By Scott Feuer
Summer is over, the kids are back in school, but don’t put those backpacks, camping gear, and fishing poles in storage yet. There is still time to enjoy the outdoors. In fact, fall is a perfect time to seize a weekend and experience the beauty and tranquility of shorter days and cool evenings in our northern coastal foothills. With fewer crowds, and no need to book reservations months in advance, arrange a quick weekend outdoor jaunt for a night or two. Before the winter rains bring muddy trails to dampen your outdoor adventure, excite the kids with a visit to Lake Sonoma.
Constructed by the US Army Corps of Engineers for flood control and irrigation supply, Lake Sonoma is in the heart of the wine country nestled in the rolling hills 10 miles northwest from Healdsburg off Highway 101 and is certainly a shoulder season gem for backpacking. Although typically viewed as a “boater’s” lake during the hot summer months, in the offseason I have discovered that backpacking to the boat-in campsites is a remarkable way to escape the crowds and enjoy the beauty of the landscape. It will often be an adventure to remember.
Last Fall, I took my son and some of his high school buddies to our favorite Lake Sonoma destination, Buck Pasture Camp. With backpacks overstuffed with Bluetooth speakers, fishing gear, swim noodles, hefty camera gear, and extra “teenage hunger” food rations, we jumped in the car and drove 2 hours north to the winding Old Skaggs Road turnoff to reach the South Lake Trail that skirts the lake’s Warm Springs Arm. Old Skaggs Road eventually dead ends at the lake which was flooded back in 1983 when Warm Springs Dam was constructed.
Here, we left our car and began the short, but scenic, 2.2-mile hike along the single-track trail peppered with Live Oaks and Madrone trees. Home to a variety of wildlife, it is common to spot wild pigs, turkeys, deer, acorn woodpeckers, and California quail here. In a little over an hour, after navigating a small stream, we arrived at our waterfront paradise ready to set up camp. Buck Pasture has about 13 “boat-in” lakeside campsites (no roads) each with a picnic table, fire pit ring, and fairly level areas to pitch tents. Secluded, we were the only people around in this backcountry wilderness. The picnic table and our Bluetooth speaker system civilized our campsite. We pitched our tents to classic songs of Johnny Cash and eagerly grabbed our float noodles to swim and bask in the warm afternoon sun.
Autumn days end quickly as night falls around 6:00 pm. We gathered around our campfire, enjoyed a hearty freeze-dried chili mac dinner and spent the evening stargazing, telling stories, and took some long-exposure star trail photography before going to bed.
We awoke to a crisp, dry morning. Our tents were just 10 short steps to the lake’s edge. We grabbed our poles and promptly began fishing. We landed a few nice sized smallmouth bass before breakfast and spent the rest of day exploring the hills, swimming, and fishing well into the late afternoon hours. With no other campers around, it was quite tranquil.
As the sun dropped behind the golden-brown hills, strong, dry winds whipped through our camp and agitated our campfire to the point that we decided to douse the flames with lake water. Nothing like a forest fire to put a damper on the outing. We made do with our headlamps, listened to music, and reflected on the day’s events. Over the course of the evening, I captured a couple more long-exposure star trail photos before retiring to bed.
We awoke to a dense haze of smoke that made for an incredibly beautiful orange-red sunrise. We fished briefly, but with the strong smell of smoke and dry steady winds, we decided we need to leave soon to safely make it back to the car. We devoured breakfast, and then hastily broke camp for the hike out. Unknowingly at the time, we did not realize this was the first morning of the Sonoma/Napa firestorm. We were lucky to not have had a forest fire ignited by our camp while we slept. Thankfully, we made it home safely and chalked up a very memorable trip.
Hiking to the boat-in campsites at Lake Sonoma during the shoulder season is perhaps one of the best destinations if seeking an easy weekend backpacking trip without the crowds. Typically, pleasant weather, excellent fishing, and lakeside campsites allow one to truly enjoy the beauty of our local coastal foothill terrain. Google Lake Sonoma Recreation Area, and take a weekend pause from the holiday shuffle and work in an extra outdoor adventure this fall.