It's a seasonal dilemma for many Bay Area backpackers. The snowpack in the mountains is still deep-frozen trails, in other words-and the desert is too far away for a quick, weekend trip. Fortunately, there's a home remedy close at hand. The following destinations, situated in low-elevation coastal ranges within a two-hour drive of San Francisco, are quintessential spring getaways. From early summer until fall, they're generally too hot and dry for pleasant backpacking. But for an all-too-brief window of time that generally stays open from late March until early June, the creeks brim and the hillsides are carpeted with lush grasses and wildflowers. Here is wilderness perfect for shaking off the winter blues.
Austin Creek State Recreation Area
This hidden patch of rolling hills and crystal-clear streams is tucked behind Armstrong Redwoods, a spectacular grove of old-growth redwoods in western Sonoma County. Most visitors stop at the big trees and never realize there is another beautiful park, with backcountry campsites, right next door.
To experience both, hike a 15-mile loop that starts at the Armstrong ranger station. Begin on the Pool Ridge Trail and climb through 250-foot-tall redwoods to the Gilliam Creek Trailhead, then descend through a sunny oak woodland sprinkled with irises, buttercups, poppies, and lupines. Camp beside the turquoise-colored pools at Manning Flat, and return via the Austin Creek Trail and the East Ridge Trail. You can shorten the loop by driving to the Gilliam Creek Trailhead.
The way: From Guerneville (75 miles north of San Francisco), drive 3 miles north on Armstrong Woods Road to the park entrance. Obtain a permit ($7/night) at the ranger station before entering the backcountry.
More information: Armstrong Redwoods State Reserve/Austin Creek State Recreation Area, 17000 Armstrong Woods Rd., Guerneville, CA 95446; (707) 869-2015.
Cache Creek Wildlife Management Area
The profusion of spring wildflowers in this chaparral-and-oak woodland rivals the blooms found anywhere in California. This is reason enough to visit Cache Creek, but if you need more incentive, there's the wildlife; this streamside environment is home to thriving populations of bald eagles (best viewed in winter) and tule elk (April through June).
During the April 1 to June 30 elk calving season, part of the area is closed, but there's still plenty of room for hikers in the 55,000-acre wilderness. Bring a map and compass, and explore the mostly trailless terrain. The best campsites are on grassy, flower-filled meadows upstream from Baton Flat. To reach them, start at Redbud Trailhead and pick up the new Perkins Creek Ridge Trail to an unmaintained path that plunges downhill to Cache Creek (a steep 3 miles from the Redbud Trailhead). Watch for turkey hunters in spring.
The way: 160 miles north of San Francisco. From the junction of state highways 53 and 20 just north of Clearlake, drive 5 miles east on CA 20 to the signed Cache Creek access road (milepost 36.98).
More information: Bureau of Land Management, 2550 N. State St., Ukiah, CA 95482; (707) 468-4000.
Big Basin Redwoods/ Castle Rock State Parks
The aptly named Skyline to the Sea Trail starts high in the Santa Cruz Mountains and roller-coasters west to the Pacific Ocean. En route, the 32-mile path dips deep into redwood-filled canyons, tunnels through cool fern-filled grottos, skirts thunderous waterfalls, and tops out on ridges that offer commanding views of the sea.
Seven designated trailside camps allow you to overnight in a number of settings. Be sure to plan a night at Sunset Camp near Berry Creek Falls, Silver Falls, and orange-tinted Golden Falls. To hike the whole trail, start at Castle Rock. For a shorter but more popular stretch, hike the 13-mile section starting at Big Basin Redwoods State Park. Spring is best for wildflowers and waterfalls, but the coastal weather is good year-round. Permit and fee required ($10/night).
The way: 65 miles south of San Francisco. From the junction of state highways 35 and 9 (23 miles southwest of San Jose), drive 3 miles south on CA 35 to Castle Rock State Park. For Big Basin Redwoods State Park, proceed 15 miles southwest from the junction (on CA 9 then CA 236).
More information: Big Basin Redwoods State Park, 21600 Big Basin Way, Boulder Creek, CA 95006; (408) 338-8860.