Family Hike and Picnic at Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen

March 18, 2014

Jack London State Historic ParkLast weekend, we visited one of our favorite outdoors spots in the Bay Area, Jack London State Historic Park. Located in the small Sonoma Valley town of Glen Ellen, it's about a 45-minute drive north from Marin, and it's a great destination for a family outing.

The park is made up of land that was at one time the Beauty Ranch owned by renowned writer, social reformer, early sustainable agriculture advocate, and rabble-rouser Jack London (1876–1916), author of classic adventure tales like The Sea Wolf, The Call of the Wild, and White Fang. Jack London State Historic Park is always a destination for us in early spring—the wildflowers are in bloom, the weather is cool and clear, and it's breathtakingly beautiful.

Nestled at the foot of Sonoma Mountain, the park is full of stunning scenery, historic buildings, and short easy hikes that are perfect for families. There are also longer treks available for those who don't have kids in tow.

London cottagepicnic area

Jack London State Historic Park has undergone some upgrades in the last few years, too. Jack London's cottage and its outbuildings haves been totally refurbished and now function as a museum, with rooms decorated in period style and filled with objects used by London and his wife Charmian.

There's also a larger house, the House of Happy Walls, that was built by Charmian after Jack's untimely death at age 40 in 1916. The House of Happy Walls also serves as a museum, park headquarters, and bookstore. There's a kiosk with historic films and images of the ranch, as well as live music played by a park volunteer on Charmian's Steinway grand piano upstairs. Both houses are filled with mementos of the London's travels, especially in the South Pacific, are definitely worth a visit.

Jack London State Historic ParkJack London State Historic Park

The park is split into two halves, the lower ranch, which includes the House of Happy Walls and the ruins of Wolf House, and the upper ranch, which includes the bulk of Beauty Ranch and the Londons' cottage. Opportunities for great walks and hikes abound in both places, but we usually bear right and head to the upper ranch first when we visit the park. We picnic at one of the sunny picnic tables on the cottage grounds, and then hike along the vineyards up to the Pig Palace.

Jack London State Historic ParkBarn at Jack London State Historic Park

Also at the upper ranch are the ruins of the winery that occupied the land before it was purchased by London, as well as numerous farm buildings and equipment. Miles of trails criss-cross the area, too. Kids get a kick out of the old horse-drawn wagons and farm equipment, as well as the so-called Pig Palace, a technologically advanced (for the 1910s) piggery built by London.

Historic buildings and sites are well-marked by didactic panels that feature informative descriptions as well as period photos.

Pig PalaceJack London State Historic Park

If you're up for a longer walk with the kids, the half-mile hike up to the lake, with its historic bath house, majestic redwood trees, and stone dam built by London in 1913, is easy and rewarding. Miles of additional trails wind their way further up the mountain, for those in seek of even more hiking trails.

Jack London State Historic ParkJack London State Historic Park

To the left of the entrance kiosk, you'll find the lower ranch. This is a good place to start your visit if you're a newcomer to the park, with the museum in the  House of Happy Walls serving as a great introduction to Jack London's life, work, and travels. We usually visit after we hike around the upper ranch. After touring the museum, head out on the trails that lead to Jack and Charmian London's grave site and the ruins of Wolf House.

The grave site is a large moss-covered boulder in a peaceful grove of oaks and manzanitas. Close nearby is Wolf House, which was to be Jack London's grand mansion—until it mysteriously burned down in 1913, only days before he and his wife were to move in. Much of the imposing house, made from locally quarried volcanic rock, is still standing. It would have been an amazing structure had it survived.

Rumors abound about the source of the Wolf House fire. Arson was strongly speculated by some, but the more likely and less sensational theory is that it was due to spontaneous combustion from some linseed oil-soaked rags piled by workmen in a corner.

Jack London State Historic ParkJack London State Historic Park

The hike to both sites ends up being about a mile-and-half round trip, and is mostly shaded by oak, bay, and Douglas fir trees. If that distance seems too long, you can always hitch a ride on the Wolf House Express, a free golf-cart shuttle that makes regular trips to the Wolf House site via a fire road.

If You Go

Jack London State Historic Park is open daily from March 1–November 30 from 9:30 am–5 pm. During the winter (December 1–February 28), it's open Thursday–Monday. There is a $10 per car entry fee. It's well worth it, and the friendly park volunteers are happy to share tips and stories about the park with you.

The House of Happy Walls museum is open from 10 am–5 pm. The London Cottage is open from noon–4 pm; there's an entry fee of $4 for adults and $2 for seniors 62+ and students 13–17 (children 12 and under are admitted free).

At the lower parking lot you'll find picnic tables, restrooms, and drinking water. The upper ranch area has a large picnic area just past the parking lot with drinking water, charcoal grills, and picnic tables. There's also a group picnic area here available by reservation. Restroom facilities at the upper ranch are limited to porta-potties in the parking lot and near the picnic area.

Bottled water is available for sale in the cottage and the House of Happy Walls, although you can fill your water bottles at the picnic areas. There's no food available on-site, but you can buy sandwiches and snacks at Glen Ellen Market, located on Arnold Drive just before you turn off to go to the park. There are also a few restaurants in Glen Ellen.

We picked up some sandwiches and beef jerky for lunch at Angelo's Wine Country Deli, a fantastic little hole-in-the-wall located just south of Sonoma on Highway 121, close to the Schellville airport and across from Gloria Ferrer winery (you can't miss it—there's a life-size fiberglass cow on the roof).

Jack London State Historic ParkJack London State Historic Park

Park offerings include docent-led walks, lectures, and even a summer Broadway Under the Stars series. The park also offers rentals for weddings and corporate events, and they were even filming a commercial when we were there last year.

The park allows on-leash dogs in many areas, and bicycles and horses are permitted on some trails. There's an outfit that offers guided horseback trail rides at the park during the summer. For more information, call the park at (707) 938-5216 or visit jacklondonpark.com.

To get there From Marin take 101 north to the Highway 37 exit in Novato. Head east on 37, and then turn left onto Highway 121/Arnold Drive at Sears Point. Follow Arnold Drive north through El Verano and the Sonoma Developmental Center until you get to Glen Ellen. In downtown Glen Ellen turn left onto London Ranch Road, just after Glen Ellen Market and before the Jack London Lodge motel. Follow London Ranch Road up the mountain until you get to Jack London State Historic Park. The park is located at 2400 London Ranch Road.