Alliance Redwoods Builds Spiritual Bridges in Sonoma County

It’s possible to meet God among the trees on the outdoor adventure of a lifetime. Just ask Jim Blake, executive director of the Alliance Redwoods Conference Grounds in Occidental, California.

Blake and his team at Alliance Redwoods build bridges between the community and the Creator, opening up a new perspective of faith for thousands of visitors every year. Although some of Blake’s guests are Christian, many are not, and Alliance Redwoods offers them an opportunity to encounter God and his Word without judgment.

“We’re speaking to the spiritual nones,” says Blake. “They’re spiritual, not religious, so this is a safe place for them to come.

“This is a safe place for people who are post-evangelical or spiritual nones with a spiritual hunger. We call it a place of re-creation.”

Using Psalm 19 and the idea of God’s self-revelation through his creation, Alliance Redwoods takes visitors on an unforgettable journey through the treetops. Along the way, Scripture displayed on distinctive Route 66-style signs (a clever callback to the famous highway and parallel to the Bible’s 66 books) creates opportunities for visitors to ask questions and ponder their faith.

Faith and Exploration

Founded in 1946, Alliance Redwoods has served as a sacred space of restoration and renewal where visitors encounter the Creator through his creation. Families, children and people from all backgrounds have traveled from near and far for over 75 years to experience the wonder of God’s world in Sonoma County. This immersive nature experience is owned and operated by the Christian and Missionary Alliance, and offers itself as a bridge between God and the outside world—a proverbial “bridge to life.”

Alliance Redwoods covers 117 acres and welcomes a total of roughly 50,000 visitors from all faith backgrounds every year. Many of these visitors are students and at-risk youth. Others include church and corporate groups, families and those looking to experience the majesty of California’s coastal redwood forests.

Visitors to Alliance Redwoods experience “Service as Tall as Our Trees” and positive interactions with Christ-followers. Along the way, they’ll encounter pieces of Scripture and symbolism, which have served as inspiration for thousands of visitors over the decades. According to Blake, countless visitors, including his daughters, “experience life transformation at camp (the camp’s vision) and hundreds come to Christ here annually.”

There are currently two experiences available to daily visitors: Sonoma Zipline Adventures and Sonoma Treehouse Adventures. The zipline experience features two courses, which include eco tours, eight sky bridges, 14 ziplines, forest-floor rappelling, and an incredible spiral stairway. For visitors who would like to spend the night in the forest, the Sonoma Treehouse Adventures experience features an overnight treehouse stay between ziplines.

Visitors to the treehouse experience can also enjoy forest bathing on the Wander and Ponder Trail. The concept, known as shinrin-yoku in Japan, revolves around meditating and spending slow, contemplative time in the forest. Forest bathing has been scientifically proven to have beneficial effects for the body, and at Alliance Redwoods, visitors can take time to pray, meditate, think and relax. Eight stations are placed along the trail, where one can sit still in the peace of the forest, unplugged from the buzz of the modern world.

Blake and his team have incorporated not only Scripture, but spiritual analogies along the way. My favorite example is the story of the ghost redwood, or “albino redwood,” on the property (whose location is undisclosed). These incredibly rare trees draw the toxins and heavy metals from the surrounding environment, creating a healthier place for the redwoods to thrive.

“In effect, the ghost redwood gives us life back,” says Blake. “Jesus says, ‘I am the Good Shepherd. I lay down my life for my sheep.’ That’s what a ghost redwood does.

“And when you see a redwood tree start to struggle, other trees shoot up from the same genome of the mother tree as support. It’s a community, just like a spiritual community.”

A Safe Space

Alliance Redwoods is so much more than an adventure destination—it also serves the surrounding community in a variety of ways. The camp operates in part on donations, and in part on revenue generated from conferences, retreats and adventurers who visit the zipline and treehouse experiences.

Thousands of disadvantaged and at-risk youths, whose families might not have been able to afford sending them to camp, have been hosted at Alliance Redwoods. They also host refugees and foster children, working with organizations to help make the excursions affordable. Through local funding from donors and organizations, the camp is sometimes able to gift these experiences.

Alliance Redwoods has played a part in major disaster relief, too. During the Tubbs Fire in 2017, which was one of the largest forest fires in the state’s recent history, it served as the base of operations for over 4,000 firefighters and 100 displaced locals. In the years since, the camp has served as an emergency evacuation shelter for multiple fires, including the Camp Fire in Paradise, California.

Finally, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the camp hosted 200 homeless individuals over a 14-month period. While the ziplines could operate during lockdowns, other aspects of the camp were shut down. Because nearby Santa Rosa’s homeless accommodations were overflowing, Blake chose to open the camp to people who needed a place to stay. At Alliance Redwoods, they were fed and sheltered until lockdowns were lifted and daily life returned to normal.

A Bright Future

Since pandemic lockdowns were lifted, Alliance Redwoods has experienced unprecedented growth and exposure. The camp was featured in an Apple product launch campaign in 2022, as well as an in-flight airline commercial featuring other prominent locations in California, including Disneyland and the Golden Gate Bridge. This incredible reach inspired Blake and his team to begin thinking about how they might expand the camp to accommodate more visitors and experiences.

Previously, my team at PlainJoe: A Storyland Studio and I had worked with Alliance Redwoods to rethink their spatial designs and wayfinding for their themed lodging environment. This time, we went to work imagining what the conference grounds might look like with expanded lodging and offerings for guests. Together, we brainstormed and created concepts for new possibilities, including an all-new nature center, forest cabanas, a hostel for Christian pilgrims walking the Camino de Sonoma (similar to Spain’s El Camino de Santiago), and more.

Blake and his team are even planning an Indigenous peoples’ center to honor the First Nation tribes who originally inhabited these forests. They have established a relationship with some of the First Nation peoples in their immediate area, whose ancestors inhabited the redwood forests long before colonization. They are working together to create a space where visitors can come to learn about how the Indigenous peoples of the region once cared for the land. The specific group he’s working together with is a Christian tribe, but their Indigenous roots go back to an ancient monotheistic faith that runs in close parallel to the biblical creation story.

According to Blake, the tribe’s histories are kept and passed down through oral tradition. He envisions an area of the camp where the First Nation people can share these traditions.

“I want them to tell that story,” he says.

As Blake and his team continue to plan for future growth, they hope to bring church leaders alongside them in their mission to bring people of all backgrounds to Christ through God’s creation.

“We need new, creative and innovative ways to impact the culture around us, rather than hunker[ing] down and build[ing] bigger walls,” he says. “I’m trying to build bridges rather than walls to the community, and we’re honoring the purpose of the church.”

Learn more about Alliance Redwoods at https://allianceredwoods.com/.