“The heartwood is red, very handsome wood, handsomer than cedar … There are great numbers of this tree here, of all sizes and thicknesses, most of them exceedingly high and straight like so many candles. What a pleasure to see this blessing of timber.”
Father Crespi later named the tree “palo colorado” — the red tree — and human beings have been fascinated by redwood trees ever since.
Coast redwoods, or Sequoia sempervirens, are the tallest living things in the world, with some extending beyond 370 feet. The trees also rank among the oldest things on the planet. They’re capable of surviving for 2,000 years or longer (about half the age of giant sequoias), although the average life span is roughly 500-700 years.
Before the mid-19th century, coastal California — from the Oregon border to Big Sur country — was thick with redwood trees. But the discovery of gold in 1849 brought a massive influx of people into the state. Redwood trees — with their beautiful, sturdy, fire-resistant wood — quickly came under the lumberjack’s ax. Eventually more than 95 percent of the state’s old-growth redwood forest disappeared.
Lucky for us, enlightened Californians began working early on to preserve the groves and forests that remained. The result is that, today, the trees are protected in a variety of national, state and other parks accessible to the public.
Sonoma County’s Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve — in a canyon near Guerneville and just north of the Russian River — is such a spot.
At 805 acres Armstrong isn’t huge, but it’s definitely awe-inspiring. Beneath the redwood forest’s magnificent and soaring canopy you’ll feel dwarfed, silenced by the trees’ majesty, humbled by their endurance.
And there’s simply something about being surrounded by trees that have lived more than a thousand years that slows you down and causes you to reflect. When you leave a redwood forest, the world is never quite the same, at least for a little while.
A few trees at Armstrong merit special recognition:
- The oldest tree, Colonel Armstrong, is more than 1,400 years old.
- The tallest tree, Parson Jones, extends upward more than 310 feet (it’s taller than a football field is long).
- The most burl-heavy tree, Icicle, shows an unusually large number of the burl formations that can grow on redwood trees (burls can weigh tons).
Here’s what you can do at Armstrong Redwoods SNR:
- The self-guided Armstrong Nature Trail is the best bet for first-time visitors, since you’ll learn about redwood trees via interpretive displays as you stroll along.
- The Discovery Trail offers an unusual feature you’ll probably want to try: a tree-hugging platform.
- Both the Discovery Trail and the Armstrong Nature Trail are wheelchair accessible (and the former has interpretive panels in Braille).
- Armstrong’s trails are relatively short, but you can string them together and loop around to create a varied five- to six-mile hike. If you want more of a workout, take a trail leading into adjacent Austin Creek State Recreation Area, which has 20 miles of trails.
Check out the Visitor Center and Nature Store, which contains exhibits about the Reserve’s natural and cultural history, offers changing programs, and is staffed with knowledgeable docents who can answer your questions. Publications, clothing and other items are for sale. Proceeds help support the Park. Open 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
Bring a picnic, enjoying your food and the tall trees at your own pace. Picnic tables, grills and restrooms make it easy.
Sit in the Redwood Forest Theater. Built in the 1930s, this 1,200-seat amphitheater is occasionally used for concerts and plays.
Go horseback riding on the East Ridge Trail or Pool Ridge Trail, depending on seasonal conditions (which sometimes necessitate closing the trails). If you don’t have your own horse, take a guided horse ride with the folks at Armstrong Woods Pack Station.
What you need to know:
- Location: Armstrong Redwoods SNR, 17000 Armstrong Woods Road, Guerneville.
- Hours: The Reserve is open from 8 a.m. to one hour after official sunset.
- Fees: $8 per vehicle, free to pedestrians and bicyclists. If you park outside the Reserve’s entrance gate, you can walk in without paying the entry fee.
- Dogs: Not allowed on trails.
- Download a brochure about Armstrong Redwoods SNR or visit the Park’s website.
- View a map that shows all of California’s coastal redwood state parks.
- To learn about Public Education Programs, visit Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods.