Grateful Dead, Janis partied in this now-sedate Novato setting.
On a sunny summer Saturday when other Marin County trails are bustling with hikers, fewer than a dozen people might circle 1,558-foot Burdell Mountain on the main 5-mile round-trip path at 700-acre Olompali State Park. Those who follow the trail at Marin’s northernmost state park encounter butterflies, dragonflies, and rare small birds flitting among oak, bay laurel, pine, madrone, and other trees. Red-tailed hawks and other large birds soar higher still, scouring the terrain for gophers and other prey. At the trail’s peak, views of northern Novato, the Petaluma River, and San Pablo Bay unfold. (Okay, a giant landfill, too.)
On the surface, Olompali seems sedate and secluded, pleasant yet mundane. Marin possesses sites more dramatic than this one, but subtle layers of natural and cultural history reveal themselves along the trail and inside and near the visitor center, which because of low attendance is open only on Fridays and weekends from 12 noon to 3 pm if a volunteer is available.
A Brief History
Before becoming a state park in 1977 this land was home for millennia to the Olompali Indians; a re-created village along the trail acknowledges the contributions of these Coast Miwok native people. Near the park’s entrance, a crumbling 1776 adobe dating to California’s pre-Mexican Spanish period, built by the father of the Olompalis’ last chief, is said to be the state’s oldest structure north of San Francisco. In 1846 the area was the scene of a skirmish during California’s movement for independence from Mexico. Later in the 19th century, Rancho Olompali (the site’s name well into the 20th century) was a dairy farm and an experimental orchard for everything from wine grapes to bananas.
Visible near the entrance are the remnants of what in the 19th century was one of Marin’s most noteworthy gardens. They were planted by Mary Burdell, whose father gave her 6,335 acres, some now part of the park, when she married Galen Burdell, a prominent San Francisco dentist. In one of several eerie tales associated with Olompali, Dr. Burdell was responsible for the death of Mary’s mother. During a dental procedure, he used chloroform, to which she was allergic, as anesthesia. He subsequently took to drinking, fell drunk off his horse one day, and died.
Mary soon learned that she’d been disinherited because of her husband’s role in her mother’s death. By the account of a Burdell descendant, Mary ripped the signatures off her father’s will and swallowed them. Her ploy might have worked, but her dad’s lawyer had another signed copy so Mary had to sue to break the will. After three trials in Marin ended in hung juries, the fourth, held in San Francisco, proved the charm. Mary ended up with half her father’s estate. One of the frame houses still on the property was built for a relative who testified in Mary’s favor in the final proceedings. Like many of the structures here, it’s viewable only from the outside.
The Grateful Dead, Janis, and a Cult
In the early 1910s, James Burdell, Mary’s son, erected a now boarded-up 26-room mansion famous these days for its turns as the pad of the Grateful Dead rock band during the summer of 1966 (Janis Joplin, Carlos Santana, and others dropped by). A hippie commune whose members dubbed themselves the Chosen Family succeeded the rockers. The hippies, whose anarchic lifestyle vexed local authorities, generated sensational news headlines such as “Rancho Olompali Dope Raid Jails Wealthy Guru, Ex-Nun.” (The ex-nun taught at the commune’s “Not School” for its children.) The Chosen Family’s tenancy ended after the mansion caught fire in 1969. Firefighters reportedly allowed the flames to ravage the home to force the hippies to vacate Rancho Olompali, which a few years later became the state park we know today.
Olompali is so underutilized that during economic downturns it appears high on lists of state parks slated for closure. But its lack of traffic makes it an appealing stop for hikers in search of a peaceful interlude at a place whose history is so rich it even involves Courtney Love. Per a much-disputed story, the singer-songwriter supposedly appears in the back-cover photo of the Grateful Dead album Aoxomoxoa, shot at Olompali. More food for thought as one strolls this unassuming park’s paths.
Olompali State Park Details
Difficulty level: Moderate
Why locals love it: Secluded; views from near the peak; fascinating history
Cut to the chase: An easy mile-long loop trail that starts near the parking lot passes by the gardens, the dairy farm structures, and the re-created Miwok village.
Reward yourself: The winemaker for Sonoma County’s Mantra Wines, a Novato resident, operates a fun tasting room in downtown Novato. You can order wines (sparkling, white, rosé, and full-bodied reds) by the glass, flight, or bottle. Boca Pizzeria is a local favorite for pizza and salads (clever wine list). For gastropub fare, home-grown microbrews, and evening live music by local performers and occasionally international talents like Graham Parker, head to the Hopmonk Tavern.
Olompali State Park is off Redwood Boulevard. Take the Atherton/San Marin exit from U.S. 101 (also known as Redwood Highway). Head north on Redwood Boulevard, which parallels U.S. 101 just to its west.
More Marin County Hikes
Battery Mendell to Battery Townsley
Coastal, Wolf Ridge, Miwok Trails Loop
Mount Tamalpais Muir Woods Loop
Rodeo Lagoon to Point Bonita Lighthouse
Rodeo Lagoon Trail Loop
Roy’s Redwoods Open Space Preserve
Tule Elk Preserve