Jack London lived fast, wrote a vast body of work (much of it uninspired), and died at age 40 in 1916. When he was not on the lecture circuit or the high seas (sailing to and around Polynesia in the Snark), he lived and worked at the 1500-acre Beauty Ranch in Sonoma County’s “Valley of the Moon.” (The landscape does not look lunar to me, particularly when it is green in the winter and spring.)
While continuing to crank out books, articles, and stories, London saw the Beauty Ranch as a working farm. He was interested in agricultural innovations, including those of Luther Burbank who also lived in northern California. There was no profit in wine grapes during the 1910s and London had the grapevines ripped out. Although he did not cut down all the coastal redwoods on his land, he was one of those who planted eucalyptus. The early-20th-century Californians who planted eucalyptus thought the trees would grow rapidly and provide lumber. (The first part was right, but the eucalyptus that provides usable lumber grows slowly and is not what they planted. What they planted provides windbreaks and ignites easily.) London also built elaborate homes for his pigs, the circular pens of the “Pig Palace,” but however much they may have enjoyed their palatial accommodations, the pigs were wiped out by disease.
Rather than bringing in money, the ranch drained money from royalties and lecture fees. Moreover, starting in 1910, London was building his expensive dream castle. He and his second wife, Charmaine, called it “The Big House.” Friends dubbed it the “Wolf House” (a wolf, presumably from Call of the Wild was on London’s bookplate and he identified with wolves). Designed by San Francisco architect Albert Farr with considerable demands (“feedback”) from London, the house was four stories with 15,000 square feet of living space with 26 rooms and nine fireplaces. The castle walls were reddish rocks from the Valley of the Moon. London planned to sleep in a tower.
London was convinced that the castle was fireproof, but, once again, was mistaken. Early in the morning of August 22, 1913, it burned, only a few weeks before the Londons planned to move into it. The walls are still standing (propped up) and visitors can walk down to the ruins and walk around it (there is a wooden viewing platform into the center, but visitors are not allowed into/onto the ruins.)
The site of the Londons’ graves is a tenth of a mile from Wolf House.
Wolf House is .6 miles from the museum in another stone edifice that Charmaine had built after Jack’s death and called “the House of Happy Walls.” His desks and bed and many books and artifacts are on display there, including the dinnerware that Robert Louis Stevenson had in Samoa (which London bought there and brought back on the Snark; Stevenson died earlier and the two never met.) Charmaine lived there until 1955, dying at the age of 84 and willing the house and her possessions to a museum honoring her husband. (Jack’s step-sister’s son inherited the farm and half the ranch and again has grapevines growing on them.)
Jack and Charmaine (who were childless) lived together in a large farmhouse, called “the cottage” that is off to the right (west, with its own parking lot) immediately inside the pay-collection kiosk (self-service these days). The cottage has no furniture and is open fewer hours than the museum, but is where London wrote and where he died (of gastrointestinal uremic poisoning). The hours the cottage are open are posted at the entry to the park. Usually, it is open 12-3 Saturdays and Sundays and is generally not open on weekdays.
The cottage has flower beds (yellow irises were in bloom in early March) and along the fence between the grape fields and the park I had the best looks I’ve ever had at Allen’s hummingbirds. On the way back from Wolf House, I think I saw a warbling vireo. Otherwise, the birds were standard northern California: turkey vultures, dark-eyed juncoes, Steller jays, yellow-rumped warblers. (mid-day in early March, though I’d guess these birds are around year-round.)
Other farm buildings from the late-19th century are clustered around the cottage, and the Pig Palace is nearby. From the farm compound, there are trails up the ridge. A mile from the parking lot is the bathing pond with a log changing-room (overhanging picnic tables, and there are other tables nearby). The reservoir has silted in to half the size it was in 1910 (five acres) and had a lot of algae last weekend, and summer is still ahead…)
For information on longer hikes (and photos), see http://www.bahiker.com/northbayhikes/jacklondon.html
In summer, there is the possibility of rattlesnakes, a greater possibility of heat prostration (even though the trails are shaded by madrone and manzanita). There is always a lot of poison oak off the trails, particularly the one from the museum to Wolf House. There are three drinking fountains along the way to Wolf House. For other trails, carry water and heed the very wise imperative”Leaves of three, let them be”!
Camping is available at nearby Sugarloaf Ridge State Park. Lodging is available in the tiny town of Glen Ellen, where there is also a Jack-London-themed restaurant and bookstore.
Horseback riding is permitted (Irving Stone’s book about London was title The Sailor on Horseback and there are many picture of London on horses (he looks to have been a heavy burden!)
Directions: The park is a mile and a half west of Glen Ellen, at 2400 London Ranch Road in Glen Ellen. The road to Glen Ellen (121 veers off to the right) is Arnold Drive. From the Bay Area, get to 37 and head north on 121 and follow the signs for Glen Ellen.
The park is open 10 a.m. 5 p.m. (gates locked at 5) except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. Entrance fee is $8 per vehicle. ($7 for vehicles with someone over 62 years of age.) There is a golf cart to take disabled persons to Wolf House, but I do not know more about that.
The Group Picnic Area reservation fee is a non-refundable $37.50. Reservations must be made at least 72 hours in advance. Call 707-938-5216 for reservations (or for further information). Reservations for horseback rides can be made through Triple Creek Horse Outfit by calling (707) 887-8700.
For more information on London, the Berkeley library has a site with photos, facsimile manuscripts and more at :