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Jack London Trail through Northern California

Jack London Trail through Northern California
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Follow Jack London’s footsteps through Oakland , Berkeley , and Sonoma County . Legendary author Jack London was known for setting his novels set in places as far-flung and foreign as Yukon Territory and the High Seas. But London’s formative years — and his final years, as well — were all spent in Northern California. 

Born in San Francisco and raised in Oakland, London left California in his teens and found the kind of adventurous work that would later provide fodder for his writing. He worked on sailing ships, sought his fortune in the Canadian Gold Rush, and eventually returned to Northern California. London would spend much of the rest of his life here, attending a year of college in Berkeley, and eventually settling down permanently in the small Sonoma County town of Glen Ellen

Nearly 100 years after London’s death, his fans will still find it easy to visit sites that played important roles throughout the author’s life. On this three-day itinerary, we’re following London’s footsteps through the three cities that shaped the course of his life.

Day 1
Jack London Square and the City of Oakland. Though he was born in San Francisco, London grew up in the city of Oakland , just across the bay.

Start your tour at Oakland’s City Hall. In 1917, a year after London’s death, his widow, Charmian, planted a coast live oak here. The anchor and focal point of the city’s Civic Center Plaza, this oak is meaningful to the city on several levels: It’s a particularly beautiful specimen of the trees that lent Oakland their name, and this very tree even appears at the center of Oakland’s city logo.

From City Hall, head about one mile down Broadway until you hit the waterfront, and your next destination, Jack London Square. By all accounts London lived a rough-and-tumble life in Oakland, spending much of his time on this very waterfront working as an oyster pirate and sailor. His adventures would later inspire works including his 1904 novel The Sea Wolf. Today, the port of Oakland is still a busy, working waterfront, though it’s better known now for the bustling square commercial that fittingly bears London’s name.

Follow in London’s “wake” by exploring the “high seas” with an adventure on the San Francisco Bay aboard the Bay Voyager . This two-hour excursion will offer you the best views of Oakland and San Francisco: Jack London Square (where the tour begins), the Port of Oakland, Golden Gate Bridge, and USS Potomac (President FDR's "Floating White House" in Jack London Square). A more intimate water experience is found with California Canoe & Kayak , where you can try stand-up paddle boarding, kayaking, and more waterfront adventures. At the foot of Broadway Street, overlooking the water, don’t miss the life-sized bronze statue of Jack London, created by artist Cendric Wentworth.

From there, get contemplative and head over to Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon . Opened in 1883 and constructed from the timbers of an old whaling ship, the saloon looks much the same today as it did 100 years ago when London was a fixture there. Now registered as a National Literary Landmark, this was one of London’s favorite places to sit and write notes for his future books. In fact, London was such a regular presence at the saloon that the establishment’s owner, Johnny Heinold, reportedly lent him the money for his first year’s tuition at U.C. Berkeley. Just outside Heinold’s sits Jack London’s Cabin, a recreated model of the cabin London lived in during his time in the Yukon. You may also notice a string of distinctive wolf tracks on the pavement outside the saloon and cabin.

The tracks mark the path of the Jack London history walk, which highlights points of interest in the stories of Jack London, the city of Oakland, and its port.

Once you’ve filled up on the area’s history, delve into its present with dinner at one of the numerous restaurants filling Jack London Square today. Try the Forge for wood-fired pizza, Bocanova for pan-American cuisine, Lungomare for modern Italian with water views, or Kincaid’s for classic American fare.

Stay close by for the night by checking into the Waterfront Hotel . Right in the heart of Jack London Square, this modern, nautically themed hotel seamlessly incorporates the Oakland waterfront’s culture and heritage with a sleek, bright atmosphere.

Day 2
Berkeley, Sonoma and Glen Ellen. The journey is part of the destination when you drive from Oakland to Berkeley via Telegraph Avenue. This broad avenue has straddled the two great Bay Area cities since London’s day. Telegraph begins in Oakland’s city center, where the avenue branches out from Broadway. Fans of contemporary fiction may find the name “Telegraph Avenue” familiar: it’s also the title of best-selling author Michael Chabon’s latest novel.

Follow Telegraph Avenue north until you reach the University of California at Berkeley . Berkeley’s literary credentials are top-shelf: Jack London spent a year honing his craft as a student at the UC, and other authors associated with the school and city include Joan Didion, Maxine Hong Kingston, Terry McMillan, Philip Dick, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Thornton Wilder.

The campus of UC Berkeley itself is open to the public, serving as a vibrant “Central Park” in the heart of the city. Spend some time here walking in London’s footsteps, admiring the school’s distinctive architecture and meandering past its redwood forests and burbling streams.

The university’s Bancroft Library will be of particular interest to dedicated London fans: Make a reservation in advance to view many of the author’s original manuscripts, letters, and photos there.

Berkeley is also a city of great bookstores and cafés. The Free Speech Movement Café is located in the university’s Moffitt Undergraduate Library and is dedicated to the spirit of political discourse.

Off campus, try browsing Moe’s Books , an independent new-and-used store that’s been drawing bibliophiles since 1959; Shakespeare & Co. Books , a favorite of Cal students; and Black Oak Books , a haven for paperback enthusiasts in the age of the e-reader.

After feeding your mind, be sure to feed your stomach at one of the great restaurants and cafés that make Berkeley a compelling culinary destination.

Shattuck Avenue offers an abundance of dining options, the most famous of which is Chez Panisse .

