This hike was donated by Laure Latham, the author of Best Hikes with Kids: San Francisco Bay Area and the force behind the blog Frogmom.com.
Strolling through the oak and redwood-studded hills of the Valley of the Moon, kids would barely know this land was the last refuge of one of America's greatest writers and adventurers. Native of Oakland, Jack London spent the last 11 years of his life on this Sonoma ranch–riding horses, farming, writing, partying and facing several bitter losses. At age 6 and 8, my girls are not old enough to read Jack London but they soon will be. I remember reading White Fang when I was about 10 or 11, it was a gut-gripping story–the Yukon wilderness, the wolf-dog main character, the feeling of being out there. Wow. To introduce my girls to the universe of the writer, I took them to Jack London State Park in Glen Ellen and together we went on a nature photo safari to London Lake.
We parked at the Beauty Ranch parking lot (upper lot) and leisurely started on the main trail that passes the farming area. You will need to save some time to explore it on your way back, it's great fun for little kids. We followed the fire road as it bent right (west) towards the Lake and became Lake Trail. In true Sonoma fashion, the road follows lush vineyards that extend all the way to the foot of the surrounding mountains. We were just passing the spur that leads to the Pig Palace when three horse-riders came by.
This seems like a detail–horse riders, big deal–but at Jack London State Park, horse riders remind me of the only way Jack London ever traveled from place to place. I talked to one of the docents and he believed that Jack London never, ever, hiked on his ranch. He never really used a car either. He rode his horse everywhere. So while you are hiking, consider that this act of walking with a purpose was totally foreign to the hero of the day. The Wolf, as he was known to his friends, would have saddled his horse to join you to the lake.
While on the road, my girls took out their cameras and started their own photo safari. Birds of every feather were the perfect excuse to stop and shoot, as was the trail and even the sky–with more birds in it. The trail took a sharp turn south and we eventually reached a gate where we had a choice to turn right or go straight. We decided to make it a loop and go straight on Lake Service Road. As it happens, Lake Service Road was aptly named and a green park jeep drove past us.
This section of the trail snaked through an oak forest whose trees were covered in miniature moss-like fern. After a short uphill portion, we reached the dam at the edge of the lake. Let me rephrase that: at the edge of the algae-covered pond. Let me rephrase again: at the edge of the soon-to-be marsh or seasonal pond. Sigh. it's drying up. The park ranger was there and we talked about the history of the lake.
What you see now is about a quarter of the original lake and the log cabin along the lake was the bathhouse that Jack London and his guests used to change before taking a dip. In 1916, visitors hiked half a mile from London's cottage to a four acre lake with boardwalk, boat house and barbeque. Today the dam is cracked and leaking, the lake is clogged with sediment and marshy plants and erosion downstream affect the entire Sonoma Creek watershed. See for yourself, you're probably not dying to jump in–neither am I. If you want to see pictures of before and after, check the website of the Jack London Lake Alliance. These folks are trying to save the lake, help them if you can.
The ranger was cool and let our girls climb in his jeep before we continued on our way along the lake. The end was a tad muddy but soon we were crossing a meadow and after turning right on Lake Spur, we entered a redwood grove. Oh the wonders of the coastal fog reach far inland in Sonoma. We turned left onto Lake Trail and came back at the gate, retracing our steps towards Beauty Ranch.
If you have time, let the kids loose in the buildings that form Beauty Ranch. The Pig Palace, the barn with the antique fire engines, the silos, the winery ruins, it's all quite unexpected of a Jack London sanctuary if you've only read his Yukon adventures but for kids it's a pint-size adventure.
On the way, we couldn't resist stopping at the chocolate store inside Jack London Village, Wine Country Chocolates. Every hike should finish on a chocolate tasting, my adventurer self completely approves.