GLEN ELLEN — Wisps of low clouds obscure the stands of young redwoods beyond a rolling vineyard.
The vintage Sonoma countryside before you is more than just a wine lover’s dream.
It harbors a unique California where gentrification, wineries, and bedroom communities tied to crowded highway umbilical cords to San Francisco gave life to the Napa-Sonoma mystique.
This is where just a few years after the dawn of the 20th century an adventurer turned into up and coming writer Jack London sought to escape Oakland. London found inspiration on a run down 130-acre ranch on the eastern slope of Sonoma Mountain.
As London’s literary success grew with the likes of “Call of the Wild”, “White Fang”, and “The Sea Wolf” so did his ranch.
Today the 1,400 acres of stunning Sonoma wilderness London put together and dubbed “The Beauty Ranch” is part of the California State Park System.
Located 20 miles north of Sonoma outside the village of Glen Ellen it is the perfect day to wed with breakfast, lunch or dinner — and even just decadent desserts paired with wines — at nearby unique dining options. There are of course nearby wineries as well including the award winning Benziger Family Winery that has its own stunning locale on Sonoma Mountain.
The lure of Jack London Historic State Park is multi-faceted.
There, of course, are the trappings of the years London lived on Beauty Ranch from 1905 until his death in 1916. They range from his agricultural endeavors, the ruins of his dream home dubbed The Wolf House that went up in flames a day before he was going to move into it, the cottage where he lived, the lake he created, and the ruins of his winery.
There is also the House of Happy Walls.
It is one of the few houses designed not just to live in but also to serve eventually as a museum. London’s widow Charmain had it built in his honor. At 4,720 square feet, it is a smaller and more formal version of London’s dream house. It also was designed to accommodate furniture the Londons had designed and had built specially for the Wolf House.
Charmain lived there from 1935 to 1952.
Today the House of Happy Walls is now the museum London’s wife wanted to honor his life and writings as well as chronicle their adventures.
It is open daily — except Christmas Day — from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
On weekend volunteers play London’s 1901 Steinway piano to help the House of Happy Walls live up to its name.
There are moderate walks/hikes to take in the ranch whether it is browsing through the cottage, enjoying the lake he built that has an adjoining bath house, or visiting his gravesite just below Wolf House.
They range in mileage from 1.2 to 3.4 miles roundtrip and are classified as easy to moderate. The longest includes “The Grandmother Tree” that was spared being harvested when the old growth redwoods were cut down in the 19th century to supply lumber to build San Francisco and nearby cities. Estimated to be 2,000 years old, it is 14 feet in diameter. And unlike other old growth coastal redwoods, “The Grandmother Tree” doesn’t soar to the sky. In fact many new growth redwoods in the park are taller. But it has a whimsical shape that makes the trip worthwhile.
Then there are “the hikes”. In this case even though there are ancillary trails, the two basic are the park summit (8 miles round trip) and Sonoma Ridge (9.5 miles round trip). Both are rated as strenuous.
Though my inclination is go for the most gain which in this case is to reach the park summit at 2,370 feet some 93 feet shy of the actual Sonoma Mountain summit located on private property and therefore inaccessible, hiking Sonoma Ridge is the better of the two when it comes to rewards from the views.
Do not misunderstand me. I enjoyed the views of Sonoma Valley, Bennett Valley, and the Mayacamas Mountains. But the glimpses I got of Mt. Diablo, San Pablo Bay, and Sonoma Valley were more rewarding from the Sonoma Ridge Trail.
At first I wasn’t even going to tackle the park summit trail. That was mainly because research referred to it as being a fire road most of the way.
Based on experience with fire roads and/or ranch roads in other state and regional parks in the greater Bay Area I envisioned it as being wide, hot, and dusty.
But once on it, the fire road had more of a feel of a wider trail with the added bonus of being mostly in the shade with more than a few bends that wend by stands of young redwoods soaring upwards while ferns blanket their bases.
The wildflower season was clearly fading when I visited on a recent Sunday although there were smatterings of fairly robust fields of golden poppies near the park summit that has the added bonus of having a bench.
That said there is still ample flora to inspire between redwoods, gigantic oaks, and the various shades of green foliage that can grow beneath a canopy of shade.
There were a healthy number of birds. I even encountered a buck staring me down briefly in the middle of the trail on the way down from the park summit near a spot London aptly dubbed “Deer Camp”.
Spend a few hours hiking in the higher reaches of the state park or even mill around remnants of his farming operations and his cottage near the parking lots and it doesn’t take long to understand how London could be inspired from living and working on the Beauty Ranch to pen classics such as “Valley of the Moon” when he wasn’t out on some adventure such as working as a war correspondent in Mexico covering U.S. troops and Navy ships in the 1914 Villa-Carranza Revolt.
Of course London had a massive reservoir of experience to draw upon that he mined working the seas, gold seeking in the Yukon Territory, as well as toiling in the fields and factories of Northern California.
The other pluses about Jack London Historic State Park are that it is open to mountain bikers as well as those on horseback. It also connects with the Sonoma Ridge Trail as well as the North Sonoma Mountain Ridge Trail.
There are flush toilets near the museum parking lot as well as chemical toilets by the ranch parking lot and near the gravesite. Water is currently not available at the park although bottles of water are available for purchase at the museum.
There are picnic tables scattered about. It goes without saying social distancing protocols are in effect.
The park is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. There is a $10 per vehicle entrance fee. Hiking maps are an extra $1.
Admission to the House of Happy Walls Museum is included in the park entrance fee.
There is an additional $3 charge for the cottage, while those 12 and under are free. The cottage is open only Friday through Monday from noon to 4 p.m.
For more information on the park go to www.jacklondonpark.com