nature Trail leaves the old growth and passes through a heavily-logged area, although near the gate there’s a collection of large trees. Just north of the loop, the Pool Ridge and Pioneer trails pass through short stretches of pretty nice old growth before entering more mundane tanoak woods.

The park is quite popular, because it’s one of the closest redwood groves to San Francisco and because of the popularity of the Russian River area. In fact, although it doesn’t feel quite as busy, Armstrong Redwoods gets almost as many visitors as Muir Woods (about 746,000 vs. 812,000 in 2019). On most weekends, the parking lots fill up and the entrance is closed to cars. While walking around the grove, you might pass 2–4 groups of visitors per minute.

The road to the Colonel Armstrong Tree

Armstrong Redwoods’ visitor center and main parking lot are outside the entrance gate. Although it’s not at all obvious, you’re still supposed to pay the $10 entrance fee to park here.

Inside the gate, the road splits: the right-hand road goes to a picnic area with lots of parking; to the left, a narrow road leads to the Armstrong Tree, where there are a few shady parking spots in a particularly serene and attractive part of the grove. Most people go right and so spots are often available by the Armstrong Tree even on summer weekends. The best scenery and largest redwoods in the park are actually along this road; the trails are less impressive.

The reserve also offers two well-worn trails that climb the ridges on either side of the central canyon. These trails make a good workout but for the first few miles they aren’t especially interesting. As they climb out of the canyon, the redwoods disappear and are replaced with a tanoak and laurel forest; in addition the woods quickly become surprisingly dry, with no groundcover. Since the reserve is located well inland, it may not get as much moisture from summer fog as other redwood parks. To the north, both ridge trails climb steeply into Austin Creek State Recreation Area, eventually reaching a very scenic ridge with superb views over the surrounding mountains.

Armstrong Redwoods from the top of the East Ridge Trail

Horse rides are offered within the park and horse manure is common on the ridge trails, especially in summer.

The park is near the Russian River, an exceptionally attractive and popular summer resort area. The ultra-liberal town of Guerneville is the biggest in the area and is ideally located between the dreary fog and frigid sea breezes of the coast and the baking heat of the inland valleys. Surrounded by hills covered with second-growth redwoods, the river has several beaches good for swimming. Canoes can be rented and are a common sight on the river, while River Road offers a flat and scenic bicycling route.

2020 Walbridge Fire

Much of the park burned in the Walbridge Fire of August 2020, one of the many lightning fires that burned throughout California that summer. The park was closed for 14 months after the fire. However, only the edges of the main old-growth grove burned; all the flat land in the middle of the grove looks the same as it did before the fire, with the ferns and the dense tanoak understory still intact. The unburned flat contrasts strikingly with the bare ground, charred redwoods, and dead tanoaks on the hillsides and in the redwood-filled glens around the edges of the flat.

This flat 1.3-mile loop takes in the best of Armstrong Woods’ redwoods. It’s most enjoyable to start from the small parking lot near the Colonel Armstrong Tree (to reach this lot, stay to the left after passing the entrance kiosk), but if that lot is full you can also start from the larger day use lot.

Take the Discovery Trail toward the Colonel Armstrong Tree and stay to the left at the first intersection. The trail runs past mid-sized redwoods with dense foliage as it curves around a hill. It was apparently used as a firebreak during the Walbridge fire; everything on the left has burned, while everything on the right has not.

As it approaches the Pioneer Trail, the trail passes the Icicle Tree and crosses Fife Creek on a bridge.

Turn left at the intersection with the Pioneer Trail, which runs through attractive redwoods, with a few large trees, close to Armstrong Woods Road.

The trail crosses the road and then passes a redwood-filled glen that burned in the fire and is now strikingly open. It kind of looks like a high-elevation giant sequoia grove.

This glen at the edge of the old growth burned in the 2020 Walbridge fire

When you reach the lot, turn around and return to the intersection, then continue straight until the trail crosses a small road. Turn right onto the road and cross an auto bridge.

The Discovery Trail, which starts on your right just after the bridge, leads back to the Colonel Armstrong Tree. However, the road, although it’s just a few feet from the trail, is a lot more scenic and passes the best redwoods in the park. Traffic on the single-lane road is usually light and moves slowly, but drivers may be paying more attention to the trees above than the road.

The Discovery Trail

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© 2006, 2013, 2022 David Baselt