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Trails at Jack London State Historic Park being restored


High along the ridge overlooking Jack London's Beauty Ranch, Chuck Levine diverged onto a narrow path that until recently had been overgrown and all but forgotten.

The retired telecommunications executive zigged and zagged upward for several hundred feet through a meadow dotted with oak and bay trees. A few minutes later, a clearing afforded Levine a stunning view of Glen Ellen and the Sonoma Valley.

"It's one of the most beautiful trails in the park," Levine said.

In the year since the state turned over management of Jack London State Historic Park to a nonprofit, hundreds of volunteers have worked diligently to restore some of the site's former luster.

That includes cleaning up and re-opening miles of historic trails so that visitors to the 1,400-acre park can better experience what London found so enthralling about the area.

"The dim trail," London wrote in "Valley of the Moon," "lay like a rambling red shadow cast on the soft forest floor by the great redwoods and over-arching oaks. It seemed as if all the local varieties of trees and vines had conspired to weave the leafy roof."

Over decades, however, neglect choked off public access to some of the areas along Sonoma Mountain where London loved to meander, often while in the company of his wife, Charmian.

Levine, who is president of the Valley of the Moon Natural History Association, said "the state didn't seem to have interest" in maintaining some of the trails or "the staff to supervise" the work.

That's not been the case with the volunteers who jumped in, rakes in hand, after California State Parks last year turned over management of the historic site to Jack London Park Partners.

The operating agreement was the first of its kind in California under a new law that allowed the state to negotiate with nonprofits, private concessionaires and other groups to keep open some of the 70 state parks that originally were slated to shut by July 1 last year.

The painstaking trail work, often complicated by poison oak and ticks, has not gone unnoticed by longtime park visitors.

"It looks gorgeous. It's beautifully maintained," said Carol Hazlett of Healdsburg, who Friday hiked the mountain with a half-dozen members of a chapter of the American Association of University Women.

The public is invited to help celebrate the trail restorations Sunday at Jack London. The free event begins at 10 a.m. and features brunch, games for children and music. Hikers also will be invited to check out the new trails.

The hardy can take on the eight-mile round trip that begins at London's cottage and rises 2,400-feet to the summit of Sonoma Mountain. Cowan Meadow Trail, where Levine hiked Friday, is about a mile from the top.

The park has launched a fundraising drive to raise money for more trail restoration. About 20 miles of back-country routes exist at Jack London, unbeknownst to most visitors who never venture beyond the late author's home and other historic dwellings.

As examples of some of the problems volunteers hope to tackle in coming years, Levine last week pointed out a section of trail that he said was eroded by water being diverted out of Jack London's Lake through a crude causeway that the state built years ago. The lake itself is choked with algae.

Levine said the natural history association has raised about 75 percent of the $77,000 the group has budgeted for additional trail maintenance. The Jack London Lake Alliance also is raising money to restore the lake, which is a National Historic Landmark.

In addition to the celebration on Sunday, the California State Parks Foundation is seeking volunteers for a day of trail work June 7 at the park. Register at www.calparks.org/parkchampions.

(You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.)