Sonoma County's Petrified Forest
Sonoma County's Petrified Forest

Soulful Travel: Sonoma County’s Petrified Forest

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Traveling with intention can feed your soul, enrich your life, help you relax, rejuvenate and restore inner peace. Enter soulful travel. Soulful travel is not only about making memories but lasting impressions that inspire and stay with you, and improve your overall health and wellbeing. In Sonoma County, there are many opportunities to travel with this intention.

Here, we help you experience the hidden secrets of Sonoma County’s Petrified Forest, a fascinating grove of majestic petrified redwood giants arrayed before you in beautiful California Wine Country.

Forest This Way Sign

A Forest Like No Other

Calistoga Road runs straight and true through Rincon Valley on the east side of Santa Rosa, before it begins to wind and ascend. Ten minutes later, your imagination starts to awaken, and you feel like you’re in a different part of California — and a different time in the history of the Golden State. Houses become scarcer, and as you reach the summit, you’re weaving through hills densely packed with towering trees. Save for the two-lane road and telephone poles, it seems like the place has hardly changed since the days of prospectors and pioneers who ventured west in search of a perfect plot of land to call their own.

In other words, people like Petrified Charley.

Petrified Charley

“Homesteader” is the polite term for Charles Evans, a Swede who settled atop the hills of Calistoga Road in the mid-19th century. “Squatter” is the impolite term, as men like Charley built their homes without a proper deed. Mysterious forces must have led Evans to choose his particular plot on which to squat, for in 1871, he made an amazing discovery. While digging the soil, he hit stone — a large stone, and one that didn’t look like an ordinary stone.

In fact, the stone had once been a tree, and Evans had uncovered one of the rarest and most fascinating of natural phenomenon, which earned himself a role in the writings of Robert Louis Stevenson, who gave him the nickname Petrified Charley. Today, his homestead goes by the name Petrified Forest, and what a strange and enchanted forest it is.

Forged in Fire

Seven miles from where Charley made his home — easily visible across the valley — is Mount St. Helena, an active volcano in primordial times. Millions of years ago, a massive eruption knocked the surrounding trees flat, then rapidly roasted them in volcanic ash. Everything had to be perfect in order for a secret working of nature to unfold, and the oxygen-deprived environment suddenly halted the bacteria that normally decomposes organic material. Over the following millennia, mineral-rich water percolated through the ash blanket and saturated the pores of the buried trees with silica, which penetrated all the way down to the cellular level. When the water finally evaporated, leaving the minerals in the cells of the trees, it left a 3-D fossil behind through a process called permineralization, preserving the most minute details of what had once been wood, but had now been turned to stone. 

Charley didn’t know all that, of course, but he knew that what he’d stumbled upon wasn’t normal, and he put the word out. Scientists showed up, and sent a piece of the strange stone to Yale University. They eventually determined the fossilized tree to be 3.4 million years old. Robert Louis Stevenson Tree is the original discovered by Charles Evans, and is named for the author who was staying nearby for health reasons, as at the time, it was common for Brits to travel to the ends of the earth in order to breathe a year’s worth of temperate air. Stevenson’s account of Petrified Charley is featured in his book “The Silverado Squatters.”

Ollie Bockee purchased the land in 1914, and her family has owned and managed the Petrified Forest ever since, which maintains a strong commitment to preservation and education.

The trail through the dozen or so trees that were gradually discovered is fairly short and not taxing. It winds through a mixture of sun and shade, and there are scattered benches where you can sit quietly, take in the scenic beauty, and contemplate these prehistoric trees that nature made immortal.

The Petrified Forest

How One Thing Becomes Another

Alchemy is the ancient science whose goal was the creation of the so-called Philosopher’s Stone. It’s an idea that fascinates us to this very day, playing a decisive role, for example, in a book and movie featuring a certain young wizard named Harry Potter. Alchemy was a complex system cloaked in symbols, but those who embarked on the path were able to take their confused and conflicted self and transform it into someone wise, unified, and radiant with enlightenment.

In these frenzied times, we could all use a shot of magic, and Petrified Forest is just the place to put on your metaphoric wizard’s cap and seek out the Philosopher’s Stone. Ancient teachings tell us that everything in the universe strives toward balance and equilibrium, but how many of us feel inner harmony these days? Now more than ever, it’s time to escape from our everyday worries, revitalize ourselves in nature, and transform from a person who feels fragile to someone who feels rock solid.

Since time immemorial, mages and sages — and perhaps even Petrified Charley — knew that nature serves as the ultimate textbook, the key to understanding everything. And that includes how one thing achieves the impossible by transforming into another thing.

Nature’s Hidden Secrets

According to a 1518 book by Marsillius Fincinus (the kind of tome Harry Potter would find hidden deep in the Hogwarts library), “The stone which the philosopher seek is an invisible and impalpable spirit.” The Philosopher’s Stone was a metaphor for an enlightened state in which our body, soul and spirit — or physical, emotional and cosmic life — are perfectly balanced and can never be shattered by external calamities, the very things we tie ourselves into knots worrying about. The so-called Philosopher’s Stone is an inner resilience that makes us indestructible, just like the 3 million-year-old trees of Petrified Forest.

Nature contains many secrets, including operations that on the surface seem to be impossible, but which are based on magical transformations that take place way down at the cellular level.

Freshly recharged with this new point of view — which is actually as timeless as the mysterious stone trees of Northern California — just think what you could do.

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

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 to promote the important message of Leave No Trace, click here.

Written by Christian Chensvold