Lost in Jack London
A quiet and watery spring hike
One of the reasons hiking has become one of my favorite activities is it's a very inexpensive hobby. To go to any of the hiking spots in and around Sonoma Valley you usually only have to spend money on a gallon or two of gas and a small parking fee.
A lone stone cherub, with finger raised to its lips, keeps vigil over a grave in a children's cemetery overrun by hay and grasses, green after a wet winter and spring. A quiet always pervades this portion of the hike, as if the angel's request for reverential silence is perpetually honored.
Past the cherub, I hear a rustle and then bird call in the chaparral scrub next to the road. I stop and watch a lone spotted towhee moving through the brush. With a black head, black and white wings and a chest of white and copper feathers, it stands out against the gray of the branches. It is the first of many birds I see on my hike. Farther up the road I see an American robin, red breast puffed out, showcasing its plumage and voice for a prospective mate atop lichen-covered branches.
Abandoned by humans most months, Camp Via's only residents are a family of rodents that run off as soon as they hear me clambering up the road. A loud male turkey gobbles past. Eventually I see two California ground squirrels scurrying along the side of the main building, only to escape into a burrow before I get any pictures. Within the boundary of the state park, yards away from where I sat on a bench in camp via, a rusty cart rests uselessly in a derelict apricot orchard.
There are an abundance of trails and a lack of trail markers that makes navigating much of Jack London State Park difficult. To make matters worse, the map at the state park's web site does not cover the entire park. Even with the aid of a map or general knowledge of the area, you should add at least a half an hour to however long you think your outing will take.
There are two marked trails into the park near Camp Via—the apricot tree trail and plum tree trail. If you want to hike up to the park's summit, take the apricot tree trail. If it is the Dragon Tree you want to see, take the plum tree trail. Called "Ancient Redwood" on the park maps, the Dragon Tree might have earned its moniker due some of the lower boughs of the tree, which ascend like a gnarled auburn staircase out from the main trunk. From a certain angle, they resemble a Chinese dragon.
Entering a depression in the historic orchard filled with blackberry bushes, I startle a group of California quail. Sounding more like helicopters than birds, their wings beat furiously as the quail retreat from the sound of my advancing steps.
Once I cross into the park, I see only one person, who rides by on her white horse six times trying to find her way out of the park. The lack of any other human activity make it a very peaceful hike, embedded deep in redwood, madrone and black oak trees. The most frequent sounds I hear are water dripping from overladen leaves, or rushing down the hillsides underneath a bed of fallen trees.
Views along the hike up Sonoma Mountain are scarce as rain clouds and fog obscure all but the faintest of glimpses of Sonoma Valley. Even with the lack of a good view, it’s still beautiful approaching the summit as green meadows contrast the grey of the clouds; valley oaks faded in out and of view as the fog rolls down the mountain side. Sitting alone in a fairy ring (the official name for a single cluster) of Coastal Redwoods, I wait out a particularly heavy shower.
Jack London State Historic Park is in one respect a microcosm of Sonoma Valley: the terrain has been altered in some places for agriculture, while the rest has been allowed to remain uncultivated and uncleared. As a former ranch donated to California by Jack London's widow to preserve his legacy, it can be potentially be much more than just another place to hike, ride horses or learn about a famous author. Without knowing the reasons why the orchards have been neglected or why the trails and Camp Via (which is managed by SDC) are in such dismal shape, it’s a shame such a beautiful spot has slipped into disrepair.
With legs tired after the hike—as well as a desire for warm clothes and a warm meal—I decide not to walk all the way down to see much more of what Jack London built than London Lake. Even without walking past the surviving structures, I understand exactly why he chose this spot for his ranch. The mountain, with its lush vegetation, and abundant wildlife, must have seemed like the ideal spot for London to spend the rest of his life.
On the way back to my car I encountered a group of hikers who ask me how to get back to the main parking lot at the state park. One man who describes how I too feel about then park when he says, "We’re not lost; this place isn't that big. It's just that we don't know how to get to where we want to go." I do my best to point them in the right direction, but as I’ve been turned around earlier myself, there isn’t too much I can do.
Stephen Cosgrove is a Valley native who has a passion for enjoying the local terrain by foot, bike, tent and most recently—longboard. Join him here as he journeys forth into the Wine Country wilds and embarks on greater Bay Area excursions. You can read more at his blog