.Touring the Trees in Sonoma County

There are some questions one resents being asked. 

You may have had this reaction when someone annoyingly queries, “Would you rather live by the forest or the ocean?” It’s supposed to reveal the key to your personality, with extroverts choosing sky, sun, sea and sand, and introverts opting for the forest, with its dark shadows and silence periodically interrupted by sounds of mysterious origin. 

The fact that both forest and ocean exist—and right here, that chosen spot in all the world as far as nature is concerned, as Luther Burbank put it—we are clearly meant to experience both and the states of mind they invoke. The distant horizon where the sea seems to meet the sky speaks to our elusive ideals, while the dense forest that obstructs the sky encourages us to look inward and seek out the hidden caverns of our own souls. 

So in response to that nosey interlocutor asking me which I’d prefer, I’ll invoke the ancient law of the ternary. Everything comes in pairs, two sides to every coin, which are reconciled in a third thing. Which means my ideal home is on a cliff overlooking the ocean with a forest in my backyard. Which is essentially what Sonoma County is, except you may tend to overlook the woodlands, which require a bit more effort to experience than a drive to the coast and two-minute walk from parking lot to water. 

By forest I don’t mean “nature”—brown grassy hills spotted with brittle gray trees—but the lush and dense places where wooden sentinels block out the sunlight and primordial sensations get kindled. In spots like this, it’s as if an ancestral spirit inside of us awakens and pulls on the leash held by our digital-downer selves, wild-eyed and manic at the prospect of roaming free in its natural habitat.

World mythologies attribute a living spirit-energy to the forest, and the imagination of peoples across the globe has devised all kinds of creatures and treasures hidden within it, but you don’t need great courage to enter your local forests. There are no witches, trolls or werewolves, and while BigFoot has been sighted not too far from here, he hasn’t been seen recently. And you don’t even need to take a vacation day; all you need is a couple of hours and a willingness to become invigorated. 

Located halfway between Santa Rosa and Calistoga, Petrified Forest is a sun-drenched spot, but as it actually has “forest” in its name, we could hardly leave it out. The surrounding hills provide the dense forested feeling we’re after, with towering redwoods stretching up to the clouds. Tucked away in a private residence is an assemblage of petrified trees extremely rare and fascinating to contemplate. 

Nearby Mount St. Helena was once an active volcano, which erupted cataclysmically some 3.4 million years ago, burying the area in ash. During the eons that followed, Mother Nature became Medusa and turned trees to stone, which were eventually discovered in 1871 by a Swedish homesteader now known affectionately as Petrified Charley, and immortalized by the author Robert Louis Stevenson. The fallen rock-trees are eerie to touch and more than capable of fueling reveries of how nature contains bizarre secrets for—under the right conditions—turning something into something else.

The colossal trees in Guerneville’s Armstrong Woods aren’t millions of years old, only a thousand, but are equally as fascinating, for these trees have not been preserved in stone, but are actually still living. Returning to Sonoma County after 20 years away, this was my most breathtaking re-discovery of the natural wonders of my home environs. 

The deep, dark redwood forest is absolutely majestic, its crown the 1,400-year-old, 30-story tree named for Colonel Armstrong, who sought to protect this special place in the 1870s. Losing Armstrong Woods to fire is something too tragic to even contemplate, so let’s not and hope that this gorgeous grove stands forever. You won’t, however, so don’t put off a visit any longer. If you haven’t been in longer than you remember, prepare to be awestruck, one of the noblest of human sentiments. Fellow visitors playing with their phones and yapping inane chit chat might as well not even be there, and frankly they’re not, for their mind is elsewhere and their soul is asleep. 

I’ve always been unmoved by the drive along Highway 12 from Santa Rosa to Sonoma, for wine may be delightful to drink, but watching it grow on brown hills is deadly dull. Yet a mere 10 minutes from the highway in Glen Ellen lies another world, the deep archetypal forest on the vast property that once belonged to author Jack London. The only complaint here is that one burns a certain amount of time and fuel just getting from the state park’s parking lot into the dense part of the forest.

Such is not the case with several entry points into Annadel-Trione State Park, where you can skip the moss-covered oaks and brown grass and go straight to the lush parts. I first discovered the park 30 years ago, and it soon became Mother Nature-as-mistress. When I was young, I’d bike through her in search of fast thrills, but made sure not to go too often nor map Lady Annadel’s contours too closely, so that she would always maintain her secrets. 

These days I prefer to walk the trails in a meditative frame of mind, stopping frequently to appreciate the fleeting vistas that, even at a hiking pace, are gone in a heartbeat if you’re not paying attention. This is the easiest forest escape from the central point of Santa Rosa, and after a stressful day at work you can leave it all behind and disappear into the forest. Try this easy-access, one-hour woodland escapade selected just for you. 

From Montgomery Drive, take the Channel Drive entrance and follow it all the way to the parking lot at the end, which is just steps from Richardson Trail. Proceed along the trail’s mild incline until you reach the u-turn that heads up the hill. This is a bit steep, but is comfortably wide and flat, so no foot-torture and lower-back strain like you get on Two Quarry Trail nearby. 

The beauty and solace really begins when you reach the fork at the top and descend down Steve’s Trail, which is narrow and bicycle-free. You’re likely to be the only one, and the area is dense with towering trees and lush with ferns. Take in the beauty and solitude and see where your thoughts take you. By the time you complete the loop and come out where you started, you might just feel a fresh perspective on life, what you want from it and how to go about getting it.

In addition to being a butchery of the language of Shakespeare, “staycation” is also a mediocre concept. “Permanent vacation” is a much higher aspiration, and Sonoma County’s aesthetic escapes are always here waiting to delight and inspire those capable of appreciating them, who never take something glorious for granted, and who’ve trudged to the ends of the earth only to learn the invaluable lesson that there’s no place like home. 

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