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A Hike and Picnic at Jack London Park

Sonoma Valley’s 1400-acre Jack London State Historic Park escaped closure when the state parks department — in the first-ever agreement of its kind — allowed the Valley of the Moon Natural History Association (VMNHA) to operate the park (April 2012).

Soon thereafter, VMNHA’s new executive director, marketing and development expert Tjiska Van Wyk, took over the park’s operations. “I like challenges,” she said during our interview. “I like a clean slate where you can re-imagine with a general vision in mind. I like the opportunity to create something.”

So when the opportunity recently arose to visit with Van Wyk again and see how everything was going, I seized it.

I headed off to Jack London one day a couple of weeks ago. The plan was for me to hike with Karen Collins and Donna Hallow, both board members of VMNHA (the organization is known familiarly Jack London Park Partners). We’d all meet up with Van Wyk afterward for a picnic in the big meadow.

Collins, Hallow and I rallied at the park’s small museum, hiking from there to the huge and ancient redwood tree. Said to be somewhere around 2,000 years old, she’s 14 feet in diameter and known as “Grandmother Tree.”

There’s no denying that this lady has been around for a while: her bark is spotted with burn spots, and she’s riddled with crevices and crannies. But, as with all ancient redwood trees or any other living thing that’s hung in there longer than expected, there’s something regal, enduring and ultimately humbling about her. A nice wooden bench invites you to sit a spell and think big thoughts.

The trail to the tree is easy, about four miles round-trip and with a bit of up and down. Just follow the Lake Trail, turning left onto the Vineyard Trail. When you hit a three-way intersection, continue on the small middle trail and you’ll soon find the Grandmother Tree. Hikers, cyclists and equestrians are allowed on the trail — but no dogs.

Back at the meadow, a smiling Van Wyk awaited our arrival at a picnic table. We dug into our fabulous picnic — the same kind of box lunch from nearby Glen Ellen Market that visitors can pre-order online — and talked about changes at the park.

“The thing I’m most amazed by,” Van Wyk said, “is the incredible amount of volunteer support we have. We couldn’t do most of what we do if we didn’t have such so many dedicated and enthusiastic volunteers.”

Evidence of that could be seen all around us. Volunteers were everywhere: manning the entrance station, leading school groups on educational tours, docenting in the museum and cottage, assisting in the office, planting flowers in the cottage garden, and on and on.

That very day, board member and local winegrower Mike Benziger had volunteered in big fashion: He’d brought a hard-working crew and a huge truck from the family winery to clean up brush and tidy the park grounds.

The odd thing was that all these volunteers seemed so … well, happy. The volunteer signup page on the park’s website promises to make wise use of people’s capabilities: “Whatever your talents or interests, there are volunteer opportunities for you …” Training is provided, along with attendance at events that delve into aspects of park history and ecology. Plus, from what I’ve heard, volunteering here is just plain fun.

Maybe that’s why the number of volunteers has grown so much under Van Wyk’s watch. According to Susan St. Marie, associate director of program and volunteer management, the volunteer program has increased approximately 60 percent since May 1, 2012. Today 378 volunteers work at Jack London SHP.

Another big change at the park? The level of attendance has increased 77 percent — and it continues to rise.

I asked Van Wyk what five changes at the park have pleased her the most. Her response:

  1. A variety of events and programs are putting the park back on the community’s radar. We’re connecting people (particularly children) to nature in meaningful ways, which usually inspires future environmental stewards.
  2. Trail restoration and the creation of a $49 annual pass have increased repeat visitation, kind of making the park a “natural gym” for people.
  3. We have 380 volunteers helping manage interpretive and educational activities, and a hospitality culture. Visitors surveyed indicate the overall experience as “excellent,” the highest ranking. It’s hard to describe this without sounding New Age, but the place is “happy.”
  4. Transcendence Theater’s Broadway Under the Stars just keeps getting better and better.
  5. We broke even in our first full year of operation. That means a lot, as we must raise all funds necessary to keep the park open and thriving — we receive no funds from the State.

Jack London the man survived some rocky times in his life, seemingly becoming a better storyteller and more interesting person in the process. The same thing has happened with his former ranch, the park that bears his name. It fell into hard times, but for some time now it’s moving on to a much better place, transforming itself into a destination with a lot to offer.

If you haven’t visited lately, maybe it’s time to drop in, take a hike and see what’s new.

Details: Jack London State Historic Park, 2400 London Ranch Road, Glen Ellen.

Here is a great Jack London Northen California itinerary for Jack London Fans. Find more info about things to do, restaurants and hotels in Sonoma County.

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