Soulful Travel: Sonoma County’s Wildflower Walks
Springtime in Sonoma County is an experience for all the senses. Things are just a little brighter and a little fresher this time of year, and when you pause, just long enough to take it all in, you can feel more refreshed, renewed and revitalized.
Northern California is a floral hotspot. This is the place, after all, that invented “flower power,” or the idea that peace, love and nature could win hearts and minds, floating from one to another through an invisible cloud fragrant with harmony and understanding. It’s the place where an old song said that when you come, be sure to wear a flower in your hair. And while we’re a tad biased, we think Sonoma County is the perfect spot to see how April showers do indeed bring May flowers – lots and lots of them.
Oscar Wilde never made it up here on his lecture tour of the United States in 1882, when San Francisco’s Chinatown community gave him the nickname “Sunflower Man.” At the start of his career, the writer was the leading exponent of a new bohemian lifestyle called Aestheticism, or devoting oneself to the appreciation of beauty in all its forms. And from William Morris’ celebrated fabric designs – still very much available today – to the swirling motifs of Art Nouveau, the ultimate symbol was the flower, nature’s exquisite creation combining color, texture, form and fragrance. “A flower,” Wilde once said, “blossoms for its own joy.”
After he became a famous playwright, Wilde stopped carrying sunflowers around, opting for a green carnation on his lapel. But he never stopped championing the cause of beauty, which appeals not to mankind’s practical side, but rather its soul. A person who can allow themselves to be shaken to the core by beauty carries about them a special aura, almost a sensibility superpower, ever alert and receptive to rapturous experience. So, if it sounds like you could use a shot of Aestheticism into your life, Sonoma County’s spring wildflowers are the perfect place to start. A long and rainy winter gives Mother Nature what it needs to dazzle the eye and transform your harried workaday life into la dolce vita – or better yet, la vie en rose.
Flower arranging is its own art form, and there’s also the art of growing hothouse flowers in a terrarium. But to really appreciate nature’s supreme decoration, it’s best to see them right in her own backyard, where wildflowers quietly grow and wait to see if busy humans will notice them. (Remember the old saying about making sure to stop and smell the roses as you go through life?) You can take a wildflower walk in Sonoma County in any of the spectacularly diverse spots that led Luther Burbank to call this the chosen spot on Earth as far as nature is concerned. Rolling hills, redwood forests and rocky coasts all have their own breeds of flora adapted to the conditions.
Along the Sonoma Coast, Stillwater Cove is known for its spectacular wildflower arrangements. The cove’s three miles of trails weave through such rare varieties as striped coral root, trillium, redwood violet, and thimbleberry, all interspersed between winding creeks and towering redwoods. A short detour takes you to historic Fort Ross Schoolhouse, built in 1885, where you can imagine Oscar Wilde lecturing kids with the line, “The only beautiful things are the things that don’t concern us.”
Although coastal flowers are often perennial, the county’s most captivating wildflower displays are mostly found among the oak woodlands, where hillsides turn purple with lupine and orange with poppies. Located in Glen Ellen – where you can taste plenty of floral-note wines on your outing – Sonoma Valley Regional Park boasts three trails so fragrant they’re named for flowers. The Woodland Star, Buttercup and Milkmaid trails are brimming with their namesake flowers in addition to plenty of others, some of which are endangered.
Many locals who greet spring flowers like old friends say that Petaluma’s Helen Putnam Regional Park all but equals Sonoma Valley for the best wildflower viewing. Its six miles of trails wind through grassy hillsides dappled with such varieties as sun cup, hound’s tongue, Henderson’s shooting star and dwarf checkermallow. For a shot of olofactory beauty, the Yarrow Trail is especially fragrant in addition to being picturesque.
Located in Windsor, Foothill Regional Park provides relatively flat terrain with charming trails that wind around three large ponds. Its signature windflowers include lupine, as well as the slender white blossoms and unique wavy leaves of the soap plant, a generous selection of which can be found on Soap Plant Trail. And a roundup of our favorite wildflower walks wouldn’t be complete without mention of Tolay Regional Park, the largest of the county’s regional parks at 3,400 acres. In addition to its namesake lake and Native American history, Tolay is also prized for its biodiversity, including its wildflowers. There’s no reward without effort, and the park hides its rarest specimens at the end of the lengthy Westridge Trail, ideal for seasoned hikers.
When Oscar Wilde crowned himself a champion of beauty, he took his place in a chain of aesthetes that belong to civilizations across the world. From China to Greece, ancient poets and sages extolled the importance of grounding one’s life not only in the beautiful, but in the good and the true, since the three are inseparable. Modern science has demonstrated that plants grow better to the sounds of Mozart than they do to musical forms that are chaotic or angry, and infants respond to smiling faces from the moment they can open their eyes, and recoil from things disharmonious as if they were monsters. For eons both love and spiritual awakening have been compared to the gradual unfolding of a rose or lotus blossom, and even the planet Venus – which rules over beauty – traces a floral mandala with its orbit over the course of eight years, as seen from Earth.
What does it all mean? That beauty is written into the programming code of the universe, including the heart of mankind. Reconnecting with this timeless truth – or getting the a-ha moment for the first time – should make you want to run outside as fast as you can, thirsting for the color, form and fragrance of a stray flower like someone who has long been wandering in an arid desert, and has finally found the soul-healing source that springs eternal.
Other Soulful Adventures
This trip through Sonoma County’s wildflower-laden state and regional parks 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