A Walk in the Park
By Tracy Salcedo
Down in the hollow, a sunbeam illuminated the preternaturally large elk clover blooming beside the path. The creek bed was dry at the crossing, shaded by stands of redwoods. An owl hooted. I stopped and lingered in the coolness, grateful (yet again) for the gift of a beautiful trail on a beautiful mountainside on a beautiful day.
Jack London State Historic Park’s Vineyard Trail, on its reopening day during the Call of the Wild celebration this May, was surprisingly quiet, even though the park was bustling. Clusters of visitors fanned out across Jack and Charmian London’s Beauty Ranch to enjoy music, storytelling, and guided tours. Up by London Lake, park officials cut a ceremonial ribbon and curious walkers set off down the way. Some joined a guide for the inaugural passage; others, like me, took to the trail in their own time.
The Vineyard Trail, which links London Lake to the old orchard in the park’s backcountry, had been closed since December 2021 for improvements, including installation of boardwalks and retaining walls to improve access for all trail users, and widening to accommodate emergency vehicles. The project, which cost about $900,000 and was funded primarily via Prop. 64 cannabis tax dollars, integrated the trail-building skills of crews from state parks and California Conservation Corps with the expertise of environmental scientists, archeologists, and historians, according to a press release. The park plans to improve signage and install hand-laid steps as part of the route’s ongoing rehabilitation.
To reach the Vineyard trailhead proper I followed the Lake Trail, a service road that begins in the upper ranch parking lot; winds past the cactus garden, the Cottage, the Winery Ruins, and the Pig Palace; then heads around the north end of the vineyard. As the road begins to climb, hikers have a choice: You can head up the Lake Spur or stick to the service road; the two rejoin at London Lake. I chose the road for the climb, saving the spur for the descent, because of all the people. People are a good thing, but they are better dealt with on wide paths, where folks with different paces can more easily sort themselves out.
Overhead, a hawk cried. I stepped to the vineyard side of the trail, better to view the sky, and watched a pair of red-tailed hawks circle above. I thought perhaps they were mates dancing together on a thermal, but: “Do you see,” said a passing guide, pausing with the hikers she was leading to look up with me. “One of them has something.” Sure enough, a small thing — some kind of rodent, perhaps — was clutched in one hawk’s talons, and the other hawk wanted a piece of it, as did a crow who joined the pursuit. After the squabbling triad flew out of sight, the docent and her hikers continued down and I continued up.
The Vineyard Trail begins opposite the dam at London Lake. The broad graded path starts with a gentle downhill run alongside a drainage, then arcs southeast via a new curving boardwalk to parallel the namesake vineyard, where grapes are cultivated for Kenwood Vineyards wines. Views of the Mayacamas open across the valley. The second, longer boardwalk spans a broad, shallow, seasonal streambed, and then the path drops, with occasional steep pitches, through stands of redwoods to Asbury Creek and the preternatural elk clover.
From the creek bed the trail rolls upward to a junction with signed trails to the ancient redwood and Fern Lake, in the adjacent Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC). I could have returned to the frontcountry the way I’d come but opted instead to loop back via the old orchard, sticking to the Vineyard Trail for the final short climb to where it dead-ends at the Plum and Pear Tree Trails. To continue, I turned right on Pear Tree Trail.
The last time I’d been in the old orchard I was touring the site with folks from Jack London Park Partners, who walked me through recent brush-clearing work on the historic acreage. The clearing project had a dual purpose: to help restore the orchard by making way for new fruit trees and conserving those remaining from the days when it was a working part of the SDC, and to provide a fire break. I’d been struck by how similar the land looked post-mastication to what I’d seen post-wildfire in 2017 and was curious to see what signs of rejuvenation might have materialized since that visit.
The signs were there. The orchard trees had leafed out, grasses had sprouted and were showing signs of going gold, a patch of flowering vetch buzzed with bees, and tiny oaks popped through the shredded remains of the thickets. A woodpecker thrummed. A gopher snake stretched like a shiny ribbon across the trail; I gave it wide berth so it could sunbathe undisturbed.
I stitched together my return route using the Fallen Bridge trails. A short section of Upper Fallen Bridge leads to New Fallen Bridge; a right on New Fallen Bridge leads to Old Fallen Bridge; a left on Old Fallen Bridge leads to the Mountain Trail; a right on the Mountain Trail leads down to London Lake. Climbing through the flower-filled meadow to Mays Clearing, I passed a young couple who asked if the path they were on led back to the parking lot.
“No,” I obfuscated politely, thinking of how fruitless it would be to explain all the turns I’d just navigated. If they were asking the question, they didn’t know the park well enough to hitch my directions together; they also didn’t carry a map, and if they strayed into the sign-free SDC, they’d be lost for sure. Best to go out and back, I advised; a wrong turn will land you down in town with your thumbs out, hitching a ride back to the park.
No hitchhiking for me, though; I knew the way. After we parted, I continued to the bench at the top of the meadow, taking in views that stretched to Mount Diablo. On the final leg now, I closed the loop at London Lake, where another couple studied the map display near the bathhouse. I left them to it, hopped onto the Lake Spur, and dropped into more redwoods. I knew the way, and I followed it home.