On horseback through Beauty Ranch
Gus and Tony's excellent trail ride
Tony is a 30-year-old Thoroughbred with a lengthy résumé and a fondness for pears. I'm a former cowboy (I rode with the Lone Ranger, Lash Larue, and Zorro when I was seven), and I've owned a few horses, although my saddle time has dwindled as my years advance.
Gus is an eight-year-old gelding owned and ridden by Chuck Levine, who also owns Tony and is a former Sprint PCS executive with a retirement home that borders Jack London State Park.
That proximity, and the fact that Chuck is also a mounted docent who patrols the park several times a week and has had horses since he was eight, makes him the logical partner for a late-fall foray into the forested trails of what was once the Beauty Ranch where Jack wrote and farmed for the last 11 years of his remarkably full and short life.
Following trails London himself once traveled, I tagged along with Chuck, who can ride from his barn straight past London's Pig Palace and into literary and agronomical history. There are 10 miles of trails in the park, with more under development, and they web the side of Sonoma Mountain through stands of oak, madrone, Douglas fir, bay laurel, eucalyptus, and redwood.
Chuck had me clean Tony's hooves before we rode, so I knew he wasn't foundered, which made it easier for me to let a horse his age have his head and charge occasionally through the trees. You don't want a 30-year-old Thoroughbred collapsing in the middle of a canter.
We worked our way up Lake Trail to the four-acre pond London built as a respite from the rest of the world. There was once a boardwalk over the water, along with a bathhouse that still stands. Jack and his wife Charmian used the lake to entertain guests. It was an idyllic spot for riding, hiking, swimming, and lying about as sunlight filtered through the branches of surrounding trees.
But today the lake is clogged with sediment, choked with algae and the rock dam impounding the water leaks like a sieve. It will take more than a million dollars to repair the dam and restore the lake, but a volunteer organization-the Jack London Lake Alliance (www.jacklondonlake.org)-is trying to raise the money and is at least 15 percent of the way there.
From the lake, Chuck led us along the Quarry Trail to the Fallen Bridge Trail and through a 600-acre section acquired from the Sonoma Developmental Center in 2002 that contains what may be the largest and oldest redwood in all the Sonoma Valley.
The tree stands in a hollow a short walk off the trail, hidden from casual view and almost invisible but for the mass of its crown extending through the canopy. Redwoods this size were once commonplace throughout the county, but early logging took most of the giants and seeing this one, its massive, fire-scarred trunk festooned with gnarled limbs, was a special treat. It made me wonder if Jack himself had ever stood here in silent awe.
Past the ancient tree we rode down to the shore of Fern Lake, an SDC impoundment nestled at the edge of park property. From there we took the Vineyard Trail, bordering a blanket of golden grapevines radiating the colors of fall.
Tony knew we were on the return leg, and when the single-track widened enough he broke into spontaneous canter, carrying me with surprising energy, given his years, up one steep ascent after another. The trail system is intricate and wooded enough that most of the way you want to keep your horse to a walk. But there are several open lengths where it's safe to extend into a run as long as you stay alert for the deadfall that frequently block the trail.
Friendly hikers moved one fallen branch out of our way, and Chuck and I had to dismount once to lead our horses over the trunk of a sizable fallen fir.
I'm guessing we covered about five miles in an hour and a half, an easy ride with the singular advantage that home for these horses was a comfortable paddock mere minutes from the park boundary.
If you bring your own horses there's an equestrian staging area in the upper parking lot right of the entrance kiosk. Well-marked trail maps indicate where horses can and cannot go.
And within a short drive are two other premier parks with miles of riding trails. Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, just off Highway 12 in Kenwood, has 25 miles of trails, and its own seasonal horseback concession, run by Triple Creek Horse Outfit, which also does guided rides at Jack London.
Annadel State Park, with Sonoma Valley access off Schultz Road, has about 20 miles of multi-use trails ideal for horseback. There's an equestrian staging area on Channel Drive with information kiosks and trail maps.
It's a common equestrian complaint that there isn't enough accessible open space available for horseback discovery. That may be true, but in this trio of spectacular parks, decorated with redwoods, oak, and madrone with views that stretch to the distant bay, trail riders can at least enjoy the illusion of turning back time.
As we brushed down the horses at Chuck Levine's barn and slipped them some pears from an historic orchard alongside the trail, I was struck by the thought that riding through Beauty Ranch today was not so different from 100 years ago when Jack London first worked the land. I can't say I felt his spirit touch me, or that I heard his voice in the wind.
But I will say that I understood his vision and the dream that brought him here. It was a good dream, appropriate for the back of a horse, and it endures.
Triple Creek Horse Outfit can be reached online at www.TripleCreekHorseOutfit.com. For information about trails and rides in Annadel State Park, call 707.539.3911.
From the winter 2008 issue of SONOMA