The afternoon sun pours thin slices of light through the still redwood grove. Particles of dust—made of decomposed plant material, road dust, tiny insect parts and maybe fairy wings—swirl in and out of the light. The murmur of a family walking a nearby trail fades in and out. Car tires crunch softly. You start to nod off.
“Krraukk! Krraukk! Krrrrrrraukkk!” You’re awake now. The croak of the Common Raven is unlike the excited squawk of its little brother, the crow. A raven is louder than a crow and more commanding than a police dog. When it hollers at you from a perch in a redwood tree, you pay attention. And, if you’re on the valley floor in Armstrong Woods, you’re in Raven Country.
An escape to Armstrong Woods is one of the simpler getaways in Sonoma County’s Great Northwest. Armstrong Woods Road is right off Main Street in downtown Guerneville. If you’re coming into Guerneville from River Road, turn right at the second light and follow the road into the park. You can park your car for free in the parking lot by the visitors center, but if you pay $8 per vehicle ($7 for seniors) you can drive right to a picnic spot.
Hiking in Armstrong Woods ranges from easy to punishing. You can stroll the mile-long Pioneer Trail along the valley floor, you can hike nine miles all the way out of the park and back (while climbing 1,500 feet), or find something in between. The park website lists a few “moderate level” hikes that are a good fit with an afternoon escape.
The primary— and most popular—public area of the park is the valley floor, with big trees, walking paths, picnic areas and a seasonal creek. If you imagine yourself floating over the entrance, you can see a trail that follows a ridgeline along the right side of the valley, and another along the left. Either trail—or both—are the perfect one- to two-hour hour workout.
The East Ridge Trail (on the right) leaves from the parking lot by the visitors center, winds its way along a ridge, and drops you at a large parking lot at the far end of the valley. If you park inside—recommended so you can stake out a good picnic table—walk the nature trail back to the entrance, visit the restroom, and start up the trail.
After a rain or in a light drizzle is a perfect time to hike East Ridge Trail. The woods seem even quieter when they’re wet, and colors are magnified and enhanced. The trail is uneven, with roots, rocks and limbs all seeking to reclaim their space, so resist the temptation to look up the whole time. If you see a particularly inviting vista, just stop and stare; Mother Nature doesn’t mind, and you won’t trip over an exposed root hidden in a shadow.
Do pay attention to the forest, and listen and watch for your wild companions. When you’re walking through oaks and bay laurels, you’ll see and hear more birds. When you’re in the redwoods, your footsteps will be quieter as you walk through fallen needles (known as duff). If the weather has been wet, you’ll learn to spot banana slugs. Yellowish-green with brown spots, Wikipedia claims that the Pacific Banana Slug is the second-largest terrestrial slug in the world and can grow to almost 10 inches long. Most slugs in Armstrong Woods are about half that size. They eat fallen leaves, animal droppings and other natural trash, recycling it all into rich humus.
The hike along East Ridge Trail, and a similar hike along Pool Ridge Trail, takes you up and up, then offers a pleasant traverse along the ridge before dropping you down quickly to the valley floor. You can vary your pace, turning your journey into a stroll or a workout.
Take time to explore the valley floor. The Parson Jones Tree is more than 310 feet tall, the Colonel Armstrong Tree is estimated to be the oldest at 1,400 years-plus, and the Icicle Tree shows off the massive burl formations seen on many redwoods. Stay on the trails. The massive redwoods are healthiest when people aren’t stomping and compressing the soil around them or carving names into their bark. The ecosystem that evolved along with the trees is fragile, and best experienced in the rainy season, when lush ferns and sorrel carpet the undergrowth.
A word about redwood sorrel: the plant looks like particularly vigorous clover, with thin green stems and three-leaved formations. The sorrel you see all over Sonoma County has yellow flowers, but the redwood sorrel here in the park has pink flowers.
As you wander the valley floor, take in the Redwood Theater. When Armstrong Woods became a park in the 1800s, and during the first half of the 20th Century, we had different ideas about parks. The theater was well-used for performances, and similar redwood preserves throughout the state featured saloons, lodges, even dance floors atop massive tree stumps. Nowadays, we like to tread lightly and see nature itself as the attraction. The Redwood Theater is still used for performances once each fall, as the Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods, a conservation group, holds a fundraising event in the theater, but it’s mostly a quirky artifact, a quiet place to sit and contemplate or take in an impromptu “performance” by a passing hiker who feels inspired by the old stone stage.
Done wandering and ready to chill? Every good escape mixes activity and relaxation. The picnic areas at Armstrong Woods are scattered around the back half of the valley floor. You can pick a table under a redwood, by the creek, even on a little bluff overlooking the parking area. The ponderous old tables are made from thick lumber, and older picnic sites have stone barbecues where you can light a little fire.
Whether you fuss over picnicking and bring a tablecloth, centerpiece and dishes, or eat your sandwich from the paper in which it’s wrapped, food tastes great under the trees. Armstrong Woods has few varmints; the Sequioa Sempervirens (Coast Redwood) ecosystem is remarkably simple. You might see a few irritated squirrels wondering why there are no nuts on these giant trees, and Scrub Jays will cruise you for handouts, but the dominant wildlife is the raven. One of the smartest birds around, ravens have large territories, so the raven croaking at you while you eat may be half of just a few mated pairs in the park. Do watch for wasps. Known commonly as yellow-jackets, these bee impersonators love picnics, but will often accept an offering of a bit of meat placed on a plate a dozen feet away from your lunch. SD