Camino de Sonoma: An ecumenical walk through history and Northern California

By Emma Johanningsmeier

For years, people have walked the so-called California Missions Trail, which ends at Mission San Francisco Solano, the northernmost of the state’s Franciscan missions and the last one built. Now, there’s a new trail picking up where the old trail ends – both literally and symbolically.

The Camino de Sonoma, an ecumenical grassroots initiative launched in 2019, is a 75-mile walking route through Sonoma County that connects Mission San Francisco Solano with the Russian Orthodox chapel at Fort Ross, which dates from the same period. Originally conceived by longtime Protestant pastor turned community organizer Adam Peacocke, it draws on the rich tradition of Christian pilgrimage, incorporates wisdom from the local native tribes and centers around reconciliation and healing – with God, with ourselves and with one another.

“Something really powerful can happen when we walk alongside people,” Peacocke said. “Practically every time we walk, we see people who would probably be tearing each other apart on social media actually developing a relationship on the trail together. There’s something about walking together. When we walk prayerfully and purposefully, amazing things happen.”

Divided into six stages, each of which can be done in a day, the route is “like a commuter Camino,” according to Stephen Morris, who works for the Diocese of Santa Rosa and has handled outreach to the local Catholic community. (The diocese isn’t officially involved in the initiative.) Although some people have walked all 75 miles in one go, most of the 65 people who’ve completed the entire Camino have done so piecemeal. As of late June, around 200 people had walked at least one stage.

Passing through Santa Rosa, Sebastopol and Occidental, the route covers beautiful and varied terrain – everything from vineyards to farmland to foothills. At the end of stage 5, in Jenner, it joins up with the Russian River. The final stage runs along the coast.

For now, the route isn’t marked. For those interested in following it on their own, it’s on Alltrails. However, people are strongly encouraged to join a guided walk to get the full Camino experience, which Peacocke calls “organized and intentional.”

Each day’s walk opens with introductions, Scripture and a prayer. As the day proceeds, volunteer guides discuss the geography and history of the land they’re passing through. They point out the sites of Indian villages, talk about the Luther Burbank house in Santa Rosa and discuss wildlife and ecosystems. Blending native spirituality with Christian insights, they talk about good stewardship and responsibility for the earth. They invite pilgrims to reflect on what God is cultivating in them and what they’re cultivating in their lives. In some places, they connect inner to outer terrain – for example, by talking about watersheds in the foothills and watershed moments in one’s life.

Some people come to the Camino carrying a personal wound, like the loss of a loved one. “In the culture of pilgrimage there’s a phrase, ‘The way is made by walking,’” Morris said. “Whatever someone’s going through, the way to go forward is to walk it out. People are walking with us and they’re receiving healing. It’s pretty powerful.”

Woven into the Camino, too, is hope for healing from the legacy of colonialism. Since local tribes traded with Spaniards and Russians alike, the Camino organizers believe the first people to travel the route were local Native Americans. In designing the guided walks, they’ve intentionally aimed to honor their memory. One way they do that is by inviting each walker to choose a name from the memorial to the Indians who died at the Sonoma mission and “prayerfully” carry it with them.

Members of the Coast Miwok and Kashia Pomo tribes have provided valuable input. “These are tribal members who share a Christian faith, so that’s been a bridge that’s made that possible,” Peacocke said. “Tribal members have walked portions of the Camino with us, and we’ll have some that will be with us in Sonoma, to pray before we leave, or to be at Fort Ross to welcome us as we arrive. That’s been a very special thing.”

The all-volunteer initiative is still in “startup mode,” but an enthusiastic community has already grown up around it. Guided walks, which are open to people of all faiths or none, are publicized via an e-newsletter and typically attract 15 to 20 walkers. Groups interested in organizing their own visit to the Camino are welcome to get in touch, Peacocke said.

Morris leads Catholic pilgrimages on the Camino with Deacon Dave Gould, a retired state park ranger. They’ve identified 12 saints that it “makes sense” to celebrate on the Camino, including St. Rose of Lima, patroness of their diocese, and St. Junípero Serra, founder of the mission system and a prolific walker. For his feast day in July, they attended a morning Mass at the mission, then set out on the trail.

Camino leaders insist they haven’t designed the pilgrimage out of thin air but have simply engaged with a story that’s older and larger than them – both on a local and cosmic level.

“A huge part of the journey has been just really believing that there’s a bigger story here that’s meaningful, that we’re being invited into,” Peacocke said. “Whatever reason people might come to walk, whatever the impact of their own story might be, the walk really is inviting people into something that truly is rich. There really is something here of value.”

Johanningsmeier is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Photo courtesy of Stephen Morris.