Jack London Trail Through Northern California
Follow Jack London's footsteps through Oakland, Berkeley, and Sonoma County. Legendary author Jack London was known for setting his novels in places as far-flung and foreign as the 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 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.
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.
From City Hall, head about one mile down Broadway to 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 the waterfront working as an oyster pirate and sailor. His adventures would later inspire his work, 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 commercial square that fittingly bears London’s name.
Follow in London’s “wake” by exploring the “high seas” with an intimate water experience on the San Francisco Bay with California Canoe and Kayak, where you can try stand-up paddle boarding, kayaking, and other waterfront adventures.
At the foot of Broadway, overlooking the water, don’t miss the life-sized bronze statue of a young Jack London, created by artist Cendric Wentworth.
From there, get contemplative and head over to Heinhold's First and Last Chance Saloon. Opened in 1883 and constructed from the timbers of an old whaling ship, this small, cozy 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.
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 handcrafted wood-fired pizza.
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.
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 a novel by best-selling author Michael Chabon.
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 here, 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.
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 can be made up to a month in advance for Chez Panisse or for the more casual upstairs café.
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.
Where Highway 116 Ys to the left, stay right and onto Arnold Drive. Your route takes you along the western edge of Sonoma, a picturesque town boasting one of California’s historic missions. To visit the town, turn right off Arnold on either Watmaugh or Leveroni roads, and then left on Broadway.
Sonoma has become the epicenter of all things Wine Country chic; you’ll find dozens of boutiques, cafés, and wine tasting rooms ringing its central plaza, and a number of large-scale or family-owned wineries just a few minutes from downtown.
After exploring Sonoma, return to Arnold Drive, heading north into Glen Ellen. This tiny town is really more of a modern-day village. However, 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 Grill & Martini Bar, or lamb meatballs or house-made cavatelli pasta at the Glen Ellen Star.
You could check in for the 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.
As an alternative, The Jack London Lodge offers 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 Casa Bella - Kenwood Luxury Estate vacation rental 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. Available for corporate retreats, family gatherings, and group getaways, it sleeps up to 18 people (nine couples).
Jack London State Historic Park
Wake up 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. After Charmian died 40 years later, at her request the Beauty Ranch land was preserved in Jack’s memory.
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.
All that remains of the house are the ruins. 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’s winery ruins into an open-air stage with its hugely popular Broadway Under the Stars 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. Located inside a historic building that was once home to a gristmill, the Jack London Village makes a lovely stop. Today, this 19th century building houses shops and restaurants.
One notable winery in Glen Ellen is Benziger Family Winery. Located next to Jack London State Historic Park, Benziger is known for its bio-dynamic winemaking, and offers vineyard tram tours.
In the neighboring town of Kenwood, Kenwood Vineyards produces a series of Jack London wines (including Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Zinfandel) with — appropriately — a wolf gracing the label.
Get free maps, visitor guides, travel and transportation info directly from the regional tourism offices:
Visit Oakland, visitoakland.com
Visit Berkeley, visitberkeley.com
Sonoma County Tourism, sonomacounty.com
Written by Sonoma Insider Jessica Quandt.