Wednesday, March 9, 2022

Sonoma Mountain via Beauty Ranch

Mount Diablo and San Pablo Bay
8 miles round trip, 1700 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Jack London State Historic Park entrance fee required

This hike in California's Wine Country travels through Beauty Ranch, a property where writer Jack London lived out his later days, to reach the publicly accessible high point on Sonoma Mountain where there are lovely views of the Wine Country and San Pablo Bay. While the hike is unable to reach the summit of Sonoma Mountain, which is currently off limits to the public, the scenery en route to the viewpoint is still fantastic and I enjoyed this opportunity to learn about one of the many great American writers who called the Bay Area home. The opening mile of this hike visits a number of interesting sites related to Jack London's time at Beauty Ranch, while the latter three miles are a pleasant uphill climb along an old road trace to the open grasslands at the high point. This hike is best in spring, when the grass on Sonoma Mountain is green and the weather is mild.

I visited Jack London State Historic Park and hiked up to Sonoma Mountain on a pleasant and clear March day. The state park is not far from the city of Sonoma; from Sonoma, I followed Arnold Dr north to the village of Glen Ellen, where I made a left turn onto London Ranch Road in front of Jack London Lodge. I followed London Ranch Road just over a mile uphill to the entrance kiosk of Jack London State Historic Park; after paying the entrance fee and entering the park, I turned right at a four-way intersetion and parked in the large day use parking lot.

I started the hike on a wide gravel service road that led from the parking lot slightly uphill for a hundred meters to the ranch buildings at Beauty Ranch.

Most Americans know Jack London primarily as a prolific writer who gave voice to the European Americans settling the American West, turning his Klondike Gold Rush experiences into Call of the Wild, White Fang, and To Build a Fire. London was actually- as most human beings tend to be- a far more complicated figure. For starters, Beauty Ranch was actually London's primary focus late in his life: the writer noted that in his last decades he wrote primarily to finance the development of the ranch and its unorthodox (in the context of European American settlers in early 20th century California) farming methods. 

Among these unorthodox ideas was London's garden of spineless prickly pear, which were grown as an alternate form of cattle feed. Stone sheds and a barn stood next to the prickly pear patch a small meadow, with Jack London's cottage lying just beyond the barn. 

Ranch buildings and the spineless prickly pear garden near the Jack London Cottage
The stone foundations of the old winery building stand right next to the Jack London Cottage. It is obvious that this was once a large structure: initially a winery, the Londons converted it into lodging for the help on the ranch. The ruins of the old winery still overlook a vineyard today. The winery building unfortunately burned down in 1965.

Sonoma Mountain rising over the vineyard and the remnants of the winery building
The Old Winery is far from the only building on Beauty Ranch to have suffered a conflagratory fate. When London and his wife Charmian first acquired Beauty Ranch, he wrote an essay "The House Beautiful" describing his idealized abode that would blend utility and beauty. While the couple moved into the cottage that today stands next to the winery, London designed the Wolf House according to the principles and ideals that he had set out. The stone and wood mansion was nearly complete, with the Londons set to move in, when Jack's dream house burned down in a 1913 fire. The loss of the Wolf House devastated London, who died just three years later. Jack would end up spending most of his late life living in this humble cottage; Charmian later moved into the House of Happy Walls, which was not completed until after Jack's death.

Vineyards and the Jack London Cottage
At a quarter mile from the trailhead, I came to the junction with the trail to Pig Palace, which led off to the right. I followed this short spur trail, which led me briefly up a hill to the odd structure of Jack London's Pig Palace. The Pig Palace was London's upgraded pig pen, an expensive structure meant to minimize labor while providing improved quality of life for his hogs. The central masonry feed tower is today still surrounded by a broken ring of pig stalls; the relatively humane conditions of the Pig Palace compared to pig pens past and present reflect London's progressive views on animal rights at the time.

Pig Palace
After checking out the Pig Palace, I continued along the Pig Palace Trail as it looped back down to the main service road, passing a garden plot and a number of unusual farming and ranching implements that London used. The Pig Palace Trail rejoined the London Lake Trail at 0.4 miles.

The London Lake Trail made its way around the vineyard, which although on a separate tract of private land now was once part of London's Beauty Ranch property. The vineyard- spread out over a sloped hillside- was once site of terraced fields, an influence from Asian agricultural traditions that London brought to Beauty Ranch to try to preserve soil quality. London spent time in Asia in 1904 as a correspondent for William Randolph Hearst's San Francisco Examiner during the Russo-Japanese War, during which he came to appreciate how terraced farming allowed farmers to preserve soil nutrients and allowed for longer-term and more sustainable use of the land. London became quite enamored with many aspects of Japan and wrote favorably of the country, although that opinion didn't extend to immigrants: London's writings from the time echoed the "yellow peril" sensationalism of Hearst's publication.

Mustard blooming in rows between the grapes
Despite his progressivism on animal rights and labor rights, London associated himself with a number of other unfortunate views common in his era; notably, in 1910, when heavyweight champion Jack Johnson won a series of fights that made him the first black boxer to reign atop the boxing world, London persuaded former champion James Jeffries to challenge Johnson as the "Great White Hope." London was undoubtedly a great writer and an important literary figure, but his legacy is complex. Whether it was through his advocacy of the labor movement or his denigration of nonwhite Americans, his views were certainly common for his time; we should wonder, though, if these worldviews became common because of promotion by such a prominent writer.

