I’ve seen pictures of California’s massive redwoods and sequoias since I was little, and was always captivated by the idea of these massive trees. So when I realized I was headed to Sonoma Valley for a work trip, I made sure to carve out time to walk among giants—a visit to Armstrong Woods.
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At a little over 800 acres, Armstrong Woods isn’t huge, but it gives you an awesome (and easy) chance to get up close and personal with some of the most amazing and massive trees on the planet…beautiful and towering redwoods.
What’s the difference between redwoods & sequoias?
Great question, and I had the same one! They’re closely related but are definitely different, and both are among the planet’s oldest living things. You can nerd out with the National Park Service, or here are two main things I’d say:
- Size and shape – In generalities, redwoods are taller (the tallest tree in the world) and skinnier, while sequoias (the largest tree in the world) are wider around and don’t taper much.
- Geography – Redwoods are found in northern California near the Pacific coast, while sequoias tend to be in central California along the Sierra Nevadas.
There are lots of different options for hiking in Sonoma—coasts, river, forests, and more. But in my opinion, Armstrong Woods is one of your top three absolute must-dos. And it’s also one of the easiest to get to and perfect for all types of fitness levels and physical situations.
Tips for visiting Armstrong Woods
The park is just north of the Russian River and right outside the cute (and a bit eccentric) little town of Guerneville.
- The visitor center and main parking lot are actually right outside the ranger hut where you pay.
- If you can find parking in this lot or along the road, you can park here and save the $10 entrance (with a 10-minute walk). Personally I like supporting our state and national parks and don’t begrudge them the $10.
- Once you’re inside the gate, the road will split…right will take you to a picnic area with lots of parking, and left will take you on a gorgeous one-lane (two-way) road down to the Armstrong Tree (there are a few shady parking parking spots here). I recommend going left!
- The best scenery and the biggest redwoods in the park are actually along the single-lane (driving) road…the trees along the trails are less impressive.
I stayed at the Sonoma Orchid Inn (a cute B&B) a couple miles down the road, and drove into town every morning for my coffee and pastries. Many people camp as well, and this area also has lots of things like kayaking, canoeing, hiking, and more—besides amazing wineries. It’s only 20-30 minutes to stunning coastal hiking and views as well.
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Note, there is little to NO cell phone service in this area, and I literally didn’t get a single bar while I was in the woods. You need to be prepared ahead of time to not be connected, which can include downloading maps, screenshotting maps and instructions, etc. Pro tip: If you get Google Maps ready to go and start it while you’re on wifi or still have service, it will keep going just fine once you lose service.
Armstrong Woods hiking route ideas
I found this article super helpful, and it also details a couple of much harder (though not necessarily cooler) hikes up the canyon if you’re looking for more difficulty…though I’d recommend just finding some of the challenging coastal hikes in that case.
Overall the walking on the main trails here is SUPER easy, and in most cases wheelchair-accessible. The official website has a lot of other super helpful info (including on trail routes) here.
Colonel Armstrong Tree
I parked at the small lot near the Colonel Armstrong Tree (having turned left once entering the park, then following signs). I tried to follow the instructions in the link above though there were a few places where it wasn’t clear.
First, take the trail from the parking lot to the Colonel Armstrong Tree. It’s the oldest tree in the grove, estimated at around 1,400 years old!
Where to go from here…
From here, stay to the left as you head on up the trail (it splits). I think you’re supposed to be on the Discovery Trail, but the labeling was a bit problematic for me. Keep going along, and then when it intersects with the Pioneer Trail, turn left. This will run right along the road and there are a few very large trees.
You’re roughly headed toward the Day Use parking lot. When you hit the lot, turn around and retrace your steps until you get to that intersection again. At this point, continue straight until the trail crosses a small road (that people drive on). Turn right onto the road and you’ll cross a bridge.
Don’t be afraid of walking on the regular road, just watch carefully for cars. The road has some of the best scenery and is not busy, so I spent quite a bit of time here versus on the walking trails. When you cross the Discovery Trail, it will lead you back to the Colonel Armstrong Tree, to your car.
Otherwise you can just stay on the main road and follow the signs to the tree. All of these distances are short, so going the “wrong” direction, doubling back, or just meandering and getting a bit lost aren’t a problem…it’s not like you’ll accidentally hike 10 miles trying to find your way back!
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It’s really difficult to truly capture how massive these trees are with your camera, but having people for scale helps.
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The first time I visited Armstrong Woods was on my own, but then a few days later I came with my work colleagues. We fit 20 people into this tree, with room to spare!
The park does a good job of providing some education or history, without making it feel touristy. Even with the paths and the fences, the park still feels very organic, like you’re just hiking in the woods (which…you are).
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I love this thing!!! It’s like Mother Nature’s version of the Iron Throne. But again, without people on it it’s hard to tell just how massive it is—so I enlisted my co-workers to demonstrate.
We also got to have a special experience, a champagne picnic in the woods. WE SO FANCY. I’d hazard a guess that this was by special permit (so don’t just roll up here with your alcohol and think it’s good), but you can apply for a special permit on the official site. Lots of people have their weddings here, even.
There are a ton of great options for hiking in Sonoma, but I think Armstrong Woods is one of the most special. It’s easy and doesn’t require any real planning or much time. You’d be crazy not to take an hour or two here!
Other mind-blowing hikes you’ll love:
- Redwoods & Rainbow Hot Springs: New Zealand’s North Island
- Hiking Oregon’s Stunning Trail of Ten Falls
- Views for Days: Hiking the Quiraing on the Isle of Skye
- Hiking the Hooker Valley Track on New Zealand’s South Island
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