Olompali State Park

Yesterday, late afternoon, my husband and I went to visit Olompali State Park in Novato, (Marin County) California. Although I grew up in Marin, I had never been to this park. The first thing we noticed when we drove into the parking lot was a sign warning us that the park closed at 5 pm – a bit early given the extended daylight of our summer months.  Oh, well, we decided we would do a quick hike anyway.

It turns out Olompali is not only the site of a Miwok Village, the indigenous people of this area, but it is also the site of the Burdell Estate, famous in it’s time for its beautiful and extensive gardens. It was later the home of the Grateful Dead and the Chosen Family hippie commune. We got pretty excited about all the things we might see as we explored the Park.

Grateful Dead being photographed at Olompali

There are still a number of buildings left from the estate, but they are all closed so you can’t see much. The numerous signs that explain the sights are all faded and cracked. Apparently, there is very little upkeep on what was once a well-tended park. There was a ranger truck parked next to one of the buildings, but no rangers were seen. So we meandered around the grounds, reading the worn-out signs as best we could.

Then we headed up to what was supposed to be a re-creation of a Miwok village.  A teepee made of redwood bark was still in ok shape as was a nearby granary, also made of wood. But the garden that was supposed to show the plants that the Miwok used for food and medicine was pathetic. Most of the plants were missing or dried-up remnants of their former selves. It was clear that once there had been an effort to create an exhibit that would teach current Marin residents about residents of the past. But what was left was sad and decrepit. I would rather they had razed the whole thing rather than simply let it rot.

As we continued our hike up towards Mt. Burdell, I started to think about the future of our state and national parks. Government-run parks are high on the hit list as the economy continues to be weak and the voice of the anti-government crowd becomes stronger and stronger.

There used to be lots of ParkRangerss. It was a career that outdoor lovers aspired to and one that led to some of the best cared for Parks in the world. But chronic underfunding of both the State and National Park systems has led to a decrease in Park services and a deterioration of the condition of many of our Parks.


Private sector parks?

There are those who think everything should be done in the private sector.  Who needs government-run parks when they could be run by the private sector (fill in the blank):

  • Better
  • Cheaper
  • More efficiently.

But why would anyone in the private sector want to run a Park?  The answer is obvious. They would do it if there was an opportunity to make money. Why else?  How would they make money from the Parks? Well, first of all, they could charge admission and also sell stuff, right? Bucolic Olompali State Park could be billed as “A Living Miwok Experience” complete with video games, rides, stuffed Mule Deer toys, and replicas of various Miwok artifacts – think Sea World, Disneyland or Pier 39 in San Francisco. There is nothing wrong with those places – kids and their families love them – but they aren’t places where people go to experience nature, are they?

Of course, the worst case scenario of placing State and National Parks into the hands of private entrepreneurs is when the Park happens to have an abundance of valuable natural resources, such as oil, coal, redwood trees, land with a view, and so forth. In fact, at one point the Burdell property that makes up the park, was in danger of being sold to developers to build condominiums until locals raised a ruckus.


The health benefits of parks

Since this is a health blog, I thought a few words about the health effects of Parks, such as Olompali were in order – vigorous walking or hiking in a stress free environment has cardiovascular and mental health benefits that tromping around Disneyland, fending off the incessant demands from the kids to “buy me this, pleeease!” or “I’m hungry, wanna hot dog, Mommy” simply cannot provide.

When we were driving out of Olompali after our quick hike up the hill, we encountered a red tail hawk, scanning for prey from a sign post.  He was maybe 15 feet from us. He let us watch him (he was busy with more important things) and we were captivated by his beauty for a full five minutes. Then, he flew off for a better view from a nearby tree.  We were both grinning from ear to ear as we left the park. This is what we will miss, and our kids and their kids will miss if we fail to find a way to preserve our Parks.