Places to Play: Olompali State Historic Park

The sun filtered through tree branches over grasslands at Olompali State Historic Park in California
Scenery at Olompali State Historic Park (Photo by California News Press)

Before it was one of the Bay Area’s prettiest state parks, the oak-strewn mountainside of Olompali saw thousands of years of Coast Miwok culture, the indulgences of a wealthy ranching family, and the highs and lows of a counterculture commune.

Olompali State Historic Park is in Marin County, just off US-101, 3 miles north of Novato and 35 miles north of San Francisco. The park covers 700 acres on the east-facing slopes of Mount Burdell, a serene spot of exceptional natural beauty overlooking the Petaluma River and distant San Pablo Bay. 

Visitors enjoy hiking and horseback riding on trails that wind under grand oaks, through shady woodlands and around rocky outcrops. Interpretive signs offer brief summaries of the park’s historic features. These range from an ancient boulder pocked with man-made mortars to the weathered and fire-damaged remains of old inhabitants’ homes, each structure encircled by the next like tree rings marking eras. Delve a little more deeply into those eras and discover Olompali’s fascinating, centuries-long history.

Redwood blank structures at a recreated Coast Miwok village in Olompali State Historic Park, California
A recreated Coast Miwok village at Olompali State Historic Park (Photo by California News Press)

The Coast Miwok’s Southern Village

“Olompali” is from the Miwok language and is believed to mean “southern village” or “southern people.” The site of Olompali State Historic Park was continuously inhabited by the Coast Miwok from as early as 6,000 BC. It was among the largest villages in the region and had abundant access to land and water resources. 

Kitchen Rock, which sits under a large oak in the main visitor area of the park, is a tangible relic of centuries of Coast Miwok community life at Olompali. The large, mossy boulder has rounded mortars of various sizes across its surface. Women used the rock mortars to grind acorns and seeds, and it was likely a gathering place as well. In a nearby meadow are modern recreations of kotchas, conical dwellings built from redwood planks. A larger recreated village and native plant garden are in development at the park. 

Olompali has six archeological sites on its grounds. One of the most exciting finds was an Elizabethan silver sixpence coin dated 1567. Its date and origins suggest a trade link with Sir Francis Drake’s 1979 expedition. 

A mossy boulder with mortars at Olompali State Historic Park
The “kitchen rock” used by Coast Miwok communities at Olompali State Historic Park (Photo by California News Press)

The mission era brought about the demise of the Miwok culture in Marin County by the mid-1800s. The end-times of Olompali’s 7,000-year Coast Miwok heritage earned several entries in the history books. Still standing on the site are the remains of a 1776 adobe, a California Historical Landmark and the oldest surviving house north of the San Francisco Bay. The adobe was owned by Aurelio Ynitia, the last chief of the Miwok community at Olompali. Aurelio Ynitia’s son, Camilo Ynitia, became the only California Native American to receive a Mexican-era land grant when he acquired Rancho Olompali in 1843. Ynitia held the title for 9 years before selling most of the property to Marin County’s largest landowner, James Black. 

The Battle of Olompali

The only battle of the 26-day Bear Flag Revolt took place at Olompali. In June of 1846, rebels supporting the California Republic clashed with troops led by Mexico’s General Castro near Ynitia’s adobe. The Battle of Olompali was brief, leaving one dead and several wounded. 

A view across the grassy hillsides of Olompali State Historic Park
Sweeping views across the former Rancho Olompali (Photo by California News Press)

Rancho Olompali

James Black, having bought Omompali from Camilo Ynitia, gave the land to his daughter Mary upon her marriage to San Francisco dentist Dr. Galen Burdell in 1863. The Burdell family turned the property into a working ranch and home, which would be owned by their descendants until 1943. 

Most of the structures still standing at Olompali State Historic Park date to the Burdell ranching era. The family built a clapboard house around and encompassing the Ynitia adobe in 1866. Later this would be expanded into a lavish, 26-room mansion, the centerpiece of a grand estate featuring fruit orchards and ornate Victorian gardens filled with exotic plants and a towering stone fountain. The Burdell Mansion is in ruins following a 1969 fire. Another late 19th-century building now houses the visitor center and park offices. Several outbuildings from the ranch era are still standing as well. 

