Soulful Travel: Armstrong Woods
Traveling doesn’t have to mean simply taking a trip. When done with intention, traveling can feed your soul, enrich your life, help you relax, rejuvenate and restore inner peace. Traveling is about making memories and lasting impressions that inspire and stay with you, and improve your overall health and wellbeing.
In Sonoma County, we invite you to take that trip. We invite travelers to experience the subtleties of visiting one of the most stunning corners of America. This couldn't be more important than right now.
Here, we help you experience the sacred silence of Armstrong Woods, a spectacular redwood grove, unique in all the world. The smells, the sounds, the effect this special place can have on a person are often forgotten in the modern world.
A Sacred Space
When Colonel James Armstrong wandered into the forest on that fateful day in 1870, he knew he’d found something special. Pretty much everything surrounding the nascent town of Guerneville was a woodland back then, but this spot was different. There was a mystical quality about it, a potent majesty that stunned you into silence. Standing amid the towering 300-foot-tall redwood trees, the colonel could feel it was a sacred place that needed to be preserved for posterity, so that others may come and share in the magic.
A Civil War veteran who became an early Sonoma County landowner and conservationist, Colonel Armstrong took action to protect the trees from logging, and today, the spectacular forest that bears his name still stands, surviving perennial fire threats and 150 years of encroaching civilization. The 805 acres just off the Russian River are officially known as the Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve, a protective designation ranking much higher than a mere ordinary state park. The reserve includes ample spots for picnicking, trails for both beginner and advanced hikers, and, if the time is right, a beautiful spot to exchange wedding vows.
Above all, however, Armstrong Woods is a place to be awestruck, a feeling we get too little of these days. Redwood trees are planet Earth’s tallest living creatures, reaching lifespans up to 2,000 years and towering to the height of 35-story skyscrapers. Redwood forests covered much of the earth in primordial times, but today only three remain: One in China, one in the Sierra Nevada mountains, and the groves scattered along the coast of Northern California, of which Armstrong Woods is arguably the grandest. When fog rolls in, it fills the forest with a mystical aura, but even on a sunny day, the shadowy grove is capable of inducing profound states that will stay with you long after you’ve returned to everyday life.
Back when these 1,000-year-old trees were just saplings struggling to survive, the peoples of the earth had a very different orientation from us, caught as we are in the whirling vortex of the modern world. From tribe and village to kingdom and empire, ancient people followed the pattern established by the creation of Mother Earth itself: Separating order from chaos and sacred space from the world outside. Reality was based on contact with the center, the place the ancestors built and bequeathed to us. And winding your way along the pathways that take you deeper into Armstrong Woods, it’s possible to recapture this sense of sacred space our ancestors knew so well.
Silence is Golden
In the densest parts of the forest, the towering redwoods nearly blot out the sun, which filters through in scattered rays that light-up the ruddy redwood bark and the verdant ferns that blanket the ground.
And that’s when it hits you: Armstrong Woods is silent — almost eerily so. There’s a simple reason why the woods are so quiet: No bugs. Redwood trees make for great lumber precisely because insects don’t like them. Few insects in Armstrong Woods means few animals to eat them, and few animals that eat those animals.
The world’s great teachings all put great emphasis on silence. We in the digital age should heed their wisdom, but it’s something of a paradox, as in order to understand silence, we first must practice it. The forest invites us to take in its quietude and let it permeate our innermost selves as only a sacred place can do. Our internal state always reflects what’s around us, and if you allow the silence of Armstrong Woods to seep into your soul, pulling the plug on that interior monologue you keep running through your head, you might make some amazing discoveries about yourself.
This is why it’s said that silence is golden, as it reveals the gold hidden within us. Tranquil silence is easily experienced in Armstrong Woods thanks to the abundant benches scattered throughout the reserve, and when instead of talking, we just listen to our own heart murmurs, we can hear an inner voice of wisdom directing us to what we really want from life.
Indeed, the only sound you’re likely to hear in Armstrong Woods is a gentle rustling in the trees, as if the forest was a single giant entity rhythmically breathing.
Why not breathe with it?
The concept of sacred space that organized the lives of our ancestors is intimately entwined with the idea of sacred time. We’ve largely lost this as well, which is why everyone feels so frazzled and overwhelmed these days.
Those who came before, set aside certain times of day for rituals (greeting the morning sun), blessings (before each meal) and reflection (the quiet hour before sleep). Constant contact with these higher states brought them inner peace and outer joy, as well as the strength to rise to the challenges of everyday life. A visit to Armstrong Woods is less like a “vacation” and more like a holiday — meaning “holy day” — a time that exists outside normal life, filled with energies that foster recharging, regeneration, and reconnection.
Standing 300 feet and aged a sprightly 1,400 years, the tree named for Colonel Armstrong is the oldest one in the grove — it’s also still thriving, proving that, for redwoods at least, perhaps life really does begin at 1,400. Gazing up at this mighty sentinel is like standing before a great master summoned to teach you valuable life lessons, be it about resilience, hopes and dreams forgotten along the way, or adventures yet undertaken.
Only you will know what the colonel’s tree will whisper, because its words of wisdom are meant for you and you alone.
Other Soulful Adventures
This trip through Sonoma County's Petrified Forest is just one of a series on soulful travel. For other experiences, visit our Soulful Travel page.
Remember the Leave No Trace Principles
Written by Christian Chensvold