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Armstrong Woods State Reserve

For a New Englander like myself, where buldings from several centuries ago are still visible and often very much in use, California does have a certain youthful quality to it. Houses, businesses, neighborhoods, communities – they don’t evoke the sense that they’ve been around for hundreds of years. Because they haven’t. Which is why I was pretty awed at standing in a grove of ancient redwoods on my most recent hike. They pre-date pretty much every civilized part of this contintent.

In western Sonoma County few miles from Guerneville near the Russian River is the Armstrong Woods State Reserve, which features some very tall trees and some very old trees. It also was an ideal spot to head on Sunday when the temperature was steamy inland. Walking through a grove was cool, serene and bug-free.

Some friends had trekked a six-mile loop through Armstrong Woods a couple of months ago, and because I had missed out since I was out of town, I was eager to check it out. The reviews I had heard was that it wasn’t a long hike, but it was a steep elevation climb up and down over about 6 miles, making it feel like a much longer climb. I headed out there and parked at the visitor center so we could 1. avoid the newly-hiked state park entrance fee (which I felt guilty about much of the day, but it did just go up to $8 thanks to the Depression-like status of CA’s finances…..) and 2. everyone else was parked there and that’s where the trailhead started anyway.

A fairly steep climb greeted us, but seeing several youngsters handling the early part problem-free gave me enough motivation to keep on chugging. Actually, the redwoods only appear at the bottom of the trail when we returned to the valley floor. On the way, there were some fine views of the tops of them and some fog off in the distance (I have yet to NOT see fog off in the distance somewhere during my hikes. Definitely an area hallmark.)

I’m trying to occasionally broaden my botanical knowledge, so on this hike, I was admiring the pepperwood trees, which have a distinct smell and branches that are probably strong enough to thwack something with. I’ve heard that there’s a Pepperwood Preserve elsewhere in Sonoma County that’s worth hiking.

In the grove itself, we encounted the Col. Armstrong Tree, about 1,400 years ago and 300-plus feet tall. Armstrong was a Colonel for the Union Army in the Civil War and became a prominent developer and saw mill operator in Sonoma County. According to historical archives, he was also a close friend of Luther Burbank and spent much of the later years of his life working to protect the grove of redwoods I was standing in. Nearby was the Parson Jones Tree, considered the park’s tallest tree at 310 feet. Or a football field turned vertical, appropriate enough given that this was the last pre-football Sunday for the next 17 weeks. The reserve, a different designation than a state park as it denotes more attention to preserving the contents of the area, in this case the redwoods, is adjacent to Austin Creek State Recreation Area, which hopefully I’ll get to explore soon as well.

At the end of the hike, we detoured a bit to add a couple more miles to the hike and because it was so cool and shaded, we weren’t in a hurry to leave the setting. So, after about four hours and eight miles in total, maybe 1,100 feet climb in elevation and some very old trees that will be standing long after I am, I was ready for my merit badge for the day. (Hopefully those trees will make it another millennium or so. An interesting fact about redwoods is that they apparently have extremely shallow root systems, which is not what I would have expected. So, wind is a threat.)

Oh yeah … Happy Labor Day, comrades.