Albion Monitor /Features

Olompali's Rich Legacy

by Simone Wilson

Olompali State Historic Park is known for the ranch complex that hugs Olompali Creek, but the chief beauty of the park is the southeastern slope of 1500-foot Mt. Burdell itself, from grasslands just east of the Petaluma floodplain, to the oak woodland that rises toward the wooded ridge. This rich area provided the local Miwoks with nearly everything for a comfortable life -- at least until Europeans showed up and disrupted their existence.

Park staff and descendants of the Miwok are recreating a village with tule houses

From the parking lot (remember to bring $2 to stuff into a park envelope), take the trail that heads west up the ridge. This traverses a grassy slope in a series of switchbacks. Soon you are above the grasslands heading into woods of oak, manzanita and bay. A little higher, red-limbed madrones become part of the mix. As you gain elevation, you can see more and more of the Petaluma River as it meanders through the floodplain below. In the distance is the Highway 37 bridge at Black Point, where the river (really more a tidal estuary than a river) empties into San Pablo Bay. The hum of highway traffic and the buzz of Cessnas lifting off at Novato Airport fade as you climb the slope.

At about one mile, there's a crossing. Straight ahead is a dead end. If you turn left, the trail leads steeply uphill to a rock wall at the park boundary. From here you can turn around or continue into Marin Open Space Land.

The right hand trail loops back to the starting place; it drops steeply and then ambles through a pleasant avenue of oaks and bays and occasional non-native eucalyptus. On the left you'll pass the small "reservoir" created by a dam across Olompali Creek. (This is off-limits to swimming.) Continue down this shady, creekside trail lined with ferns and primitive horsetail grass. You'll pass the site where park staff and descendants of the Miwok are recreating a village with tule houses. Continuing downhill, you leave the shade after about a hundred yards and come to the ranch complex with its barns and cottages (not open to the public). Near the barn, look for the intriguing "Kitchen Rock," a boulder with deep pits made by Miwok chefs grinding seeds and acorns.

Keep going downhill and turn right at the big clump of cactus. Cross the stone bridge over Olompali Creek and you'll be back at the Burdell House and the parking lot. This loop takes about a hour to an hour and a half -- it's not long, but it does include a 650-foot elevation gain. You can also do the loop in the counterclockwise direction, starting at the barns and the Miwok village, but the uphill part is a good deal steeper that way.

Site of a "battle" during the 1846 Bear Flag Revolt

Although the whole park is "historic" because the habitat provided a living for the local Miwok, Olompali is also a Historic Park because of the remaining ranch complex. The buildings, in varying states of restoration and decomposition, reflect the site's past. They also reflect the present lack of funding for State Parks.

The centerpiece, in an unfortunate state of arrested decay, is the Burdell mansion and the adjoining adobe from the Mexican rancho era. Nearby wooden buildings include a Chinese cookhouse and the Burdell's well-preserved ranchhouse from the 1870's, open on weekends as a visitor's center. A few incongruous palm trees sway over the grounds, but little remains of Mary Burdell's extensive gardens, which once boasted Oriental plants, fountains and walkways, all tended by a staff of Japanese gardeners.

Coast Miwok Heritage But for centuries, Olompali was the home of the Coast Miwok, who lived in Marin and southern Sonoma Counties. The Mission era, which brought devastation to most California Native peoples, completely disrupted Coast Miwok lives, and Olompali's last "hoipu" -- its village leader -- was baptized as Camillo Ynitia. He acquired not only a European name but an 8,900-acre land grant arranged by Gen. M.G. Vallejo. His adobe was also the site of a "battle" during the Bear Flag Revolt, which jumped the gun on the U.S.-Mexican War of 1846. The story goes that a party of Bear Flaggers rode down from Sonoma to Olompali in June, 1846, intending to raid Ynitia's horse corral. During the skirmish a defending Californio was killed -- one of the revolt's few casualties.

After the U.S. wrested California from Mexico in 1848, the new government confirmed Ynitia's grant, making him the only Native American in Northern California with a confirmed U.S. land grant.

No one has the funds to fix the gutted mansion, or the heart to tear it down

The remains of Ynitia's adobe are just north of the parking lot, preserved from the elements for an unusual reason. Ynitia sold his land to James Black (nearby Black Point, where the Petaluma River meets San Pablo Bay, is named for him), and Black deeded it to his daughter Mary Burdell. In 1913 Mary and Galen Burdell built a 26-room mansion around the adobe itself -- they essentially had an adobe house sitting in their living room.

Presumably the double walls provided extra insulation during hot summers. The Burdell family sold the estate in 1943 and the property became a Jesuit retreat. During the 60's the Jesuits rented the place to a succession of colorful tenants including a commune known as The Chosen People. The Grateful Dead also leased the property and and invited rock icons Janis Joplin and Grace Slick to join them in making music under the oaks. An electrical fire gutted the mansion in 1969 and left the poor adobe vulnerable to the elements again. State Parks acquired the land in 1977 and later built a protective shed around the adobe to keep the rain from washing it away; through ample windows visitors can see the original adobe brick work. The mansion itself, rather a sad old eyesore, languishes in architectural limbo. No one has the funds to fix it up, or the heart to tear it down.

Speaking of funding, the Buck Center, Marin County's perennial source of money for projects wanted and unwanted, broke ground May 9 for its Center of Aging Research on an adjoining slope of Mt. Burdell -- just over the hill, but out of eyeshot and out of sight from Olompali itself. The project follows a decade of legal wrangling over whether the Buck Center could construct the 355,000 sq. ft. biomedical research facility on the mountain. No one has asked the bucks (or the does) who inhabit Mt. Burdell for their reaction.

Olompali Park, located just north of Novato in northern Marin County, is open 10 AM to sunset. The only entrance to the park is on southbound Highway 101. To return to Sonoma County, go south on 101, exit at Atherton, turn left over the highway and then get back on 101 North. For more information call the park, (415) 892-3383.

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Albion Monitor May 27, 1996 (

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