Where to see giant redwoods in Sonoma County
In today’s fast-paced world, standing next to a living being that’s more than a thousand years old can be unexpectedly quieting.
Luckily for us in Sonoma County, that experience is within fairly easy reach.
Several native tree species here, like the black oak and Douglas fir, can live for five, even 10 human lifespans. But by far the eldest trees are sequoia sempervirens, the coast redwoods.
In a few local spots, some trees have managed to survive nearly 2,000 years, despite millenia of flood and fire and more than a century of axe and chainsaw.
Several of the leviathans are easily accessible by car or a moderate hike. Here are the stories of four of the oldest redwoods in Sonoma County and their locations. Ask them about aging well, standing tall or the very nature of time. And maybe take away a reminder that a slow pace has its own rewards.
Colonel Armstrong tree, Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve
Estimated age: 1,400 years old
The gigantic Armstrong tree is actually named for the man who spared its life.
Colonel James Armstrong managed to survive the carnage of the Civil War - he volunteered to fight, twice - before striking out for the Pacific coast where he replanted his family in the lush forested landscape of present-day Sonoma County. Starting in 1874, the veteran threw himself into a succession of frontier opportunities, including a lumber mill.
Armstrong was among many who discovered, as the Gold Rush waned and California grew, another valuable resource for the taking: the virgin trees growing tall and thick among the coastal ridges and canyons. The resulting redwood “wood rush” consumed entire forests to supply beams and planks for buildings, fences, roof shingles and millions of wooden ties for the expanding railroads.
The reason the tree bearing Armstrong’s name is still standing in a canyon near Guerneville is due to the colonel’s wide-eyed awe of the redwoods, completely out of step with his times.
He deliberately kept his steel saws out of one remote, shaded canyon of his land, now the Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve, to spare a stand of particularly magnificent redwoods. Unlike the surrounding forest - Guerneville was originally called “Stumptown” because that’s all that remained on the hillsides and canyons - Armstrong decided to preserve the grove as a botanic park for future generations.
It almost didn’t happen. But thanks to one dedicated heir, members of the LeBaron family (friends of the Armstrong family who had bought part of the land) and decades of public support and agitation, the ancient grove is still standing.
The Armstrong tree is located a half mile from the park entrance, along an easy, level trail. As a bonus, stop by the Parsons tree, nearly as old as the Armstrong tree, but the undisputed tallest redwood in the park at 310 feet.
Grandmother tree, Jack London State Historic Park
Estimated age: 1,800 years old
Most visitors to Jack London State Historic Park, named for the famed author, aren’t aware of the gnarled, ancient redwood that graces a quiet slope.
Unlike the towering, stately Armstrong tree, the Grandmother tree is shaped like a multi-armed candelabra. That may be why it’s still alive.
On reason redwood lumber is highly valued is because the trees grow tall and straight, making them easier to fell, haul and mill than other trees.
The east side of Sonoma Mountain, where the Grandmother tree stands, was once thickly forested with redwoods.
According to local author, historian and ecologist Richard Dawson, the Grandmother tree likely was spared by homesteader William Thompson, who had settled on the land, simply because it wasn’t worth cutting down.
The arching, many-branched Grandmother may have taken on its unusual shape after a lightning strike or fire severely damaged its main trunk, encouraging side growths.
By the time Jack London acquired the property in 1905, the land had been worked hard and most of the forest had been cut.
The author and his wife labored for years to create an advanced and sustainable agricultural project, their Beauty Ranch, much of which is now protected as Jack London State Park where the Grandmother tree resides.
The Grandmother is accessible from the Vineyard trail, a moderate 2-mile hike from the main parking area.
McApin tree, Harold Richardson Redwoods Reserve
Estimated age: 1,640 years old
The tree’s location, on property about 40 miles west of Geyserville, is not open to the public - yet. But the Save the Redwoods League said in 2018 it plans to open the reserve as a park in a few years.
Far up Haupt Creek, a tributary of the Gualala River, sits a grove of ancient redwoods which until recently was privately held and relatively secret.