Orange mushrooms growing on a fallen log at Olompali State Historic Park in California
Mushrooms grow along the trail at Olompali State Historic Park (Photo by California News Press)

From Jesuits to the Grateful Dead

Between 1943 and 1977, Olompali was bought and sold numerous times. Its longest-running owner was the University of San Francisco, which used the land and mansion as a retreat for Jesuit priests. 

In 1966, the Grateful Dead rented the main buildings of Olompali and enjoyed the property as an escape from the pressures of rock ‘n’ roll fame. Its 26-room mansion, huge swimming pool, horse stables and natural beauty made Olompali an ideal hideaway for the band and visiting friends, among them Janis Joplin and Grace Slick. The band stayed for an initial six-week stint but occasionally revisited Olompali during its commune days.

The back cover of the Grateful Dead album "Aoxomoxoa" shot at Olompali State Historic Park in California
The back cover of the Grateful Dead album “Aoxomoxoa,” released in 1969 (Photo by Tom Weir; Source:

On an episode of “Bay Area Backroads,” Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart gestures to the hillside of Olompali and says, “Right over here is one of my most amazing musical experiences of my whole life…” The back cover of the Grateful Dead’s third studio album, 1969’s “Aoxomoxoa,” features a photo of the band and friends posing under a tree at Olompali. 

The Chosen Family Commune

In 1967, Don McCoy, a wealthy Bay Area businessman, leased Olompali in order to “drop out” and establish a hippie commune. The Chosen Family commune would eventually welcome around 100 people. For the first year, they lived largely off the land, established a school and a bakery, and embraced the customary hippie themes of peace and love.

Don McCoy’s eldest daughter Maura McCoy produced a documentary film, “Olompali: A California Story” to tell the story of the commune. Maura McCoy told the Pacific Sun in 2015 about her memories of visitors from Grateful Dead members, other musicians including Nina Simone, and counterculture figures such as Ken Kesey and Jack Kerouac.

A weathered sign with details about the history of Olompali State Historic Park
A sign summarizes the history of Rancho Olompali (Photo by California News Press)

Media attention brought more and more people to Olompali, and conditions at the commune started to deviate from its peaceful origins. A series of misfortunes and tragedies led to the end of the Chosen Family Commune. Among them were Don McCoy’s hospitalization, the drowning deaths of two small children in the pool, an escaped horse causing a traffic death on US-101, a series of drug raids, and finally an electrical fire that ravaged the Burdell mansion in 1969. 

With the fizzling out of another era at Olompali, the site played yet another key role in California’s history. Talking to a CNN news crew filming at Olompali in 1996, California State Archaeologist Breck Parkman emphasized the global importance of the Bay Area’s counterculture movement, in which the Chosen Family commune played a part. He said “What happened here helped change the world, and if that’s not historically valuable and significant, I don’t know what is.”

Olompali State Historic Park is notable as the only state park to interpret 1960s counterculture. 

Today’s Olompali

Preservation efforts saved Olompali from the sad fate of condo development, resulting in acquisition by the State of California in 1977. Olompali State Historic Park opened to the public in 1990. 

Visit to stroll around the historic Burdell mansion and gardens, the moss-stained and water-warped buildings, and other remains of the ranch being gradually reclaimed by nature. Explore the Coast Miwok village area and interpretive displays. The 2.5-mile Miwok Loop Trail offers an easy, shady route around the lower slopes of Mount Burdell. A longer trail to the 1,558-foot peak is a 9-mile round trip. 

A trail through woodlands at Olompali State Historic Park
A section of the Miwok Loop Trail at Olompali State Historic Park (Photo by California News Press)

Olompali’s appeal isn’t only in its history. Its natural environment is outstandingly beautiful and supports a great variety of animal life. You might spy mule deer, raccoons, snakes and lizards. Bird life includes acorn woodpeckers, scrub jays, western bluebirds, western screech owls, wild turkeys and red-tailed hawks. The park is also a haven for numerous species of bats, which sometimes roost in the old buildings. Bring binoculars and a camera to admire this stunning California park. 


Olompali State Historic Park

8901 Redwood Boulevard, Novato, CA 94948

Open daily from 9 am to 5 pm.

You might also like to read “Places to Play: Calistoga, California

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