The service road hugged the borders of the vineyard for a while, passing a junction with the Lake Trail at 0.6 miles. The Lake Trail is a single track alternative to the maintained road trace of the London Lake Service Road; I stuck to the service road but the single track trail will get you to the same place at about the same distance. The service road began a gentle climb past some second growth redwoods as it left the vineyard.

At just over a mile from the trailhead, I arrived at what once must have been the shores of London Lake. I say once, because London Lake no longer has a lakeshore- the lake itself doesn't exist any more, instead replaced by a marshy area from which some substantial bushes are growing. The dam that once held back the lake here still stands and a forest of tall second-growth redwoods rose above the opposite shore of the lake. I followed the trail along the base of the dam to the south side of London Lake and immediately came to a trail junction: the Quarry Trail led straight ahead and the Vineyard Trail branched to the left, while the Mountain Trail headed off to the right. I took the Mountain Trail to continue my journey towards the park high point on Sonoma Mountain.

Dam at what was once London Lake
The Mountain Trail began a gradual ascent through some second growth redwoods, intersecting with the Upper Lake Trail at 1.2 miles. At the junction, I stayed on the Mountain Trail, which turned to the left. Shortly afterwards, the trail entered a small clearing at 1.4 miles, meeting the Old Fallen Bridge Trail; once again, I stayed on the Mountain Trail. 

The Mountain Trail began to climb in earnest now, making a steady ascent with a reasonable grade as it tackled the slopes of Sonoma Mountain. At 1.6 miles, I passed a junction with the New Fallen Bridge Trail to the left and at 2.3 miles, I passed an intersection with the Sonoma Ridge Trail; each time, I stayed on the Mountain Trail. The trail passed through a very pretty second-growth redwood grove at 2.5 miles: this was Deer Camp, a resting spot with a picnic table where no actual camping is allowed. This was one of my favorite spots along the hike: even though the redwoods were second growth, they were extremely straight and tall here and were not uncomfortably closely clustered like many other second growth forests.

Redwoods on the Mountain Trail
Past Deer Camp, the Mountain Trail entered a small and pretty meadow bounded by oak woodlands. At the far end of the meadow, 2.7 miles from the trailhead, I came to a junction between the Mountain Trail and the Cowan Meadow Trail. I stayed left at this fork to continue along the Mountain Trail, which returned to the oak woodlands. One of the steepest stretches of the hike came directly after this junction: the trail began a more direct ascent along the slopes of the mountain, climbing about 400 feet in the next half mile.

Oak woodlands and meadows on the Mountain Trail
At 3.3 miles, the trail emerged from the oak woods at the bottom of a steep, grassy slope; the Mountain Trail came to a four-way intersection here. The way directly forward was blocked off; once a shortcut to the high point at the end of the hike, it is now being restored by the park. The Hayfields Trail led off to the right, heading north and connecting to the trail system in North Sonoma Mountain Regional Park. The Mountain Trail turned left here and followed the base of the grassy hill, providing a brief respite from the otherwise constant uphill climb. The road trace then made a broad turn to the right and began ascending again, returning to the forest before the road trace ended at a gate at the boundary of Jack London State Historic Park, 3.7 miles from the trailhead. Here, I followed the single track Mountain Spur Trail that headed to the right. This lovely single track led up the grassy hillside for the final ascent to the high point.

Final approach through the hayfields to the summit
The Mountain Spur Trail broke out into the open meadows near the summit, with broad views to the east and the south as I completed this final climb. I passed an impressive and gnarled old oak in these grasslands and made a final switchback before reaching the end of the trail at just under four miles from the trailhead.

Oak in the grasslands near the park summit
The trail ended at a bench along the ridge, about two hundred yards away and 50 feet below the true high point of Sonoma Mountain on the other side of a barbed wire fence. Although this high point lacked the 360-degree panorama of Sonoma Mountain's true summit, the views from here were still sweeping and scenic. Sonoma Valley lay below, a patchwork of villages and vineyards with some lovely patches of yellow mustard flowers visible even from the moutains above. The Mayacamas Mountains rose across the valley, with Bald Mountain and Hood Mountain rising at the southern part of the range and the taller peaks of Mount St. Helena and Cobb Mountain in the distance to the north. Hood Mountain looked quite brown, a result of the 2020 Glass Fire that swept through this part of the Wine Country, one of the many fires that has afflicted the region in the past decade. The view to the south extended to twin-peaked Mount Diablo rising on the other side of San Pablo Bay. It is little wonder that Jack London fell in love with this landscape.

Cobb Mountain, Mount St. Helena, Hood Mountain, and Bald Mountain from the park summit
A field of mustard flowers in Sonoma Valley
Mount Diablo and San Pablo Bay from the park summit
As Beauty Ranch is just a short drive from Sonoma, this is a popular hike, especially in the opening mile around the ranch itself. Visiting Beauty Ranch is what differentiates this hike from the many other grassy view hikes in the Bay Area, though, so putting up with some crowds is worth it to learn about Jack London's life and to enjoy this nice hike to the view over the Valley of the Moon.

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