Soulful Travel: Pepperwood Preserve

Sonoma County is the ancestral home of three tribes of Native Americans – Kasia Pomo, Wappo, and Miwok – and their descendants pride themselves in keeping their traditions going. Visitors of Sonoma County are encouraged to reflect on these early practices while traveling throughout the region, pause, and carry these behaviors forward. 

Here we help you have that experience at Pepperwood Preserve. 

In Harmony with Nature  

Arrived at the top of the hill where Pepperwood Preserve stands radiant in sunshine, you feel your attachments to everyday life slip away – and what a relief it is. You’re tempted to liken the feeling to sinking into a hot bath, except that it’s not water you feel embrace you, but something more ethereal.  

Instinctively you reach for your phone to capture the view, when a voice inside you says put it away. “Why not just experience the moment,” it whispers, “rather than leap outside yourself and into your digital device, creating a layer of distance between yourself and the here and now of the moment you’re living in?” 

Your conscience is correct, you sigh, and away goes the phone. How amazing it would be, you think, to spend a day among the Wappo people, the indigenous tribe that called these hills their home for thousands of years, and see how they lived. Pepperwood’s staff are quick to point out that the Wappo never sought to dominate nature as in modern civilization, but rather to live in harmony with it.  

Ah, to live in harmony with nature – the music of these words seems to kindle some vague longing as they land on your ears. But what exactly does it mean? And how can you actually begin to do it, and strike some balance in your worrisome digital life?  

It starts by expanding your mind to what ancient civilizations meant by the term “nature,” which was a lot more than just flowers and birds, mountains and trees. Nature was everything around you, including the clouds and stars.  

It was also everything inside you. 

Pepperwood Preserve

Founded in 2005 as an ecological research facility, Pepperwood Preserve has grown to assume a leading role in the crafting of solutions to maintain California’s natural beauty. It consists of a 3,200-acre biological reserve, where 900 species of native plants and wildlife make their home. The Dwight Center of Conservation Science serves as a thinktank for ecological education, and a staff of 25 scientists has this picturesque setting for their daily routine. The land is believed to have been originally populated some 14,000 years ago following the Ice Age, and the Wappo tribe possessed elaborate knowledge of how to conserve the ecosystem.  

Pepperwood is not open to the public, which lends it a certain air of mystery that is only enhanced by its elevated location in the hills outside Santa Rosa. But to make this special place available to nature-lovers, Pepperwood hosts an impressive calendar of events anyone can sign up for. Love stargazing? Come at night and mingle with fellow astronomy buffs. Always wanted to study art? Then what better place to learn to sketch and paint than in this pristine spot. To find out everything you can do here (including booking private guided hikes for small groups), visit and click the Classes, Events & Workdays button at the top of the site. 

Pepperwood Preserve
Students enjoy a special trip through Sonoma County’s Pepperwood Preserve during a school trip (Photo Courtesy @rebekahraepearson)

When we moderns hear the term “nature,” we usually envision “the great outdoors,” or land that hasn’t been covered with concrete. But to the world’s Traditional societies – the kind worthy of a capital T – nature meant something altogether different, more akin to what we might call Total Reality. This included not just the physical realm of the earth, its varied lifeforms, including the other members of one’s society, and the changes of the seasons, but also each individual’s inner world. This was often considered the “real reality” – or at least the gateway to it – and included dreams, visions, imagination and reason, which meant human intelligence. The supra-individual layer included myths and tales of past ancestors, not to mention one’s obligation to future progeny. “Nature” was the term for the total content of consciousness, visible and invisible. Difficult concept? Not really, for there’s a simple substance that has always symbolized the interconnectedness of this Total Reality, capable of passing through space and time from meditating mind to forest and sky, past and future.  

Can’t guess what it is? Take a deep breath through your nostrils as you can smell it. 

Pepperwood Preserve

Smoke played a central role in Native American traditions – such as the peace pipe and smoke signals – just as it did in Traditional cultures such as ancient Greece, China, India and Egypt. Smoke was used in offerings and tributes to ancestors and the spiritual forces that shaped higher reality, and survives to this day in the form of incense.  

Smoke was the perfect metaphor or symbol for the primordial energy of the universe, the mysterious thing that makes everything possible. In India it’s called akasha, in China chi, and in Greece the ether. The Wappo probably had a name for it as well. We moderns don’t, because we don’t all look at the world in that holistic way anymore. It can be difficult to accept the existence of something we can’t see with our eyes and study in a laboratory.  

Up here on a guided hike, gazing at stars, learning to paint or even volunteering, Pepperwood Preserve is a perfect spot to begin the work of getting back to a place where everything in life kind of flows together, where you can roll with the punches of life’s mishaps and let the joy linger as long as possible. Learning to live in harmony with nature, to see the interconnectedness of everything inside you with everything around you, tills the soil for the eventual blossoming of one of the most powerful metaphysical aha moments you can experience: The sudden “it’s all one thing” breakthrough feeling.  

“Preserve” really is an apt name for Pepperwood. The facility is not only conserving California ecology, but the memory of those who were here first, when the world was freshly thawed from a long winter, and a robust springtime broke through in all its cosmic harmony.  

Other Soulful Adventures  

This trip through Pepperwood Preserve is just one of a series on soulful travel. For other experiences, visit our Soulful Travel page.  

Remember the Leave No Trace Principles 

Experiencing our destination through the Sonoma County Leave No Trace Seven Principles gives travelers an opportunity to make a difference. Together, we can protect and preserve this special corner of the world for generations to come. Find more info about sustainable travel in Sonoma County here.   

For a list of local businesses helping promote the important message of Leave No Trace, click here

Written by Christian Chensvold 

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