Reservations fill up months in advance for Alice Waters’s legendary, season-specific restaurant, but upstairs a more casual café accepts walk-ins.

From Berkeley, hop on I-80 E and quickly merge to 580 W, until you hit Highway 101 N, eventually merging onto CA-37 E. After about eight miles, switch over to CA-121 N, continuing onto Highway 116.

Your route will take you through Sonoma , a picturesque town boasting one of California’s historic missions. Sonoma has become the epicenter of all things Wine Country chic; you’ll find dozens of boutiques and cafés ringing its central plaza and a number of large-scale and family-owned wineries just a few minutes from downtown.

As you continue north on Highway 116, you’ll notice the road name eventually changes to “Arnold Drive” — this will be the first hint you’ve arrived in Glen Ellen . This tiny town is really more of a modern-day village, but what Glen Ellen lacks in size, it more than makes up for in charm.

Not to mention history: Jack and Charmian London moved to little Glen Ellen in the early 1900s seeking a natural respite from urban life.

Today, visitors still come to Glen Ellen for more or less the same reason, though there are considerably more modern amenities in town than there were in London’s day. To sample the luxe side of the backcountry, stop in for a dinner of oysters and martinis at the Glen Ellen Inn , or lamb meatballs and handmade chestnut agnolotti at the Glen Ellen Star .

Check in for night at the Secret Cottages at the Glen Ellen Inn and you’ll have an easy walk home after dinner. The private cottages at this little spot abut the Sonoma Creek and come decked out with high-end touches like fire places and Jacuzzi tubs.

The nearby Jack London Lodge is a great pick for vintage décor at reasonable prices; the inn’s attached saloon drives the turn-of-the-century charm home with an antique polished-oak bar and a collection of London photos and memorabilia. In the neighboring town of Kenwood , the Birmingham B&B hails from the same period as London himself. Built in 1913 and surrounded by fruit orchards, it’s a great place to soak up the country life just minutes from town.

Day 3
Jack London State Historic Park. Wake up this morning ready to get in touch with the Great Outdoors. Glen Ellen’s landscapes and lifestyle inspired much of London’s later writing, including his novel Valley of the Moon, and today you’ll find out why. From downtown Glen Ellen, drive about a mile uphill on London Ranch Road; at the top of the hill you’ll come to Jack London State Historic Park .

London bought a couple of adjoining farms on this site at the beginning of the 20th century, then combined the parcels of land to form his “Beauty Ranch.” London died in 1916, and after Charmian died 40 years later, the Beauty Ranch land was preserved in Jack’s memory at her request.

Today, it’s still easy to see the marks the Londons left on the land here.

From the park’s entrance, start out by following signs for the House of Happy Walls museum . Charmian lived in this stately fieldstone building until 1955; today it’s a museum dedicated to her husband. The museum is filled with the couple’s former possessions, first editions of London’s books, and special exhibits.

About one-third of a mile further down the same path, you’ll come to London’s gravesite. Before he died, at the age of just 40, London asked Charmian to bury him in a grassy knoll here, and to cover the grave with a big red boulder. After Charmain’s death decades later, her ashes were laid to rest in the same place.

The boulder on the Londons’ gravesite comes from the ruins of the Wolf House, a bit further down the same path. Begun in 1911, the Wolf House was to be Jack and Charmian’s dream home. The house, though, was destroyed by a fire in 1913 before the Londons had ever even slept in it.

All that remains of the house are the ruins but, set against the verdant trees and brown hills of the surrounding landscape, they are hauntingly beautiful.

Other trails will lead you to the Beauty Ranch portion of the park. When he was still alive, London dreamed of turning his ranch into a “model” farm where he could raise livestock and grow fruits, vegetables, grains, and wine grapes all on one property.

And though London died before his dream could be fully realized, visitors can still find evidence of his impressive efforts. Make sure to take a look at a couple of cement silos London designed personally, wander through the still-intact stone barns where he kept his horses, and marvel at the innovative “Pig Palace,” a 17-pen piggery that cost London $3,000 to build in 1915.

Over the summer months, the Transcendence Theatre Company transforms the Beauty Ranch ruins into an open-air stage with its hugely popular Broadway Under the Starts series.

Finally, don’t miss the Londons’ cottage, where they were sleeping the night a fire consumed the Wolf House. The wood-frame cottage was restored in 2006 and is decorated in a manner reflecting Jack and Charmian’s bohemian lifestyle. Docents are available to interpret the history of the place and to highlight paintings, sketches, and photos from the Londons’ personal collection.

Back in the town of Glen Ellen, the London name is still widely revered today. The Jack London Village , located inside a historic building that was once home to a gristmill, makes a lovely afternoon stop. Today, the 19th century building houses shops, restaurants and wineries. One notable winery in Glen Ellen is Benziger Family Winery , known for its bio-dynamic winemaking.

In the neighboring town of Kenwood, Kenwood Vineyards puts out a series of Jack London wines (including Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Zinfandel) with — appropriately — a wolf gracing the label.

Visit the winery yourself to pick up a bottle, then head back to your inn to relax with a glass of wine and a copy of Valley of the Moon. It’s the perfect way to wrap up your time in Glen Ellen the way London would have liked: enjoying “a quiet place in the country to write and loaf in and get out of Nature that something which we all need, only the most of us don’t know it.”

For a grand finale, overnight options include nearby Kenwood Inn & Spa and the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa .

Written by Sonoma Insider Jessica Quandt

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